Formerly incarcerated advocates change their ‘label,’ get involved in Olympia and beyond
We all fall somewhere on a spectrum when it comes to political participation. Maybe we just skim the news or vote in big races, but sometimes we're pushed to do more: join a march, testify in Olympia, or even run for office.
Getting involved can be risky, because it's public and there's no guarantee your voice will be heard. Those risks are amplified when you have a criminal record.
"When you have that label of 'felon' and when you have that criminal history following you, you anticipate barriers," said Cory Walster, an organizer at Civil Survival.
Civil Survival is an advocacy group based in Western Washington led by people who have been incarcerated. Walster did time for drug-related crimes and has been out of prison since 2005.
It's often easier to just keep quiet when you get out of prison. Barriers come up immediately as you're trying to find housing, get a job, or participate in your child's education, Walster says.
"You get your hopes up and you get told, 'No, sorry you have a criminal background,'" Walster said. "So many times, you get to the point where it's like why should I try?"
About 8,000 people are released from Washington prisons each year. So getting people like Walster to tell their stories can be worthwhile, says Lewis Conway Jr.
"Folks who have been historically furthest from the electoral process are really those that should be closest," said Conway, a national campaign strategist for the ACLU.
BECOMING MORE VISIBLE
Conway, who is currently based out of New York, works on justice reform. He made waves in Texas in 2018 when he ran for an Austin City Council seat, challenging a law there about whether people with felony convictions can run for office. He served eight years in prison for manslaughter.
He started getting involved when he was encouraged to testify before Texas lawmakers about the difficulties he faced finding a job while he was on parole. He says he was surprised to learn that legislators don't always know how their policies affect people.
Conway found himself having to explain that early background checks in the hiring process often kept parolees from finding work even though employment is a condition of parole.
He wondered, "If you don't know that, what else don't you know?"
Here in Washington, Walster had similar experiences when he started talking about his criminal past a couple years ago.
"We have a tendency to put these politicians up on these pedestals of unattainable or unreachable and not caring about our individual needs," Walster said. But when he started telling his story, he found that wasn't the case.
"Time and time again we'd hear from these elected officials, 'We had no idea,'" he said.
Lawmakers in Washington are responding. In the past few years, several reforms spearheaded by formerly incarcerated advocates have been passed, including changes to the way the state collects legal debt and an easier process for vacating convictions.
Conway says this movement is happening across the country.
"That space is growing," he said. "Formerly incarcerated leadership, formerly incarcerated advocacy, formerly incarcerated organizing: Those terms are more prevalent now than they were a year ago."
IT TAKES COMMUNITY
That visibility is key in getting people like Walster on board. He says he initially got involved in his community because his daughter was having trouble in school. She was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, was becoming withdrawn, and getting suspended.
As a single parent, Walster was feeling overwhelmed. Then he read a letter in a local newspaper from a mom who was having similar struggles with her son.
"For a moment, I felt not quite so alone," Walster said. "It moved me to tears."
The letter included an email address. So Walster sent her an email to thank her for her words.
"And that person responded with, 'Let's start a group," Walster said.
That person was Tarra Simmons, who is well-known among justice-reform advocates in Washington state. Simmons is the executive director of Civil Survival. She made national headlines when the state Supreme Court ruled in 2018 she could sit for the bar exam despite a previous drug conviction. She is now running for a seat in the state House of Representatives to represent parts of the Kitsap Peninsula and Bainbridge Island.
If Simmons wins her election this year, it would be historic. She would be the first formerly incarcerated person to serve in the Washington state Legislature, at least in modern history.
But before she went to prison, Simmons says she wasn't political. She had struggled with homelessness, was trying to support a family and suffered from substance-abuse disorder. She had other things to think about.
"Until, you know, I went to prison and realized that everybody around me was also suffering a lot of the same experiences and that these laws need to change," Simmons said.
She emphasizes that her work and her candidacy are about more than prison. She connects that experience to a variety of issues such as housing, education and jobs.
"I know firsthand that there were so many other systems that failed," Simmons said. "The issues go beyond political affiliation. They go beyond income levels even."
Like Walster and Conway, a big key for her was getting encouragement. She recalls one of the first times she testified in Olympia in 2015, about a year and a half after she got out of prison. She was asked to talk about the burden of legal debt – court fines and restitution for victims that accumulates while a person is locked up.
Toward the end of her testimony, she mentioned she had just finished her first semester of law school with a 3.85 GPA. Simmons remembers almost five years later the reaction she got from now-House Speaker Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. Jinkins joked that her own law school grades were less stellar as she thanked Simmons for her testimony.
"Here's this person with tremendous power and they see the human in me," Simmons said. "The way that she acknowledged me and treated me made me want to come back."
It’s the first day of the 2020 legislative session. Today, KNKX Connects to Olympia, bringing you stories about Washington’s capital and how citizens can influence the direction of their state government. As the Legislature convenes, we’re taking a closer look at what’s happening at the Capitol, and life in the city surrounding it. To listen to all our stories, visit knkx.org/connects.