Washington state's other epidemic: Mass incarceration

When it comes to life without parole sentences, the state is a global outlier.

man with mat enters cell

In this 2005 file photograph, inmate Kevin Eggeston is carrying the mat he will use to sleep on the floor of his cell that already housed two other men, at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Wash. During 2005, the prison was the most crowded in a badly crowded Washington state system. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

In all, the decadeslong epidemic has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands and counting. The diagnosis was handed down in a report released last month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and researchers at the University of Washington.

Detailing the disease of mass incarceration ravaging our state, the 122-page report reveals a prison population that has mushroomed by 337% since 1980. Only seven countries in the world have higher incarceration rates than Washington’s, with Turkey, not exactly a paragon of democratic liberty, nipping at our heels.

One factor in the rate’s growth is the state’s “three strikes” law. The statute dictates that people convicted of three high-level felonies will spend the rest of their life warehoused, away from the outside world, with no possibility of parole. Washington state was the first in the nation to enact such a policy, in 1993, outpacing even the federal government, when 76% of Washington voters approved the measure. It followed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which deprioritized rehabilitation as a goal in Washington and cleared the way for a more punitive response to crime.

There are currently 1,329 people in Washington, a state with a population just shy of 8 million, effectively serving life without the possibility of parole. This sentence is prohibited in 80% of countries in the world, including our northern neighbor, Canada. Four countries in the minority still imposing these sentences — Australia, England, Wales and the Netherlands, with a combined population of 101 million people — have a total of 146 people serving life without parole.

Washington’s rates of violent and property crime have declined by more than 40% from their peaks in 1992 and 1988. Long and lengthy life sentences quadrupled alongside the decline in crime, but there is little evidence that more punitive policies explain the dramatic decline. In 2019, according to the ACLU report, 41.5% of all people in Washington’s prisons were serving a sentence of 10 or more years, with 17% serving life sentences. One in five people incarcerated in the state are over the age of 50.

And, no surprise, those serving such sentences are disproportionately Black — 3.5% of the state’s population, 28% of those serving life without parole.

Trauma, crime and transformation

From the time she was 5 years old, Michelle Blair was beaten, sexually molested, and emotionally brutalized by family members, according to the ACLU report. At age 12, she ran away from home into struggles with drugs. The next four years were a veritable horror show, says her lawyer, Jeffrey Ellis: She was sexually trafficked, suffered physical abuse at the hands of deranged men and bounced between foster care and the streets. (Blair could not be reached for comment at the time of this writing.)

Alienated, isolated and operating in survival mode, Blair ended up with two felonies on her record before turning 15. By 16, she was charged as an adult and pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery in Pierce County. The felony offense would later qualify as her first under Washington’s yet-to-be-implemented three strikes law.

Struggles mounted after her release. Harboring unaddressed trauma from domestic violence and still battling addiction, she ended up selling drugs and sex. Two more strikes followed, for a second degree robbery in Spokane in 1997 and a first degree robbery elsewhere in Washington state in 2012. She took the latter to trial instead of taking a plea deal of 25 years. She lost; her guilty verdict meant life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Because Blair is a “lifer,” many self-help and educational programs restricted to people with fewer than seven years on their sentence are closed to her. A cold economic rationale lies behind these restrictions. Since people like Blair, now 58, won’t be returning to the general population, the thinking goes, money and resources are better spent toward rehabilitating those soon to return to outside life, says Jaime Hawk, the legal strategy director for the ACLU of Washington.

“By no means will I stand here with excuses for the choices I made that led me in the life I was living,” Blair told members of the Black Prisoners Caucus, who provided me with a transcript of their January conversation at the Monroe Correctional Complex. “However, I can stand here now and tell you how the past seven years of experiencing incarceration has not only changed me, but also my way of thinking forever.”

Blair dropped out of school in the fifth grade, but today she has earned her GED. She has taken the few classes the state Department of Corrections offers to those with life sentences and earned credits, after repeated petitioning, via the Prison Pet Partnership program toward a certificate in dog grooming, a newfound passion of hers.

It’s a joy she believed she would be enjoying on the outside with her daughter and two grandchildren after the Washington state Legislature passed Senate Bill 5822 last year. That statute reforms the three strikes law by removing second degree robbery from the list of offenses requiring life without parole. Blair hoped that the new law would result in her second strike no longer counting toward her mandatory sentence.

“I was so ecstatic to hear that robbery 2 was no longer a strike and I was going to actually have a release date and go home — to watch and be there while my 3-year-old grandson grows up, to take my 12-year-old granddaughter to her soccer games and to just be able to hug my daughters every day,” Blair told the Black Prisoners Caucus members.

But unlike the three strikes policy, the law was not retroactive. It only counted for future offenses.

“So you can imagine how devastated I was,” Blair said. “My mind went to such a dark place and I was mentally and emotionally distraught.”

