Paw'd Defiance

Building a Prison to College Pipeline

May 10, 2019 UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Chris Beasley and UW Tacoma alumnus Omari Amili Season 1 Episode 9
Paw'd Defiance
Building a Prison to College Pipeline
Chapters
Paw'd Defiance
Building a Prison to College Pipeline
May 10, 2019 Season 1 Episode 9
UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Chris Beasley and UW Tacoma alumnus Omari Amili

UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Chris Beasley and UW Tacoma alumnus Omari Amili talk about their experience with incarceration. Beasley and Amili turned their lives around and are now working to build a prison to college pipeline. They discuss the challenges formerly incarcerated people face. Beasley and Amili also talk about the challenge of making college more accessible to those who served time in jail or prison.

Show Notes Transcript

UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Chris Beasley and UW Tacoma alumnus Omari Amili talk about their experience with incarceration. Beasley and Amili turned their lives around and are now working to build a prison to college pipeline. They discuss the challenges formerly incarcerated people face. Beasley and Amili also talk about the challenge of making college more accessible to those who served time in jail or prison.

Chris Beasley:

You look at the research on transitions from prison to college. One of the things that's important for those transitions is to see people like you who have had similar experiences, whether it's skin color or lived experiences with incarceration or whatever. Right? That you see people like you.

Music:

[ intro music ]

Maria Crisostomo:

From UW Tacoma, this is Paw'd Defiance.

Music:

[ intro music ].

Maria Crisostomo:

Welcome to Paw'd Defiance, where we don't lecture, but we do educate. I'm your host, Maria Crisostomo. Today on the Paw'd, the Prison to College Pipeline with UW Tacoma assistant professor Chris Beasley, and UW alum Omari Amili. Beasley and Amili have both been incarcerated. They'll talk about their experience and how they're working to help others transition out of the criminal justice system and into higher education. So how are you today? We have Chris Beasley and Omari Amili . Can you briefly introduce yourselves? We can start with Omari.

Omari Amili:

Yeah, so my name is Omari Amili . I am a former UWT student. I graduated there in 2014 with a bachelor's in psychology and also a bachelor's in what's called interdisciplinary arts and sciences with a concentration on self in society. After that I went into the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at UWT where my focus was community and social change. And I did my graduate research on preventing recidivism through post-secondary education where I developed the curriculum and a workbook for a prison to college workshop for my master's project. Before graduating I was hired by South Seattle college, and then did some work with the ACLU of Washington and became an author, a public speaker, and I'm pretty active around Tacoma and Seattle, doing various speaking engagements and events, sharing my story and doing my part to change the narrative around the possibilities for formerly incarcerated people.

Maria Crisostomo:

Chris?

Chris Beasley:

Yeah, this is Chris. I'm an assistant professor at UWT . I like to think of myself as a scholar, a community organizer, and a teacher. So as a scholar, I study transitions from prison to college with the Post-Prison Education Research Lab. As community organizer I co- founded the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network, which has a thousand members across 43 states and six other countries. I also am spearheading UWT's efforts to develop a stronger support system for people transitioning from prison to UWT. For my teaching, I teach research methods and classes like social psychology and critical thinking. And throughout each one of those classes I try to sort of weave in transitions from prison to college and ideas about formerly incarcerated people in each of those classes.

Maria Crisostomo:

So the topic for today is incarcerated people who have been able to move on into different places. Can you both describe that experience of being incarcerated?

Omari Amili:

Yeah, so for me, I was incarcerated back in October, 2006. I was 21 years old at the time. I found out that I had a warrant for my arrest for bank fraud. But this one wasn't for just one charge, it was for 30 felonies at one time. I ended up sitting in the Pierce County jail with a $ 100,000 bail, being told that I'm looking at decades in prison for leading organized crime. Ultimately I ended up pleading guilty as charged to all 30 felonies. And I felt like it was a blessing to have that many charges and ended up with a 36 months sentence, with 36 months of probation. While I was inside, I wouldn't say that I really grew much. I wouldn't say there was many opportunities for development, but my mindset was already, "I'm not going back," you know. So before I ever turned myself in and walked into the courtroom, I decided I wanted to change my life. So incarceration, I pretty much spent some time stagnant before I could start my life back up. But that was my first time ever seeing the county jail. It was my first and only experience with incarceration.

