Being an Activist in Prison

When I go to a meeting of some sort here, it is common for us to start the meeting with a check in. When the check in question happens to be “why are you here at this meeting?” most of the time my answer is, “I’m here because I believe to be an activist I have to be active.” Considering I am currently incarcerated, there’s a lot going on with that. What does it mean to be an activist when the few times I have done something in protest, like refusing to hide my pentacle necklace under my shirt, I’ve been given infractions and been told that I am not allowed to protest anything. I am constantly thinking about what does it mean to be an activist under constraints which make it impossible to do the kinds of things I am used to thinking of when I think of activists.

How do I meet people beyond the barricade when I can’t physically go to the barricade in the first place?

This has led me to realize that showing up, while vitally important, is the tiniest fraction of being an activist. It just happens to be the most visible thing activists do. Showing up at a meeting of Black Prisoner’s Caucus (BPC) or Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) meeting is the most visible thing I do as an activist, but it feels like I am only ever going to the planning session but never the rally.

So what good is that? I can soak in the wisdom in the room and offer my own in return, but does that change anything? I say yes. My mere presence throws many narratives into question. I am a queer person in a primarily cisgender heterosexual space. I am a femme person in a primarily masculine space. I am Wiccan in a primarily Christian and Muslim space. I am a “white” person in a primarily POC space. The only dichotomies I seem to not be running into at the moment is settler-indigenous and (dis)abled simply because I have not been invited into those spaces. Yet I still do my best to do personal work around those issues along with all the others I’ve mentioned.

This is what I have come to understand the meaning of activism as an incarcerated person. I do the work so that I can then help others do the work. This is all I can reasonably expect from anyone, so I need to cut myself some slack and stop expecting more from myself than I would expect from people who have been doing this far longer than me and accomplished far more than I can ever picture myself pulling off.

I think it is important to recognize, to ourselves, the knots we tie ourselves in over not being able to do it all. A common trope of superhero coming-of-age stories is learning that we can’t be everywhere, can’t help everyone, can’t fix everything by ourselves. So why is that where we set the bar for ourselves while telling those around us to take care of themselves and cut themselves some slack?

Self care truly begins with self compassion.

I try. I fail. I try again. As far as I’m concerned as long as that third step always happens, then progress is being made. I strive to serve, listen, and support others in their work, whether that means doing scut work or lending insight.

This is what I have come to understand what it means to be an activist in prison.


URGENT! Support Washington Senate Bill SB5819

We need to direct as many emails and calls as we can to the people listed below. They are responsible for getting the Sentencing Review Bill passed. When you write or call them you only need to tell them that you are in support of Senate Bill SB5819, and that you would like them to support the passing of such a bill. Calls are more effective. They may ask if you are in their district, just say yes. Their district is by their name.

The hearing of the bill will be on February 14, 2019 @ 10:00am in Olympia at the state capital building. It will be held in hearing room 4 in the Cherburg Building. We need to have as many people attend as possible. This will show that there is strong support for the bill.

Senate Law and Justice Committee

Chair: Jamie Pedersen, DEM., 43 Dist.

Mike Padden, REP., 4th Dist.

Jeff Holy, REP., 6th Dist.

Patty Kuderer, DEM., 48th Dist.

Jessie Salomon, DEM., 32nd Dist.

Lynda Wilson, REP., 17th Dist.

Manka Dhingra, DEM., 45th Dist.


Giving Ex-Offenders a Second Chance

Senate Bill SB5819 is being introduced to the Washington state legislature. It has the potential to completely rewrite my current life trajectory, and the trajectories of everyone currently sentenced to die of medical neglect or suicide in a Washington prison.

I’m calling it what it is. The judge may have said “life without the possibility of parole,” but she meant “die a horrible, slow, painful death after spending an unknowable number of years in a cage you monster” (And yes, she used the word “monster.” It’s in the transcript of my sentencing). The only way to avoid death by medical neglect is to literally take one’s death into one’s own hands and commit suicide. This is not okay.

At the time of my conviction I needed to be put in a place where I couldn’t hurt anyone else. I was broken in ways that go deeper than just psychology and because of that I was a danger to myself and everyone around me. The place our society has designated for housing someone as broken as I was is prison. My being put here was truly the best possible outcome among a selection of terrible options. However, it should not be forever.

