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At Washington’s Stafford Creek Corrections Center, a group of incarcerated organizers have built community with local youths to fight for sentencing reforms, grappling with what it means to organize through an abolitionist lens from inside.

The Cultural Collective at Stafford Creek is a grassroots organization comprised of leaders from various independent cultural groups that include the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group, Black Prisoners Caucus, Nuestro Grupo Cultural (formerly Hispanic Cultural Group), and Native American Circle. Together, they are using every tool at their disposal—from building relationships around art with youth in the community to fighting for legislative change—that could potentially free people.

While prison has widely been regarded as a place that thrives on violence, isolation, and division, the Cultural Collective transcends negative stereotypes by working in solidarity to uplift the voices of those most marginalized, and empowering those directly impacted by an unjust system.

Although the organization has been guided by the legacies of the community and prison organizers who came before them, each respective group, despite the lack of support from local administration, has been dedicated to serving their community and building life affirming institutions. These groups organize youth summits, immigration seminars, cultural classes, social justice forums, and provide platforms for their peers to contribute positively to their communities.

Community organizing has always been essential to survival for the incarcerated. Whether folks are getting together to demand better medical treatment and living conditions, pushing for access to quality education and resources, striving for space to keep cultural traditions alive, or fighting for sentencing relief through legislation, prison organizing has always been a struggle borne out of necessity.

As prison organizing for criminal justice reforms flourished over the last decade, the Cultural Collective demonstrated that reforms within the current system will never be enough: that true change can only come from a movement that is of and by the people — a movement grounded in abolishing the prison industrial complex and cultivating a caring society.

Leading up to Washington state’s 2022 legislative session, members of the Cultural Collective were approached by several of their peers for updates on upcoming bills that could potentially affect prisoners, and asked what work was being done to pass these bills.

As outlined in a Change.org petition, there were four bills in particular that Cultural Collective members decided to push forward. The first, HB 1413, would have retroactively eliminated juvenile felonies in the calculation of adult sentences and ensure adults were eligible for resentencing if they had juvenile felonies factored into their sentences.

SHB 1282 was intended to expand “earned release time” to 33 percent of the total sentence that an individual serves. Currently, earned time is capped at 10 percent for violent convictions.

A third bill, HB 1344, would expand the pool of people eligible to have their sentences reviewed by the Washington State Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board. People who were under the age of 25 when their crime was committed could have their sentence reviewed after they served 15 years, or 25 years for those convicted of aggravated murder.

Finally, SHB 1169 would have significantly altered guidelines around the application of sentencing enhancements and provide judges greater sentencing and resentencing discretion, which could have also applied retroactively.

Because Washington state has some of the strictest sentencing laws in the nation and eliminated its parole system back in 1984, a change in the law may be the only hope at freedom for multitudes of prisoners stuck behind bars facing significant time.

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Although legislative work does not traditionally align with the Cultural Collective’s abolitionist principles, this interaction with other prisoners curious about these bills prompted the organization to at least have a conversation about possible steps moving forward, and what they could do to still be a voice and presence for their peers. 

Some abolitionists are wary of legislative reform approaches because of their propensity to be co-opted or watered down by legislators. Major reform efforts, like the First Step Act, are seen as too piecemeal or failing to go far enough. Often more organized and law enforcement-adjacent groups can create devastating exemptions and loopholes in these efforts that fail to address core issues or, even worse, entrench them. Instead, some abolitionist organizers have prioritized other approaches, like community building and mutual aid, clemency campaigns, prisoner defense committees, and more. 

While those organizing from the inside with the Cultural Collective align more with the latter, they also believe that any changes that do not shift power away from the system and back to the community are shortsighted and have the potential to only strengthen a system that must be dismantled.

As the former president of the Clallam Bay Corrections Center’s APICAG and a current advisor to the SCCC chapter, I have argued for a more traditional approach. I’ve contended the group should be more focused on dismantling the whole system. And that by dedicating limited group resources to a legislative process that has a history of deliberately excluding us, we would not only be stretching thin our resources, but legitimizing an inequitable and racist system.

Showing the complexity of abolition, other members like 31 year old Billy Gumabon, who currently serves as SCCC’s APICAG president, explained that remaining grounded in traditional abolitionist principles is a lot more complicated when you’re “literally in the eye of the storm.”

Gumabon, a Filipino-American incarcerated since he was 18 years old, spoke from his own experience and demonstrated the realities of being trapped in the system. 

“There are inner contradictions that must be addressed while striving for a better society,” he said. 

“I believe that most folks who disagree with legislation or believe that legislation is contradictory to abolition are [oftentimes] those who aren’t directly impacted,” Gumabon continued. “I personally see abolition as a process. [Positive legislation] can help us take steps towards it.”