Chris Beasley:

I think, um, you know, I want to preface my experience a little bit by saying that I spent time in a minimum security facility and it was a short stint . So my experience certainly isn't what many people's experience out there is. I think for me, both in jail and prison, it's probably not what people would think about it, like being in community. But I think in some ways, I was away from one community, but I was also part of another community, and I felt like, like I met a lot of people that had similar backgrounds and similar experiences. So it's sort of like being out of one community and in another one in some ways. But I do remember one thing that was very similar to being on the outside, which was attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. And I remember my first haircut experience, which some people wouldn't think about as being a traumatic experience, but I was a closeted gay man in prison. I remember the person that was cutting my hair, the barber, touching my head. A nd at that moment I just s ort of went into this state of shock and just trying to like, have this like barrier. Like, I don't want guys touching me i n prison.

Maria Crisostomo:

You felt uncomfortable, yeah.

Chris Beasley:

Yeah, super uncomfortable. Like to the point where I dissociated, like I started to sweat and started to not be as in touch with my surroundings. So I had my heart racing and stuff. And so I'll always look back at that as a traumatic experience. And I think everybody's experiences in prison are different. And what's traumatic varies from person to person. But it's not unusual for people who are incarcerated to have some kind of traumatic experience while they're in there. But I'll always sort of remember that as a big part of my prison experiences, both being in community with people in a way that sometimes, in a place that people don't see community happening. And then also a place where unexpected trauma can happen.

Maria Crisostomo:

Can you both describe what it was like in daily life? Like a day when you were incarcerated. How was it?

Omari Amili:

So it really just depends on which stage in my incarceration, you know, it started in the county jail from the county jail. If you're in the state of Washington and you're going to go serve a prison sentence in the department of corrections, you first go to Washington correction center at Shelton, which is a lot different for me from the place where I ended up doing the majority of my time, which was large corrections in there, a minimum security camp. So being in the county jail, you know, you're stuck in the same room, you don't really leave unless you go to court sometime about there can be long periods of time where this room is all that you see. And because I had nonviolent crimes and things like that, it's like an open tier with bunks. Um, it's not like, you're not isolated from other people. You're sharing your space with a whole bunch of other people. Um, once I got to, once I got sentenced and moved onto Shelton, and that's when I got to sit and, you know, to see what prison was really like real quick. You know, cause you get to receiving, you're pretty much in maximum security until you get classified and um, they get you to the upper R units where you're actually, sometimes people have access to TV and yard and things like that. Um, but once I got to Larch Corrections Center, it was, it was, it really was nothing like what I would've expected prison to be like, because it was a work camp, you know, so we had like open movement where I can just go to the gym if I wanted to. Um, you know, you can go to the library, you can actually play pool and shoot darts and things like that and there, and I wasn't really expecting that from prison. So it all depends on which stage that I was at and because my crimes were nonviolent, my classification was pretty much minimum security that impacted, you know, what prison was like for me. So I didn't really have to um, deal with a lot of the things that, some of the stories that I hear, you know, a lot about survival, a lot of the riots and lock downs and things like that. I never had to experience that.

Maria Crisostomo:

Chris, can you tell us more about the experiences, like just the first day?