Over the course of the past eleven years I have done massive amounts of work to deal with my damage, and I will continue to do this work for the rest of my life because the ways in which I was broken went soul deep.

Under the current system, society officially neither values nor cares about my brokenness or my journey to wholeness. This is wrong. Once someone has dealt with the issues that lead them to commit the harms which brought them to prison, they should have a chance to be considered for release. I don’t think I’m quite ready for this just yet, but I can see the day when I will be and I don’t think it’s that far off. However, as things stand, even after I’ve gotten to a place where I am ready to go back out into the world, there is no route available for me to be released. I could ask for clemency through the governor’s office, but the best I could hope for is getting placed under the ISRB.

Senator Darneille has introduced a bill that could change all that. It is called
Post-Conviction Review Board Bill: Relating to the establishment of a post-conviction review process for early release for qualifying offenders.”

The title may be a bit long, but it’s otherwise a good bill.

This bill will take the old ISRB, which is a part of the DOC, and rename it to the Post-Conviction Review Board and move it to be under the office of the governor, independent of the DOC. This is important because it gives the board the power to let people out, rather than only being able to submit a recommendation to the governor to let someone out.

It also designates who is to be on the Board. Currently the only real qualifications the five people on the ISRB have for being on the ISRB is having convinced the DOC to give them a job. This bill sets minimum qualifications for the eight members of the new Board and designates what different kinds of people have to be on the Board. Including a retired judge, a representative of a statewide racial equity organization, a representative from a group that does reentry work, and a behavioral health specialist.

The job of this Board will be to consider whether or not someone could be released early. Their job would not be to let people out, their job would not be to keep people in, their job would be to review each individual who chooses to petition to be considered for release.

All of this sounds really good right? Thinking there has to be a catch? Most of the bills I’ve seen like this have nasty little clauses in them that do things like give the cops a bunch of leverage in the decision making process or require the governor’s signature for release, or state outright that whole groups of people are not eligible. So it was with great trepidation that I turned to the section describing what is required to be considered for release.

This bill would apply to everyone retroactively, regardless of when they came to prison or what they did to get here. As long as a person has put in at least 15 years, hasn’t gotten in trouble in the past year, and is willing to let the Board look at all of the medical, mental health, and other files the DOC has on them, then they can be considered for early release. It doesn’t mean their gonna get it, but at least they are allowed to ask.

This is exactly what I think should exist. It’s not a “get out of jail free card” thing. Currently we sentence people to die in prison in Washington state, this bill gives people a chance. And that’s all I would ever dream of asking for, a chance to earn the opportunity to live my life.

We need to direct as many emails and calls as we can to the people listed below. They are responsible for getting the Sentencing Review Bill passed. When you write or call them you only need to tell them that you are in support of Senate Bill SB5819, and that you would like them to support the passing of such a bill. Calls are more effective. They may ask if you are in their district, just say yes. Their district is by their name.

The hearing of the bill will be on February 14, 2019 @ 10:00am in Olympia at the state capital building. It will be held in hearing room 4 in the Cherburg Building. We need to have as many people attend as possible. This will show that there is strong support for the bill.

Senate Law and Justice Committee

Chair: Jamie Pedersen, DEM., 43 Dist.

Mike Padden, REP., 4th Dist.

Jeff Holy, REP., 6th Dist.

Patty Kuderer, DEM., 48th Dist.

Jessie Salomon, DEM., 32nd Dist.

Lynda Wilson, REP., 17th Dist.

Manka Dhingra, DEM., 45th Dist.

To Librarians

From talking to people who have done time in other states, I have come to understand that there is a list of things that make Washington prisons unique. One of them is the presence of the Washington Library System in every WA DOC prison. Due to the very nature of these two vastly different government agencies, there is a lot of tension between them.

The Washington Library System is (in my oh so humble opinion) a bastion of goodness and light. Public libraries are one of the few places where one can get a world class education without paying a single bent copper for it. Where else are you guaranteed to be exposed to new ideas without having those ideas imposed on you? Not even the most liberal of universities can claim that, but libraries can.