Cyril Walrond, the 33 year old president of SCCC’s chapter of the BPC who was recently released from prison, suggested that the organization did not have to be one dimensional and that the organization’s approach should be as nuanced as the oppression they endure. There were opportunities through the legislative process, he said, to “educate the community that reform does not go far enough… it never has, and it never will.”

“As directly impacted people, organizing from within prison, and suffering under the oppressive and inhumane conditions of the carceral system, our organizing remains rooted in abolition,” Walrond said.

The Cultural Collective decided to advocate and support the four bills that their peers identified and felt would make the most impact and still align with their mission to undo the harms of disproportionate sentencing as a result of institutional racism. They agreed that they would do so only by centering the voices of those directly impacted, and working accountably and according to their abolitionist principles.

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At a later APICAG board meeting, leaders discussed how they could contribute to the broader Cultural Collective agenda, and what steps needed to be taken in order to center the voices of those directly impacted. Because the four bills mainly focused on those convicted as youth/young adults—primarily those from black and brown communities—it was imperative that whatever steps were to be taken, they had to include youth of color. This sentiment was shared with the broader Cultural Collective, and everybody agreed that this was the best strategy moving forward.

Although there were many nonprofit organizations and sentencing coalitions in the community that were already working on legislation, they were not necessarily accountable to the incarcerated people who they would ultimately impact. The Cultural Collective decided to bypass those “professional” lobbyists and began reaching out directly to youth organizations in the community to discuss a possible collaboration.

One of the organizations that responded to the invitation was the Youth Consortium (YC), which, like the Cultural Collective, consists of young activists from various independent youth groups out of the greater Seattle area. This includes Creative Justice, Community Passageways, and the Rainier Beach Action Coalition.

These youth have been working to better their own future, fighting for, and eventually procuring resources last year, to build a Youth Achievement Center. It is currently under construction in Seattle. 

While each individual member of YC has their own unique story, one thing is clear: these young leaders are a force to be reckoned with, and have demonstrated that they are the future of the movement.

During a preliminary conference call with YC staff and youth leadership, I pitched the idea to collect personal stories from prisoners about how their incarceration has affected them and their families and how the legislation could potentially provide them with sentencing relief. We turned those stories over to YC youth, and eventually collaborated on a visual arts project that could be shared with the community and legislators.

The intention was to bring life to statistics and humanize bills that have oftentimes only been used as political bargaining chips.

In the following months, leaders of the Cultural Collective held weekly calls with YC leadership, giving prisoners the opportunity to engage directly with the youth and answer any questions they may have had.

While many of the conversations were centered around prisoners’ stories, there were opportunities for youth who had experienced the incarceration of a family member to ask questions about what life was like on the inside, and unpack some of the trauma this situation creates. These organic exchanges made space for prisoners to share their experiences in their hopes of preventing more youth from following in their footsteps.

“Youth Consortium is not just a group, but a family to me,” said one YC leader, who goes by the name Carmeezzy. “When I first joined, I was welcomed with open arms. It’s a safe place to me, but also somewhere where I feel comfortable that my voice will be heard.”

“YC is a place where we can talk about many issues in our community—for example, problems in prisons. We got to hear stories from people who are actually in prison who [in my opinion] got sentenced wrongly. We really got to hear from them and their stories, rather than what the system just tells us [about them],” they said.

“I learned so much at YC. You really get the opportunity to be a leader and a listener. You get to grow together with [other] youth as a family. We help each other… even our family in prison because we all are family.”

This unique process created space for intergenerational conversations about current social issues and possible solutions grounded in abolition. In some of the calls, there was also a lot of past trauma that was unpacked and real connections were made. The experience also inspired the youth to write their own stories to share.

Dawit, a 20 year-old member of YC by way of Community Passageways, said he “noticed a similarity between youth and incarcerated organizers.”

“Legislators and other powerful people use our voices only until they get our stories [and support] to help them with a particular agenda. Then they forget about us,” Dawit argued. “However, with this project, the youth and organizers at SCCC were in control of our stories and the organization of events. In doing so, we amplified our own voices with our own capacities to achieve our own goals.”

For Dawit, a major lesson of the collaboration was “that our struggles are all connected. From the side of the youth, we’ve realized that the stories of the organizers inside aren’t very different from ours. Poverty, violence, and toxic upbringings have touched us all, although some more than others.”

“I’ve learned that we, the youth, need to work together and draw inspiration from the strong organizers inside in order to battle these issues as we come of age.”

Throughout the process, the project grew and evolved to be much more than creating art or just a material product. It built community connections, promoted youth leadership, addressed injustices, and centered the voices of those most impacted and marginalized in an effort to truly bring about change. It has been about creating a platform for imaginations to grow, while also growing what abolition could truly look like right now.