Chris Beasley:

Yeah, I think, I think a lot of it, you know, even though I was incarcerated in Illinois and uh, Omari was in Washington, I think a lot of it's sort of similar in that, you know, you come into receiving it's maximum security when you're in receiving. Um, then when I got transferred, um, it was dormitory housing when I first got transferred. So everybody's in like one, one large room, probably like, I don't know, maybe a couple hundred people, something like that in one room and box. And then eventually you get, you get a cell assigned and then you go to that cell, um, and spend your time mostly like in a yard in minimum security. Like you get your days, you go, you get up, maybe go to the yard for the day, then go to work, come home to yourself. Right. Maybe make, maybe make something. I remember I a, I learned how to make uh, iced mochas in prison cause we were lucky we actually had ice in the place that I was in the summer in the Midwest, it can get a little hot, and we were lucky enough that we had an ice there and stuff and I learned to take the instant coffee and a hot cocoa, and like make an iced mocha . But I think in many ways it's, it's like daily life, sorta like the outside, except for like all your choices are really constrained and I think importantly, um, your opportunities for growth are really constrained, right? That like if you, if you want to do something outside of work and yard, then it's going to have to be stuff like in the shadows that really aren't allowed, right? If you want to sort of work on, if you want to like contribute to community in some kind of ways, then you may get sort of caught up in things that like, aren't allowed. And you know, sometimes people, sometimes people think, talk about crime as being antisocial and things like drug dealing and drug manufacture, um, which go on, on the inside just like they go on the outside. Um, sometimes people see those as antisocial behaviors. Um, but like for me, those were ways that I actually contributed to my community. They were ways that I saw value in myself. Right? And so if you're inside and you want to grow as a person and contribute to your community and, and sort of find value in yourself, if there aren't certain opportunities to do that, certain outlets, then you might find that in other ways. Just like for me, before I went to prison, I didn't feel like I had those opportunities whether they were there or not. Um, so I found those outlets in other ways, but I think so in some ways it's sort of a microcosm of society but with a lot more constraints and limitations on choice.

Maria Crisostomo:

So I want to go back and kind of like talk more about before prison. How was your life before prison?

Omari Amili:

So for me, um, I came from a real messed up childhood, you know, with parents who were in addiction, I was always getting kicked out of class and suspended when I was at school, had been ex- , expelled from the Seattle Public School district, um, dealt with things like foster care, abandonment, you know, like there was a lot of, uh, adverse childhood experiences for me. That's what led to my values being so messed up and distorted, that I was living this lifestyle of crime that sent me to prison. So it was always pretty much, um, I spend my time on the streets hustling and, but right before, right before my incarceration, I had actually decided that I didn't want to do this stuff anymore. There was two times that I tried to stop and go to college, you know. So back in 2004, I was enrolled at a college in Hutchinson, Kansas, and I went to school there. That didn't work out, I had to come right back home, right back to the streets and hustling, and then, um, before I had ended up turning myself in, finding out that I had a warrant for my arrest, I was enrolled at Portland Community College. So I had, I had tried multiple times, you know, to get out of their lifestyle and use education as a way out. But it just, it didn't quite work out for me, but it was a lot of, um, a lot of adverse childhood experiences, a lot of trauma that led to that lifestyle that got me incarcerated.

Chris Beasley:

And I think like, I think we sort of share some similar experiences, although also some differences in, in our childhood. And I, you know, I think I had more probably of a family support system and, um, I also had less of like historical marginalization of family and, and also less, um, current marginalization because the color of my skin. But I think there are some similarities that we shared in that. Like when I grew up, I grew up in the Midwest and so it really wasn't about skin color so much in the Midwest, in a small town because it's, it's really all white people pretty much, especially at the time in the small town I grew up in. But it was, it was about like which side of the tracks you grew up on. Right? What family you were born into, and people saw you differently and you saw yourself differently if you were born on the wrong side of the tracks or into the wrong family. And like, I remember growing up, not really, I never really thought about college when I was growing up. Um, I just sort of assumed, I think that I would, I would go to work in maybe a factory if I was lucky. Like that was, that was a good job, that would be a good outcome. And I remember in in school I was, I was told that I was too smart for my own good and that was, that was the thing that I really remember. Um, but there was a time in high school where I was really starting to find my passion. I was in a computer class and I was so far ahead in the material that the teacher had to just stick me in a corner and say like, here are some books, teach yourself these books because you've already gone through all that material. And um, we were learning about executable files with MS dos - that might date me a little bit. Um, and she said like, just get on the network, and run the executable files and do and see what they do to like learn about executable files. Well, apparently I was in the library and I was running files that were on the system operator side of the network - this is before like network security and stuff. And I had the, I had the librarian and the computer administrator like behind my shoulders and I'm just, I just keep going right, because I'm doing exactly what I was told to do. Right. Get on the network and run the executable files. Um, well they thought differently. I think they thought I was hacking the system. It was sorta like this fear about hacking the system. And so they brought me down to the principal's office and they wanted to give me a detention, and I refused to serve the detention 'cause I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. And I remember in that moment I was told that I was too smart for my own good in that moment. And that really stuck with me to this day.

