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Life Inside

Mr. Sitthivong Goes to Washington

Felix Sitthivong, who is serving 65 years in a Washington prison, recently testified before the state’s House Public Safety Committee in support of a bill that could decrease his time. “They can stall our bills,” he writes of the “disappointing” outcome, “but they can never stall our dedication.”

In 2011, I was sentenced to 65 years behind bars for charges including murder, attempted murder and assault. At my current facility, the Washington State Reformatory Unit (WSRU) of Monroe Correctional Complex, “behind bars” is not just a figure of speech. I'm literally sitting in a concrete box behind worn out, yet impenetrable bars.

This prison was built in 1910. Sitting here, I can't help but focus on the fact that I’ll be nearly as old as this place currently is when I get out in 2076 — 91 years old. This makes me a “de facto lifer” because I’m not supposed to live that long. I suppose there is one bright side: If I'm really, really good — and lucky — the state will hook me up with an early release in 2073. I’ll be 88.

Washington is one of few states in the nation that doesn't have a parole board. It was dismantled in 1984 as the increasingly conservative state leadership followed the national trend of enacting “tough-on-crime” laws. In that same period, the state’s adoption of “truth in sentencing” laws severely reduced the amount of time prisoners can shave off of their sentences for good behavior.

The powers that be secured community support for dissolving the parole board by claiming it would help remedy the racial disparities of the Washington criminal justice system. But the so-called fix did not fix a damn thing. It continues to create the conditions in which BIPOC communities are disproportionately incarcerated. Only now, there is no relief. In my case, regardless of my behavior, the maximum amount of “good time” I can get is three years. Basically, 2073 is my best hope.

During the first few years of my sentence, that hopeless feeling made me angry at the world. I was angry at the detectives for arresting me. Angry at the prosecutor for making my parents cry during trial. Angry at the judge for taking my life away. Angry at my community for allowing me to die in a prison cell. But, mostly, I was angry at myself for making horrible decisions that hurt so many people. All I could do was tell myself, “Just survive, Felix. Survive.”

Fortunately, I’ve had some really good cellies over the past 10 years. I'm not talking about the men who came off of what we in the Washington State prison system call the “chain bus.” I'm referring to the cellies whose books live on the makeshift shelf in my cell.

Cellies like James Baldwin taught me about a white supremacist system that was never meant for us.

Cellies such as Michelle Alexander exposed how the system was working as planned — to keep communities of color in cages.

Cellies like Alicia Garza encouraged me to develop a strong community-centered base and target unjust laws.

And cellies like Eddie Glaude Jr. revealed America's big lie and demanded that I always challenge the status quo.

My cellies convinced me to say, “Fuck 2073. Change happens now!” So I joined the ongoing fight in Washington state prisons to change the system through the same legislative measures that got us here in the first place.

State prisoners here have been pushing to reinstate the parole board for decades. But these efforts have fallen short due to lack of community support, disorganization and ego-driven agendas from politicians and self-described community advocates. But with the failures have come acceptance that change may have to come incrementally and in various forms.

This year, there were three prison-related bills before the state legislature initiated by my colleagues from the Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) in WSRU. By working collectively with the CLO, organizations such as the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, Look 2 Justice, Free Them All Washington and the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group, which I represent, were able to enlist local legislators to sponsor the bills, which would drastically impact prisoners of color and people incarcerated as youths. In many cases, those groups overlap.

Under House Bill (HB) 1344, people doing time for a crime they committed before age 25 would be eligible for sentencing review after serving 15 years. Currently, this privilege is limited to people convicted of a crime committed before age 18.

Substitute House Bill (SBH) 1282, an updated version of previous legislation, would make most prisoners eligible for 33% of “good time” off of their sentences. As it stands, people convicted of violent crimes can only earn 10% off their time.

And HB 1413 would have retroactively subtracted years from adult sentences that were increased when prosecutors and judges factored in juvenile felonies.

All three bills would give me immediate relief. I was 24 when I committed the crimes I’m serving time for. Since my juvenile felonies were factored into my adult sentence, HB 1344 would give me access to a sentencing review in a few years. And since SHB 1282 would give all prisoners an opportunity to earn 33% of good time, my release date could come as early as 2060.

On February 2, I testified in support of SHB 1282 at a House Public Safety Committee hearing. Prison administrators were not thrilled about lending their equipment so I could attend through Zoom, but after receiving calls from the community and the state representative sponsoring the bill, Tarra Simmons, they gave in.

Fighting off camera shyness and the lingering symptoms of the coronavirus I had suffered months earlier, I spoke for two minutes. I focused on the role of accountability in our criminal justice system and what that means to me. The committee chair thanked me for my testimony, and I promptly returned to my unit.

While I was proud of my testimony, the whole process felt impersonal. As a prisoner directly impacted by the bill, I expected to feel like my input was more valued. But it felt like legislators had me testify just to check off the boxes.

The legislative session ended in April without our three bills moving forward. While they are still alive for next year's session, the disappointing outcome of this session had the potential of paralyzing our movement. But if they really knew us, they'd realize that all they did was renew our fighting spirit. By giving us a crash course in political bullshit, we're ready for 2022. They can stall our bills, but they can never stall our dedication. They can never stop that clock.

Felix Sitthivong is an organizer and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. Sitthivong currently works as a GED tutor through Edmonds Community College. He is serving a 65-year sentence at Washington State Reformatory Unit.