Criminal justice reform took center stage at a San Quentin State Prison forum that brought together inmates, social justice advocates, formerly incarcerated citizens and public officials.
“Reform has to change, as we all together are changing,” said Assemblymember Timothy Grayson, D-14th District, Concord. “We all still are rehabilitating. When I leave here, I’m going to tell people I just came from a place called ‘Project Opportunity.’
“In one word – Wow! For me there’s this ‘wow’ factor going on right now. I’m overwhelmed by the narrative that comes from only you,” Grayson added, referring to the prisoners.
The first-ever True Impact of Criminal Justice Reform in California Forum took place on Jan. 11. About 40 participants sat in small circles to share personal experiences and ideas about past, present and upcoming changes in sentencing policies.
Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton had these comments after her time in a circle: “I’m a newly elected district attorney, who ran on a platform of criminal justice reform, so I know I’m in an environment where I’ll be working with people who aren’t on the same page.
“They don’t believe keeping the community safe can go hand-in-hand with criminal justice reform, but we need to start having the courage to say, ‘Yes, it can.’
“It was so powerful to just sit and listen and hear your hope for the future.”
Assemblymember Mark Stone, D-29th District, Santa Cruz/Santa Clara, also participated in a circle and addressed everyone afterward. “The hard work you’re willing to do allows us to go to policymakers and argue for reform. We can’t do that without your willingness to articulate the changes that happen in these groups.
“I view each of you as a partner. We know reform is always going to be an uphill battle.”
Formerly incarcerated Terah Lawyer now works as a project coordinator for Impact Justice. She served her entire prison term at California Correctional Women’s Facility. “Fifteen years, three months and eight days,” she said, giving her exact time behind bars. “Yeah, I don’t play.”
“I’m in this work for life,” Lawyer said. “I’ll never forget being a lifer and believing I would die in prison.”
She wants to see Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences become abolished and is a passionate advocate for the Drop LWOP campaign.
“How can we say in one breath that we’re going to offer Proposition 57 credits – that everyone is redeemable, that everyone can earn their way out, but we still have people stuck with LWOP?” she said.
Lawyer also works for Homecoming, an organization that helps the formerly incarcerated find sustainable, comfortable housing.
“It’s not about so-called ‘transitional’ housing,” Lawyer said. “It’s about placing people into community homes and semi-independent honor housing.
“Each person getting out of prison has unique needs. The only thing people getting out of prison have in common is that they just got out of prison.”
One of the inmates who organized the event, James King, expressed his appreciation for all the outside guest participants.
“It means so much, just to say you see us and you hear us,” King said.
Hillary Blout, director for the Sentencing Review Project, said she stepped away from the San Francisco D i s t r i c t Attorney’s Office after seeing cases that were not handled in a way she agreed with.
Blout described herself as a “reformer – turned prosecutor – turned reformer again.”
“I wanted to do things differently,” she told. “They called me more of a social worker.
“We need to examine how likely it is people will reoffend, read their background, try and keep families together. Shouldn’t that be our goal?
“I’d like to see us move prosecution into a new direction, where it’s only the last line of defense. Putting people away in prison should be the last option.”
Blout is instrumental in supporting Assembly Bill 2942, which allows district attorneys the discretion to consider a prisoner’s past sentencing and factor in who they are today – the programs they’re involved in and their disciplinary record while incarcerated.“There are too many people that can make the argument that it no longer serves the interests of justice to keep them in prison,” Blout said. “The opportunity should be given to see people’s better side – not just the crime they committed at one moment in time.”
“It means so much, just to say you see us and you hear us”
Inmate Fanon Figgers opened the forum by explaining how, after getting sentenced to 210 years-to-life and all his appeals were denied, he started acting up in prison because he didn’t think he had anything to lose.
“It was my mother that hit me with reality,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Your daughter needs you. You have to make changes.’
“That’s when I started to ask myself, ‘How did I get here?’ I started to think about the harm I caused to my community, started to do some deep soul searching.
“I discovered things about myself and realized change is possible from within – first spiritually, then morally,” Figgers said. “Hopefully, you all can help us change these sentences because you see that we really can change.”
Inmate Nathan McKinney spoke on behalf of a “struggling sector of our community … those that can’t articulate to the (parole) board that they’re no longer a threat – guys with learning disabilities and the limited ability to comprehend.”
“We all know the stories about ‘Why didn’t that old dude go home?’” said McKinney. “Guys like that need to be given a real opportunity to be seen, not for what they say, but for what they do.
“It’s in no one’s best interest for these guys to continue to be kept in prison.”
Phil Melendez returned to San Quentin for the first time since being released in 2017. He was pointed to frequently as a lifer, who received the benefit of reduced sentencing laws and has had an extremely successful reentry.
“I know it sounds crazy,” Melendez said. “But I’m really happy to be back in San Quentin.”
Melendez now works as an outreach associate for Re:Store Justice. A paroled youth offender and former SQ KidCAT member, he has visited Lancaster, Old Folsom and Vacaville prisons to help start, develop and teach curriculum for KidCAT, the program for imprisoned youth offenders. Melendez also facilitates Transformative Justice and provides training for prisoners to apply for reconsideration of their sentence under Senate Bill 1437.
Paul Payne became the press secretary for State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-3rd District, Contra Costa County, in April 2018. He emphasized that his boss is a strong advocate for criminal justice reform.
“We’re impressed by the people here taking advantage of these rehabilitative programs and really taking it to heart,” Payne told to SQN. “Senator Dodd is extremely moved and sympathetic to your plight. It’s incredible to see people putting in the time to rebuild themselves and understand what happened in their life.
“Me, I tend to still have a skeptical side, a cynical side, so I have to wonder if this is a room full of ringers, or is this the norm? If everyone in prison were like this, we could just open the gates right now, so to speak.”