Maria Crisostomo:

How old were you when that happened ?

Chris Beasley:

Uh, probably 15, something like that. 15 and eventually they, they, you know, they kicked me off all the school computers and this is back in the the nine-, early nineties. So let's keep in mind like what's happening here with the tech boom and stuff like really launching in the mid-nineties, kicked me off the school computers and I didn't touch another computer until like 2001, I think it was. So the whole like tech boom, right? So here it was this like person who really didn't have like purpose in life and stuff, finally finding like a place in life and the computer scene at this time when it's like a historic moment in the computer industry, and instead of taking that wayward kid and helping steer them into something that he's obviously like curious and passionate about and skilled in, instead they like cut that off, right? And it wasn't too longer after that that I caught my first felony and just really never did fall into something again. Um, I remember being interested in the Air Force, but I was a gay kid and you weren't allowed to be in the Air Force if you were gay. So I didn't really go into that. Right? So I just kind of wandered around life and eventually found my place in like drug dealing world and sort of involved in like the drug, drug manufacturing scene and stuff like that. Because that's a place where I had some self-respect. People welcomed me. They saw value in what I knew and I felt like I could apply my mind in certain ways and be valued for that. Um, but that's, that's, those are some of the moments that stick out.

Maria Crisostomo:

Hey everyone, it's Maria. I wanted to take a moment to tell you about UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Barb Toews. Dr Toews teaches in social work and criminal justice here at UWT. Dr. Toews works with incarcerated men and women on rethinking the design of prisons and jails. These men and women utilize principles of restorative justice along with basic architecture techniques to re-imagine these facilities. Dr. Toews also conducted a study that found exposure to nature can improve well-being among women in prison. You can read more about Dr. Toews by visiting the UW Tacoma website. So now going back, um, how was that transition from prison to like, going back to society?

Omari Amili:

So for me, um, you know, I had 30 felonies on my record and I didn't have any type of work experience, so I didn't really have any type of programs that I was able to sign up for. I didn't have any type of mentors, any type of guidance, I had to pretty much just figure out what I wanted to do with my life. So at first I didn't really know. I want it to, um, just make sure I didn't get locked up again. So I went and found a job at the Old Country Buffet, but that wasn't gonna work out for me for too long. Um, I ended up quitting pretty quick once I got that job, and decided I had to turn to education. And before, you know, I had a GED, but I, my whole K-12 background, background was negative. You know, I, um, like I said, it was always getting kicked out of class and suspended. I had major gaps in my education. Um, I felt like I couldn't do math, period. Um, you know, there was just, there, as a child, I probably was absent, you know, just as many days as I was in school, so I didn't feel like I even belonged in college, you know. I felt like, that, that was for other people, that wasn't for me. But once I got enrolled and you know, I just was putting this positive energy out, I just, I was getting positive back, you know. Things started happening for me with like housing and things like that, things that are very difficult to overcome. These barriers that society has in place like housing, transportation, if you don't have that in order, then really nothing that you're trying to do is gonna work out. But for me, you know, I had a positive mindset and the housing fell in place, the transportation fell in place and I was able to, um, find childcare for my kids and I was able to make it happen with education. Once I got enrolled in school, that kind of gave me some direction and some purpose for my life, where before I didn't really know where I was going to end up. Um, I still didn't, even in college, I didn't know where I was going to end up, but I was taking positive steps towards something, you know, where working a dead end job. It's like, you know, where's my life headed? Nowhere. So education, um, really with that, really it helped me a lot. Released in June, 2008 it took me until September to start school, but once I started school, you know, that just set me on a path that lasted for some years.