When I lived in town in Spokane, one of the few places I truly felt comfortable and safe was at the north branch of the Spokane Public Library. It was a mile and a little bit from my house in Fairwood Park. I would walk my bike up the hill in the Whitworth back 40, which was a power levy, then bike slowly across the Whitworth campus to a stoplight where I had to cross both Highway 395 and the major thoroughfare that intersected it to get to the library. I would then settle in and read for hours. I didn’t have a library card; I just showed up, read, and made sure to reshelve my books properly. I spent one summer reading microfilms of old newspapers and still consider that to be the best history education I’ve every received. If not for the library, I’m fairly sure I would have lost my fight with depression in middle school, so as far as I’m concerned libraries are sacred space. I may be a little biased in my opinion, but in this case I’m okay with that.

On the other side of all this is the Washington Department of Corrections. I’m comfortable just saying they’re fascists and moving on. Not something I feel the need to convince people of and I’m pretty sure I’m being generous with that assessment.

Suffice to say, there’s a little tension between the two. Technically, the library is not a part of the Department of Corrections in any way shape or form. It is under the secretary of state. Some Washington Library branches just happen to be located in the middle of a prison.

I worked in the library as a clerk in Walla Walla for about a year. One of the odder experiences I had was when a c/o came in and asked if he could get a library card for our branch so he could check out a couple People magazines and a newspaper to read. I directed him to my boss, our branch librarian, and let her sort it out.

There is an uneasy truce (more like a tentative ceasefire) between the librarians who happen to work in prisons, and prison administrators.

On the most fundamental level, prison administration likes censorship, whereas freedom of information is at the core of the library system’s mission. At that boundary between the two is a palpable current of conflict, even while both sides are going through the motions of civility.

I’ve watched that boundary pushed to the breaking point and beyond. I fearfully witnessed c/o’s demand books on classical art banned because the paintings pictured in them “violate the mail policy against nudity.” And I watched with trepidation as “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” was added to the reference section after librarians statewide had many long arguments with the DOC to let it in.

So at this time of year, when people generally turn their thoughts to what they are grateful for, I find myself extremely grateful to the librarians of the Washington Library System.

So this goes out to librarians everywhere:

Thank You

Resisting Oppressive Systems

I was asked recently why I care so much about the systemic oppression of people who are different than myself. At the time I rattled off some quick easy answer like “none of us are free till all of us are free.” However, a few days later, we had a huge debate about racial issues in my humanities class; it was that week’s assignment so go figure. But it set me to thinking more deeply about that first question and I may have written the following essay all about it.

Prison is garbage. Normally I don’t really feel a need to point it out, but it is the context for my complacency regarding the following. Not an excuse or blame shifting. Just context. Prison is garbage.

I arrived at Washington State Penitentiary – West Complex (WSP-WC), Walla Walla, Washington on February 2nd, 2009. I was already scared shitless from my ten months at Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe and still shell shocked from 15 months in Spokane County Jail and a trial where I learned that during a gap in my memory, I had killed my parents. The reason I was sent to WSP-WC is because I hadn’t been in WA DOC custody long enough to be eligible for medium custody and WSR was being converted from a close custody to a medium custody facility. Thus, anyone not eligible for medium custody was shipped out to Walla Walla. (There’s some excuses in there, but to leave them out would be dishonest.)

I was a broken toy. I arrived at Walla Walla and was placed in a cell with a man I knew, well knew of. He was one of the racist idiots in the same crowd as Richard Butler and his neo-nazis. Thankfully he didn’t recognize me from any church potlucks or my father’s name form him being apart of the Priest River Chamber of Commerce.

My new cellie told me about how wonderful Walla Walla was.

Segregated tables.

Segregated phones.

Segregated showers.

How they would have segregated the lunch trays but it would have been too much for the guys in the kitchen to keep track of. Of course, he used a less complementary term.

And I sat there and said nothing.

Just like I sat there and said nothing when my father would use similar, most uncomplimentary terms when talking about welfare, immigration, and other subjects, but only if he thought he was alone with his friends.

It was a full six hours before he looked at my small, broken, effeminate-boy self and asked if I was a snitch.

