Every year, bills are passed to reform America’s broken criminal justice system. While these gestures win support from voters, those directly affected by them have differing perspectives. As one of those people, my recent experience with one of Washington state’s boldest “prison reform” bills in decades has demonstrated the limit of reforms when the wrong people put them into practice.
In 2017, Washington state passed House Bill 2638, allowing eligible prisoners to spend the final year of their sentences in partial confinement—six months in a work-release facility followed by six months on Electronic Home Monitoring (EHM). The Graduated Reentry Program (GRE) was implemented in June 2018, and a small number of prisoners were allowed to participate by September.
Having been incarcerated since 2014, I couldn’t help but get excited at the thought of finishing my eight-and-a-half-year sentence a year early. Many of my neighbors—especially the ones who had already spent decades behind bars—speculated that our captors would turn GRE into an incentive for prison informants and little more than an empty promise.
• Follow and support Families of the Incarcerated to assist the incarcerated and their family members.
• Support author Michael J. Moore’s reentry by purchasing his fiction at Hellbound Books Publishing.
I watched as neighbors who were edging up on the one-year mark to their release dates requested to participate in the GRE and were either denied for reasons not provided by their classification counselors or held in anticipation with no answer. It wasn’t until early 2022 that I’d finally seen some people being released to the program. According to the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC), of the 12,792 people warehoused in its prisons that year, 606 were released to home monitoring (Washington DOC).
With about a year-and-a-half left on my sentence, I met with my classification counselor and asked about the GRE application process. She informed me that there was no process. She would just have to recommend me to the GRE committee, so I asked her to do so. Refusing to commit, she chose instead to bring up an article I’d written about a prison sweatshop that her husband oversaw in which she often forced people on her caseload to work on assembly lines, packaging goods for an outside company for less than a dollar an hour. Though the article didn’t reference anybody by name, the meeting concluded with an order that I never again mention her or her husband in the media. Two weeks later, she informed me I was denied access to the GRE.
Though my neighbor tested positive for methamphetamines, he left for work release on the Graduated Reentry Program the next week. I had received no major infractions in my seven years in prison and had only encountered adversity from my captors when I publicized how they ran their facilities.
I arranged another meeting and asked her why I was denied. She said my only option was to appeal the decision by contacting DOC headquarters. I asked her how I could contact them without internet access. She told me to figure it out on my own.
Fortunately, my wife rectified the situation and got me a fair shot at a full-time job. She contacted the head of the prison and made it very clear that if something wasn’t done, we would publicize what appeared to be retaliation against me for raising voters’ awareness of how their tax dollars were being spent inside state prisons.
I was granted the GRE two weeks after that. My previous counselor, it turned out, had added stipulations to my GRE participation, not told me what they were, and informed the GRE committee that I hadn’t complied with them.
Three months past my eligibility date, I was transferred to work release, where I became a general manager in the largest gym chain in the world. Though the DOC did nothing in terms of helping me find employment or housing, the time spent in work-release was priceless, as it offered me the opportunity to put away money to later pay for an apartment, which I share with a beautiful cat who greets me every evening after work with a kiss on the lips. Though my wife lives across the pond in London, she spends a third of every month with us and has plans to move over.
The Graduated Reentry Program changed the odds for me, as I’m sure it has for just about everybody who’s been allowed to participate. I try not to think about what might have happened had I not had a supportive partner willing to fight for me, had I been released in prison rags with 40 dollars to my name because I’d chosen to spend my time writing about what goes on inside Washington prisons. I can’t help but wonder why there isn’t more oversight and how many others are still being denied access to a program that could set them up for success.
• Prisoners are being denied access to reentry programs as retaliation.
• Progressive reform legislation isn’t meaningful unless there’s accountability and oversight.
• Reforms should not be overseen by the departments being reformed.