Chris Beasley:

Yeah. I, I think like, I identify with that a lot too. Um, and when I, when I got out, I have in sort of rural areas, there's really, there really aren't re-entry programs. It's like your parole officer's sort of your re-entry person, if you will. And the parole officer maybe shows up, the, depending on sort of how you're doing, like maybe every like few months to do like a urinalysis or something like that, to do a drug screening. Um, so I think for me, probably education ended up being re-entry for me in some ways. Like I was, I think one of the ways that I've been privileged in life is to have an uncle that, I like, sometimes I say talked me into going to college, but he really just asked me. And I think sometimes that's all it takes is somebody to like ask a question that sort of sparks something in your mind. Um, but he sort of asked me if I was going to go to college to try to, to try to find some way in life again. Um, and when I was there, um, I was doing well, but I still wasn't so, and so to back up a little bit, like similarly I think similar to Omari, I hadn't really thought of somebody like me going to college until I was asked that question. Um, I was in a Trio program, which is a student support program, and they took us to a university campus. And then I started to see that as a possibility. Like it, before it was like some kind of foreign land. While I was there, I, while I was at the community college, I thought, well, if I can do this, then I can do a bachelor's degree program. And so I started to sort of see that as a possibility in my mind. And I really wasn't sure, just like Omari, I wasn't really sure what I was going to do with it. I was just trying to go somewhere with it. And then when I was in the bachelor's degree program, I, um, eventually I transferred up to Minnesota. I'm from Illinois, and I had a professor that asked me if I was going- or where I was going, to, to masters, to, to graduate school for a Master's program. I don't know, I never really thought about it before. Um, but I started to think about it when she asked me. And then I decided to do, uh, a Master's program where you didn't have to do a research thesis because I was like scared of that. And then eventually there, uh, I had was that this matchmaker, this psych matchmaker for Honors Society for psychology. And I met someone, and, a professor, and she asked me what I was interested in for research and I said addictions, and nobody there did it. And she pointed me to this other program. And then I met this other guy that sort of mentored me into like PhD program and stuff, Lenny Jason . Um, but, and then I finally figured out that like, I could do a PhD program and it, but it took me like seven years to figure out that that was a possibility. And so it was, it was like seven years of education being a way to help me discover, I think different possibilities in life and to figure out like what is this thing we call society that I'd never really sort of known about and understood. And I certainly didn't know how to navigate it and how to like find a place in that in a positive way. Um, but it helped me figure that out. Um, so I think education was my re-entry support system.

Maria Crisostomo:

So what are some of the majors that you focused in college?

Chris Beasley:

Uh, so I initially, I was going to do human services, so I knew I wanted to support people in some kind of way and it was, human services, that sounds good. Um, and then I went into psychology specifically. Um, ended up in, back in computers for a little bit and, for a semester. Um, but then went back to psychology, couldn't get away from it. Um, I was going to be an addiction counselor at first and then I was going to be a dual diagnosis person when I got, when I went into the master's program. And then when I got into, went to a PhD program, I went into community psychology, which is sort of like a blend of psychology and sociology, looking at both the individual and the systems and structures and how they interact with one another. Um, decided to, to study addiction recovery. Um, and then, uh, later on when I got into academia, decided to, to focus on transitions from prison to college.

Maria Crisostomo:

Omari?

Omari Amili:

So I started out in human services as well to be a drug and alcohol counselor, but I never, you can start working in that field after a couple of quarters and I never started working in that field. I had 30 felonies, never wanted to go through the background check process. That scared me. So, um, after earning my associate's degree in that field, I never went to work there. So I had to go on to a bachelor's program where my first, I don't know what made me choose it, but it was the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, um, Self and Society that was my major for most of my time at UWT . But, um, I had taken several psychology that, that, that major doesn't exist anymore. Um, but I was just all over the place. You know, I might be in a history class and then, uh, uh, just psychology, sociology, all kinds of different classes counted, but it wasn't, they weren't really building up on each other. You weren't really focused at all , you know, so I, um, eventually, like I'm probably a couple quarters from graduating with my bachelor's and I decided to go add a double major. I did psychology towards the end there, because I had enough classes to where I could take, um, all psychology classes and still earn both degrees.