Things didn’t always move as smoothly as they could have. A few unexpected obstacles due to COVID-19 and a simultaneous Tuberculosis outbreak at SCCC presented many challenges for the men on the inside.

“We were subjected to inhumane living conditions everyday,” said Billy Gumabon. “Our mental and physical health was being negatively impacted. [Because of this], the youth from YC stepped up for all of us in a big way in taking the lead in this project.”

But with obstacles came creative ingenuity and strength. “We had to find new ways of communicating and coordinating,” said Cyril Walrond. “We would go outside [when allowed to] in the cold and rain to strategize across razor-wired fences. We did what we had to because we knew this work was bigger than us.”

“It was deeper work rooted in abolition and liberation aimed at building and empowering community in order to challenge the existing oppressive and dehumanizing white supremacist power structure,” Walrond said.

“I’d say the biggest output is the relationship formed between the organizers and organizers inside,” Dawit remarked. “Throughout our calls, we’ve planned and executed several things. We’ve also laughed, shared stories, and formed relationships that we won’t forget. Although we mostly met online and over the phone, we’ve grown to know each other’s names, voices, and work.”

“I think it’s these relationships that [will] carry on and have a more immediate effect on the the next generation,” he said.

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On February 19, 2022 YC hosted a virtual event to provide an opportunity for more people in the community to be a part of, and contribute to, this unique experience. They shared recordings and pictures of prisoners, who submitted stories and testimony of how the project has impacted them. The youth read stories from the inside, as well as recordings of prisoners reading youth stories.

T-shirts designed by incarcerated artists embodied the spirit of the collaboration between prisoners and youths on the outside. (Credit: Felix Sitthivong)

It was at this virtual event where YC youth unveiled t-shirts they had printed that were designed by incarcerated artists with messages that embodied the spirit of the program. Some read “Liberation” to remind the community of what the groups were all striving for. Others had pictures of cracked microphones and slogans that read “Project: Broken Mic” to symbolize the marginalization of prisoner and youth voices, and their intention to uplift these voices by repairing their “mics” and making all their voices heard.

Nathan, a 19 year-old member of YC who also MC’d the virtual event, said, “[Our] hope was to bring awareness to our community. [We wanted] to break the silence and disprove any lies and myths [about our incarcerated family] created by the people from the top, and give folks [trapped] by the system a second chance.”

“Letting them tell their stories and speak from experience to give future generations a new perspective on their lives, to improve themselves and the people around them,” he said.

The virtual event, although a tremendous success, also dealt with some unexpected setbacks. The forum was briefly hijacked by a “Zoom-bomber” spewing hateful rhetoric and displaying inappropriate images. But organizers thought quickly on their feet, and handled the tomfoolery with the class and elegance of the well-seasoned organizers they’ve proven to be.

“Some things didn’t entirely go as planned, but some quick thinking brought us back onto the right track,” Nathan explained. “Even though we had some unexpected guests and some changes to the script, the whole team clutched the event and managed to pull it off.”

At the conclusion of the event, there was a call to action for the community to support the legislation prioritized by the Cultural Collective. The youth shared what came of the process thus far, and there was a consensus commitment to continue to build and expand to other prisons, and include more youth moving forward.

As the Washington State legislative session came to a disappointing close, and none of the bills were passed, all participants of the project understood that what they created was more meaningful than any bill—that abolition is a living and breathing process. That change does not come from a few reformist bills, but rather the connections made between those most marginalized in order to rebuild and reimagine community.

Currently, plans are still being discussed to continue connecting, and utilizing this model to address broader social issues plaguing the community. Zines, documentaries, liberation art, community organizing classes, and other uplifting projects are all on the table as the groups continue to meet inside and out. Both groups are also devising a plan to garner more support and possibly support resurrecting the bills that were not passed during the 2022 session. They intend to expand their work to other men’s prisons, as well as women’s prisons.

The collaboration between YC and the Cultural Collective continues to demonstrate that abolition is not just about tearing down prisons—although that is an essential part of it. Abolition is also about building meaningful relationships that empower those directly impacted by State oppression, uplifting the voices of those most marginalized, and creating a sustainable system in which all our needs are met.

By embracing each others experiences and histories, YC and the Cultural Collective are making sure that their people are surviving today–while also laying the foundation for a brighter future.

Special thanks to Youth Consortium staff and coordinators for making this project possible.

Felix Sitthivong

Felix Sitthivong

Felix Sitthivong is an incarcerated Empowerment Avenue writer at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington State. His work covering the politics of abolition has been published in The Marshall Project, the CUNY School of Law Review, the International Examiner, Inquest, and Apogee Magazine. He is a dreamer, advisor, and organizer with the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group and Cultural Collective at SCCC.