I replied, “No, why do you ask?” not comprehending the depth of the insult in the question.

“You ain’t angry?” He asked several moments later.

“About what?”

He was flabbergasted and I was confused. After another minute of back and forth I realized he was playing at some dominance game and I told him that if he wanted to fight he could just ask rather than going through a bunch of BS.

I may have chosen my words poorly and so, of course now he wanted to fight me.
And I got thoroughly beat up for the first time in prison. And I said nothing just like when my father would beat me.

I spent two weeks in that cell asking around for a better living arrangement.

Eating at “white” tables, using “white” phones, washing up in “white” showers.

When I was finally able to change cells it was less an improvement and more a lateral move. I went from a physically abusive cellie to an emotionally abusive one. Looking back, I realize I shifted from living with someone like my father to living with someone like my mother.

While I still ate at “white” tables, talked on “white” phones, washed up in “white” showers and I said nothing.

I was “asked” to run a mission, and by asked I mean I was told to go publicly beat up a random kid because he had refused to beat up some other random kid or else I’d be the next random kid getting beat up in the day room.

So I, coward that I am, did. And when I came back form the hole I was celled up with a guy from the Asatru group who treated me like the cool kids at school did. Lots of verbal abuse and randomly hit or kicked each day.

While I ate at “white” tables, talked on “white” phones, washed up in “white” showers and said nothing.

After being at Walla Walla for about a year and a half, they came to me again. They wanted me to stab someone. When I looked them in the eye and told them “if you give me a piece I’d be happy to hurt… someone.” They didn’t like that answer, but thankfully they let it drop. Afterwards, I sat where I wanted, used whichever phone I wanted, and showered where I damn well pleased.

A few months after this there was a 30 person multi man fight in the day room. The kind that happens every few months in the west complex. This time was different in that the lockdown itself lasted a whole month as opposed to the normal week or two and when we finally came off lockdown nobody followed the Jim Crow BS anymore.

It felt good. I mean, I was still 110 pounds of girly skin and bone trying to pass as a boy on a men’s prison, but at least I didn’t feel like I was actively complicit in neo-Nazi hate any more and it made a world of difference.

I now make a point of doing what I can to interrupt racism in prison, mostly by naming it. I call it out when I see it and arbitrarily agree with people of color if they say “that’s racist” and I don’t understand or see it in that moment.

Most people haven’t read what I’ve read, seen what I’ve seen, and come to reject white supremacy as I have. Most “white” people that have read the “Precepts of Orion,” “the 88 Precepts”, or heard the philosophies or Richard Butler from people that were in his inner circle are already too far gone to stand back from it. Most “white” people that have read such things have already had any semblance of choice intimidated out of them. I’d seen all of this before I was 12; I was just reintroduced to it at Walla Walla.

Most people think that evil is some other thing, some outside thing. Whether that other comes with horns and a pitchfork or a Charlie Chaplain mustache makes no difference.They see it as outside themselves and that is wrong. Evil is ourselves. One small part of ourselves that is.

The part that says me.

Says I.

Says mine.

Even worse, there’s no shaking it. To got rid of that part is to die, but to let it roam unchecked is to kill the world. Can’t just starve it, because we’d give away our lunch and starve ourselves. Can’t just feed it, when it gets too big we steal lunch from others ant they starve. So I keep it on a tight leash. Feed it what scraps I have to keep it in line and only ever let it loose on those whose evil selves have grown fat and bloated on their own hate.

In doing my best to combat white supremacy and racism both around me and within my own mind I reach out to many people. First and foremost are my gods. They are both more compassionate and less forgiving than I am. Second are the people I care about. I have a way of being both too slow to act and uncompromising once I do which needs to be checked against the perceptions of people I trust and who I know to hold a lot of wisdom. Lastly is the will of those getting the short end of things. Not that they’re the least important, bit that everything that comes after what they have to say simply does not matter as far as I’m concerned. They get the last word.

I know many of the things I’ve said here are cold, hard, uncompromising and is certainly frowned upon in civilized company. On the other hand, civilized company is often comprised of racist, sexist, xenophobic nationalist capitalist, pro-empire, neo-liberal fools whose opinions I don’t respect anyway.