Blair is one of 64 people in a Washington state prison whose second degree robbery conviction still counts under the three strikes law, according to a January Senate bill report.

“Washington has this reputation as a progressive state, and that’s true in some ways. But we really need to address these sentences that leave little hope or access to redemption or transformation,” says Hawk, who wants to repeal our state’s three strikes law.

Breaking down the machinery of mass incarceration

The entrenched racial injustice of our so-called justice system is the inevitable outcome of policies governed by fear rather than empathy. It is what happens when laws named with catchy numeric mnemonics, teeming with cruelty similar to the crimes they purport to punish, are embedded with the belief that a person is incapable of change.

“Mandatory life sentences say you’re going to be behind prison walls forever no matter what you do,” says Blair’s lawyer Ellis, who has historically represented clients fighting for leniency. “And yet despite that, Ms. Blair has found the determination to change her life.”

Six months ago, Ellis signed on to appeal Blair’s first strike, which she obtained as a juvenile, after being contacted by the ACLU and the Innocence Project Northwest. The Portland-based criminal defense attorney agreed to litigate the case through the Washington Court of Appeals. Ellis came to believe that her conviction was improperly counted as a strike on her record. Plus, their initial conversations convinced Ellis that Blair’s change was “the real deal.” 

“The person who struck out deserved to go to prison, but Ms. Blair is a different person now. She poses no risk to society, only a benefit. She would better a community,” he says.

Blair’s transformation shows what can happen when our criminal justice system prioritizes rehabilitative measures, says Ellis. But her case also shows the importance of reevaluating sentences once laws that locked away people for life are no longer valid.

“The legislature decided [second degree robbery] was not serious enough of a crime to be included as a strike,” says Ellis. 

Ellis says that Blair’s case, among others, were cited as reasons for eliminating second degree robbery from the three strikes list. But she and 63 other similarly-situated people do not benefit from its removal. 

That’s an unfairness State Senator Rebecca Saldaña, one of Washington state's few legislators of color, is seeking to change. Saldaña wants to make SB 5822 retroactive so that people like Blair, who are serving life without parole because of a second degree robbery conviction, can go home. But Saldaña faces an uphill battle, as many prosecutors, corrections officers and victims' families oppose applying the law retroactively.

As a newer legislator representing one of the most progressive districts in the state, she struggles with laws she says have a vengeful view of justice. Given the racist outcomes of many of the state’s criminal justice policies, including the three strikes laws contributing to the disproportionate number of Black and Native Washingtonians serving long sentences, Saldaña is not afraid to argue that “white supremacy” is embedded in the state’s governing documents.

“I have to uphold an oath to our [state] constitution,” she says, “but the more I look at it, the more troubling it is.”

Disassembling the machinery of mass incarceration is a task all her colleagues must own, she says.

“We have to have a willingness to see the nuance and take responsibility for the impact and harm of those [past] policies,” says Saldaña.

Another lawmaker galled by the disproportionate rate of people of color serving life without parole is state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma. She has spent more than 20 years advocating for prison reform in the Legislature. But confronting mass incarceration has been daunting.

“As much as I’ve seen an awakening around mass incarceration, I’ve also seen a retrenchment,” says Darneille, who chairs the Human Services, Re-Entry & Rehabilitation Committee. “There are people who look at someone who made a poor decision at 27 and still believe sending them away for life with no opportunity for transformation is good for society.”

She faced this attitude head on this year as sponsor of SB 6202. The bill, which died in committee, would have required resentencing hearings for people like Blair serving life without parole as a result of second degree robbery.

It’s all part of what's been a two-decades-long marathon for Darneille, who has to balance both her belief in a justice system that acknowledges potential for human transformation and the desires of victims’ families for a satisfactory punishment.

“Victims’ tragedies are as fresh and clear as day,” she tells me. “When you look at changing things [wholesale], you’re going to come up against that opposition, which is why you have to do it piece by piece.” 

Darneille plans to reintroduce SB 6202 next year. In the meantime, she finds reason for hope in the Legislature’s decision to winnow down the list of crimes qualifying under the three strikes list, and Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent recommendation that people who believe they have a case apply for clemency hearings through his office. 

Darneille acknowledges that the clash between these dueling orthodoxies of justice — one granting reassessment, the other treating individuals as irredeemable — has no imminent conclusion.

“I’m 70 and probably won’t live to see the end of three strikes,” she says.

For now, hope and appeals to a higher power are all people like Blair have.

“I have faith in a faithful and just God,” Blair told the Black Prisoners Caucus members. “So I pray that my words are heard by at least one person who can and knows how to start a change.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Marcus Harrison Green

Marcus Harrison Green

Marcus Harrison Green, the founder of the South Seattle Emerald, is a contributing columnist.