Solidarity behind bars: Prison activists reflect on the movement for social justice
As protests against racism and police brutality raged last summer, one group of activists could only look on from afar.
“Of course you want to be there,” Vincent Sherrill told KNKX from the Monroe Correctional Complex in September. “Then, to be truthful, there’s guilt and shame along with that for putting yourself in this situation.”
Sherrill is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. He’s also a member of the Black Prisoners Caucus, one of Washington’s oldest prisoner organizations.
The Black Prisoners Caucus (BPC) officially began in 1972 at the prison in Monroe. It now has chapters at almost all of the state’s prisons.
Its members organize a variety of programs for prisoners around education, mental health and other prison issues. They also work with outside organizations on social justice issues more broadly.
While the summer’s unrest put a spotlight on issues of racism in policing and public safety, less attention was paid to the other end of the justice system: incarceration in the prisons.
Even so, racial disparities also persist in Washington’s prison system. Black people make up about 18 percent of the state’s prison population just 4 percent of the total population. Black people and Native Americans are also more likely to receive longer sentences. About 28 percent of Washington defendants given a life sentence between 1986 and 2017 were Black, according to a report published by the ACLU of Washington last year.
Sherrill and other members of the BPC say learning about the ways racism manifests in American institutions – such as the courts, housing and schools – has been part of their personal journeys understanding the crimes they committed.
FROM PROBLEM TO SOLUTION
Sherrill, 49, says he began organizing with BPC members in the early 2000s while he was at Clallam Bay Corrections Center west of Port Angeles. He described meeting an older inmate who had been involved with the BPC.
“Those older brothers was talking to us like, ‘Look, there’s something better in life,’ ” Sherrill said.
Sherrill received a life sentence for shooting and killing three people in the Tacoma area during a gang conflict. Some of the older BPC members he met were also in for gang-related crimes.
“It actually took somebody with that same lived experience that I had in that street culture to really get my attention,” Sherrill said. “And that began our politicization, reminding us of the civil rights movement and that Black liberation struggle.”
Another BPC member at Monroe, Eugene Youngblood, described a similar experience.
Youngblood was initially sentenced to 65 years in prison for his involvement in the shooting deaths of two teenage drug dealers in Bremerton. But in December, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an order commuting his sentence.
"(You) have to be invested in trying to continue to become a good person even if you might not always see the fruit. It might be for somebody else who comes after you."
Like Sherrill, Youngblood was gang-affiliated.
“It was a very slim chance that I was going to do anything else,” Youngblood said. “For me, it was more of a rite of passage that all young men took.”
During his clemency hearing in 2019, several people spoke on Youngblood’s behalf. They talked not only about how Youngblood himself had reformed but also about the interest he had shown in mentoring other prisoners and at-risk youth. Youngblood explains that his background is central to that work.
“Because that’s how I felt as a young person. I felt like I didn’t have a choice,” he said. But he might have felt differently hearing from someone with a similar experience.
“So a lot of the people who were originally the problem, or at one point was the problem, have to now be part of the solution, and (they) are,” Youngblood said.
This idea is frequently pushed by social-justice advocates – that people who are most impacted by certain policies and practices should help reimagine these systems. As city leaders across Washington faced cries to defund the police this fall, they were also pressured to find ways to include marginalized communities in police oversight and in policymaking more broadly. In Seattle, that pressure even resulted in two different visions for participatory budgeting.
But in prison, the idea also takes on a personal significance as incarcerated people learn to take responsibility for their crimes and prepare to return to society. The work of organizations like the BPC is twofold: It’s personal, but it also faces outward.
Even prisoners like Sherrill, who will likely die in prison, see value in this idea.
“I believe I will see the benefits … but also have my family, my community and those I love benefit from a system that would actually help them versus harm them,” he said. “At the same time, that’s a part of the reconciliation part.”
Although Youngblood is set to be released within the next few months, many of the young prisoners he mentors are also facing long sentences. He says he counsels them to be patient.
“But more importantly, they have to be invested in trying to continue to become a good person even if you might not always see the fruit. It might be for somebody else who comes after you,” Youngblood said. “That’s the sad part of prison is that a lot of things you do, you have to do, that just aren’t going to affect you.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the activity of the BPC, especially as the prisons face rapidly rising case counts.
Since the start of the pandemic, 4,856 prisoners have been sickened by the coronavirus. Nearly two-thirds of those cases were confirmed in the last 30 days. Seven prisoners have died, along with two correctional officers.
Movement restrictions and quarantine protocols make internal communication especially difficult. But the lack of external visitors also poses a problem. Visitors, including families and volunteer groups, have not been allowed in the prisons since March.
Several inmates have told KNKX that these measures are causing even more isolation among prisoners.
“Ever since these programs have stopped it’s like, where we made progress, now I can see the regression,” Sherrill said. “We’re fighting one another, and you can see it in drug use too.”
Vaccines are being distributed to some vulnerable prisoners in Eastern Washington. But a plan for vaccine distribution has not yet been established for the prisons more broadly.