Which is, in short, why I care so much.

The Conditional Expansion of Voting Rights

Today, January 25th, I just learned that Bill 5076 has been submitted to the Washington state legislature in order to give people on community custody the ability to vote. The vote on it will be held on January 30th.

Currently, people that are getting out of prison are not allowed to vote until they are off community custody. However, if a person’s LFOs have not been paid off then the prosecutor can ask the court to revoke that right until the formally incarcerated person shows a
“good faith effort” to pay. In short, it’s not actually a right by any means; it’s a privilege which is taken away if a body doesn’t behave themselves.

What this bill is wanting to do is two fold, 1) allow people on community custody to vote 2) expand the ability to take away the privilege of voting based on unpaid LFOs to include allowing the survivor(s) of an individual’s crime to ask the court to revoke that privilege.

I need to take a moment to name something here. I’ve got serious reservations about the various terms used to refer to people who have been hurt by another person through their criminal actions. Victim, survivor, receiver, none of these feel right to me and since (as far as I know) there isn’t a block of people hurt by criminal actions publicly telling us how to refer to them… I’m going with “survivor” for now simply because I don’t know what term I should go with and the term “victim” comes from the prosecutor’s office so I’m assuming it’s bad. But I digress…

This is where the debate becomes murky for many reasons.

First is the question of empowering the survivors of crime. Generally, this is something I think of as a good thing. However, empowering them to act in retributive ways (like taking away another person’s ability to vote) strikes me as a very bad idea. The whole reason civilization invented courts in the first place was to have a neutral arbitrator of disputes and prevent retribution. While I don’t necessarily buy into the concept of civilization being a good thing, I do think preventing retribution is a positive value.

Second is the emphasis on LFO’s. Even with the 12.5% interest rate of LFO’s having been reduced (to what, I don’t know) it’s still a massive debt which people, particularly poor people just getting out of prison, don’t have the ability to pay at all. Let alone pay off. I’m supposed to, by court order, pay $25 towards my massive $50,000 LFO debt every month. I haven’t made a singe payment towards it the entire time I’ve been in prison. The DOC garnishes 20% of any money sent to my general spendable account by someone outside prison and puts that toward my LFOs, but I am far too destitute to be able to send $25 anywhere. I can barely afford to buy basic hygiene items, like soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo. By centering LFOs they are creating a situation where technically people have the ability to gain the privilege to vote, but no one is able to meet the requirements of voting unless they happen to be wealthy (insert an intersectional critique of criminalizing bodies of color, poverty, and the history of state sponsored oppression here). Centering LFOs would create an unpayable poll tax for anyone who has been through the criminal justice system. Last I checked, poll taxes aren’t allowed by ruing of SCOTUS.

Third is, why not just let everyone vote? The entire purpose of universal suffrage was to give Everyone the Right to Vote. Period. So why don’t we just do that? Granted, at the state level, this could only be extended as far as to granting all US citizens in Washington state the right to vote, but enacting actual universal suffrage would seriously detangle a lot of the issues with bill 5076. However, this now veers the debate away from arguing the issue, and into arguing our method for approaching the issue.

There are two sides to it, incrementalists and fell-swoopers.
Incrementalists say that we should make the change we can, then come back and make another change and another change and another change until we actually have what we want. Fell-swoopers say we should push for exactly what we want and demand radical change.

The problem with the incrementalist approach is that they have to renegotiate every single small change they want. This allows their opponents to undermine the changes they want enacted even while they are working for those changes. The trouble with the fell-swoop approach is by asking for everything at once they frighten risk-averse lawmakers who may agree with what they want to do, but are worried about the unintended consequences of massive radical change.

I’m a both-ander. I think we need the incrementalists to be making their small changes over time so that the massive radical changes demanded by fell-swoopers become more palatable and therefore are more likely to be passed by frightened lawmakers. In my way of seeing it, the efforts of both need to be supported by everyone in both camps, as opposed to what usually happens where people in each camp says the other is ideologically dumb and no one should support their thing because our thing is obviously better. Ya know, that old Us/Them thing in action.

In short, I think that this bill should be both critiqued and supported. I also think someone needs to introduce a bill for true universal suffrage in Washington state next year. So if you or someone you know are interested in working on that, I’ve got some people on a humble little legislative committee to introduce you to and they just so happen to be working on legislation for voting rights.


Accept My Identity and Move On

Here’s what I wish people with the privilege of heteronormativity knew about being subjected to cissexism:

The short version? It’s messy and no, you don’t need to understand it. Just stop doing and saying hateful things, try treating queer and trans folks with compassion and dignity, and limit your stupid questions to the appropriate time and place.

It is seriously not that hard.

As for the long version… Buckle up, this is going to be a bit of a ride.

Human gender and sexuality is messy. Even I, a queer trans woman with trans, queer, and gender nonconforming friends, can’t fully wrap my mind around some of the complexities of the gender identities and expressions of the people I care about. Considering this is my lived experience and these are people I know fairly well, and yet there is still a point where I don’t get it, what exactly makes it so that you, cisgender people, think you have a chance at figuring it out? Just accept that the person best equipped to figure it out is a person living their individual truth.

We are all in process and sometimes the answer that was true last week is false this week which in no way invalidates that answer. It’s messy and you do not need to understand it.

Let’s assume you’ve got that. How does a person help and be supportive from a place of not getting it?

How about not remaining silent about all the trans people murdered every year whose deaths are written off as suicides. Or not accepting discriminatory policies because changing them is “above your pay grade.” Even simpler, ask about pronouns, then use the person’s preferred pronoun. And don’t make a thing out of it if it changes. Offer to “stand guard” in or just outside of public restrooms. Clean up your language. In fact, a great place to start is completely erasing the following from your vocabulary:
tranny, faggot, chick with a dick, dude in a dress, bearded lady, freak, sissy, poor confused kid, disgusting sinner, whore, girly man (other queer and trans people may add other stuff to this list; the above reflects my experience)

Please note that everything I’ve mentioned does not require any understanding; it’s all stuff you can just do. If you happen to still be confused on this point, I’ll make it even simpler. If you think it might be hurtful, shut up! Then ask for clarity in private later.
When you screw up, just take the correction and move on. It’s not the end of the world if you get a pronoun wrong. I sympathize with it being messy and you not getting it. Keep in mind that unless it is 12:01 AM and I just woke up, odds are you are not the first, second, third, or even dozenth person I’ve corrected today. I have more important things to do than ruffling the feathers of your delicate heteronormative cisgender ego. If I stopped to make every person feel okay after they’ve gotten my pronoun wrong, then I would get literally nothing done.

Again, I realize you don’t get it, this is why I am only asking you to try and when you skew up, don’t waste my time. Just do better next time. Eventually it will become a habit and won’t be a problem anymore.

Speaking of wasting my time, if I’m working, or in class, or otherwise obviously busy, that is not the time or place for asking your stupid questions. And yes, they are stupid questions. The one thing all ignorant people have in common is a refusal to admit that they have stupid questions. Only smart people admit to having stupid questions and go looking for answers. Furthermore, considerate smart people look for the proper time and place to ask their stupid questions.

Which looks something like this:
– Cis person: Hey Amber, I’d like to ask you something.
– Me: K, ’bout what?
– Cis person: I have some stupid questions about the whole transgender thing.
– Me: Oh, sure. Tomorrow afternoon work for you?
– Cis person: Yeah, tomorrow afternoon works.

Simple, straightforward, didn’t waste anyone’s time? Almost as if we were treating each other with dignity and compassion. (*gasp!*)

Yes it’s messy and honestly at times even flabbergasts queer trans folk like myself, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Think about it. What if when you closed your eyes and imagined yourself, the self you pictured was fundamentally different than the self you see in the mirror? That would be a little confusing at first. So then after a bunch of soul searching you come to an answer. It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s close.

Then you share that answer with family and friends and people really important to you, and they tell you, “you’re confused.”

You reply, “but I’m not confused. I was confused but now I’m not.”

And get banished.

So you start living that answer, exploring that answer, really understanding that answer, to become the punch line for half the jokes at the nearest frat party.

So don’t tell me you get it. I’m living this life and I barely get it, sometimes, on occasion, if I’m lucky. It’s messy. Accept it and let’s move on.