Maria Crisostomo:

They counted as both?

Omari Amili:

Yeah. So they counted towards both. So I ended up adding psychology pretty late there. Um, and then when I went in, I wanted to get my master's in social work, but I was told that with my background, I would never be able to do the internships. So that wasn't an option for me. It would actually would have been an option, but someone had told me it wasn't an option for me. So I had written it off. And then I ended up going into the master of arts in interdisciplinary studies. For a while, my research focus was going to be on the, um, educational impacts of kids served by low income public housing. But after going into, um, for a second, nonprofit leadership, I went back to that preventing recidivism through post-secondary education topic. And that's what I ended up doing for the rest of my program earning my degree. So my um, under, my associate's degree is in Human Services, bachelor's in Psychology and IAS Self and Society. Then my master's is in Interdisciplinary Studies.

Maria Crisostomo:

Wow. So what are some of the things that you have been doing now?

Omari Amili:

So lately I've been doing a lot of um, I'm part of a speakers bureau called Humanities Washington. I've been doing a lot of public speaking. That's probably what I've been doing more than anything lately. Um, even outside of Humanities Washington, whether it's a youth summit or events at the History Museum that Dr. Beasley sends to me. I've been just going all over the place speaking, you know. I've, I've um, been in Yakima, Yacolt, Washington. I just was invited to Coyote Ridge and Airway Heights, um, Correctional Centers. I've been to Larch Corrections Center where I actually served my time and Washington Corrections Center, which is the receiving unit where I was at. So I've been able to go to places, um, where there are people who are just like me and telling my story and impact their lives in a way where they can now see possibilities for themselves. They're now thinking about, um, what they can make happen rather than thinking about their deficits. So that's pretty much what I've been doing right now. I'm also an author, I wrote a couple books. One is an autobiography called Transforming Society's Failure. The other's a children's book called In Search of Role Models, which I've done like elementary school assemblies around that. And I'm working on a guide to overcoming adversity and graduating from college. I just left the Students of Color Conference in Yakima. I did a breakout session around that book and also around, you know, pretty much my story and the benefits of post-secondary education for formerly incarcerated people.

Maria Crisostomo:

Chris?

Chris Beasley:

One of the things that, um, that I'm working on is , the Post-Prison Education Research Lab . So we study transitions from prison to college. Um, there's a couple of different projects that come from that. Uh, we have a community advisory board that helps steer, steer the work with it. Um, one is looking at various different administrative datasets that, uh, that the state already has and try to better understand transitions from, from prison to college, using some of those existing data that are available. Um, but I think the one, the one that really I think connects with Omari's work a little bit, like you talk about these possibilities and helping people explore these possibilities. Um, the main, the main thing that I'm really interested in as an academic is understanding what those possibilities are, right? Because I realized that it took seven years of college for me to even figure out that being a professor was possible. Right? Why is that? Right? Why did it, why when I got out of prison did I, did I fail to imagine college as a possibility in my life? Right? Why did I have this limited mindset? Um, so I'm trying to understand what possibilities people have whenever they get out of prison and sort of how those change over time and the role of education in that. Uh , the other thing that I'm working on is, um, the Formerly Incarcerated, Incarcerated College Graduates Network, that I co-founded . So, I think with that though, I'm, I'm most interested in, um, supporting the next generation of leaders within that network. Um, so I think I've done about as much as I think that I can and should do with that. And I think now is the time for me to, um, sort of step back a little bit and allow some space for other leaders to emerge in that space that I sort of helped pull together. The third thing that I'm working on right now is developing better supports at UWT for people transitioning from prison to college. Um, and as I do that work, I try to support formerly incarcerated students at UWT and alumni at UWT because I think it's really important in this work to center formerly incarcerated people in it. Um, formerly incarcerated people are the people that have been most harmed by these systems of oppression that, that we've built. Um, and this system of punishment that we've built. Uh, and I think we have an ethical responsibility to make sure that formerly incarcerated people are centered in that work, not only because they've been most harmed by those systems, um, but also because they have expertise that they've developed from being participants in that system. They understand what the system is and understand what, what re-entry is like. They understand things that work for them and don't work for them. And they can combine that with academic knowledge and develop a level of expertise that people who haven't been incarcerated and directly impact through the system certain, simply like can't develop. Right? And so they can develop both the scholarly expertise and the lived expertise and combine that together. Um, so in my work that I do and, and trying to develop, uh, a Husky Post-Prison Pipeline, I think it's important to, to center people most, uh, most impacted in that work. So we have, uh, a summit that we're putting together June 19th and 20th, where we'll invite leaders around the country and across the state that had been working on transitions from prison to college. And especially inviting people around the country and around the state that have been directly impacted and have developed support systems already. So I want to bring in these leaders around the country that have been doing work around um, prison to college and help us learn as an institution, had a better support people who have been directly impacted, and then get administration together the following day to help decide what this program's going to look like. Um, because even though I think it's important for formerly incarcerated people to be centered in this work, I don't think we should be the only ones in this work. Like we need allies to make all of this work. Um, so we need faculty, we need staff, we need administrators to sort of get at the table with us so we don't bear, bear all the burden for making this happen. And I think that they have expertise that's really valuable. I think that the lived expertise is valuable to me, but I also believe that they have this institutional knowledge. They have this scholarly knowledge that they've developed over time. And I value that. So I want to bring us all to the table to figure out what this is going to look like.

Maria Crisostomo:

So what are some of the outcomes that you've received, whether that's on your work or projects that you had?

Omari Amili:

So for me, um , the outcomes that I received, like my whole life was transformed by my educational journey. You know, the fact that I was hired by South Seattle College as a faculty member and a case manager, I would have never been qualified to do anything like that. Um, and I made pretty decent money working for them before I ended up leaving. And then just the doors that were opened with the ACLU of Washington. I've had several other, um, job opportunities come my way that required an education, you know, whether I wanted it or not, whether I actually pursued it, went to the interview or not. You know, I've had a lot of opportunities come my way, but you know, I'm, I'm kind of being real picky, you know, I don't feel like I should just settle for whatever comes my way. I feel like I have put in all this hard work that, you know, I, I feel like happiness should be at the end of the day, you know, rather than feeling like you're just trading your time for money and it's a place you don't really want to be. So my outcome has been, you know, I've grown a lot, I've developed a lot and you know, I've been able to become a professional and you know, my network has really grown in a tremendous way. Another outcome of that though is $150,000+ plus thousand dollars debt as well, you know, so it hasn't always been all good. You know, there is some bad that came from that. You know, I don't really see any light at the end of the tunnel with that debt. You know, there are things like public service loan forgiveness, but you have to meet the qualifications for that. Right now, I wouldn't. You know, so, um, I feel like it's been a very positive experience and I definitely would do it again if I had to. I probably do it a little bit different, you know, hopefully I'll have a little bit more guidance and things like that. But, you know, I feel like my outcomes have been, I mean, I couldn't imagine when I walked out of prison that my life would be what it is right now. You know?

Chris Beasley:

And you know, I think that's, I think the employment piece and leadership opportunities are a place that, like a place that we could definitely grow, something we can definitely grow on in, in Washington and elsewhere. Um, I think that we've, we've done a better job of making sure that people are compensated for their contributions. I think in the nonprofit world, when we bring people in for speaking events, et Cetera, we're better about like paying them for the labor and the sacrifices that they make at that. But that is really only necessary because people are excluded from the labor market and from leadership opportunities, right? If, if formerly incarcerated people are in professional positions, they can afford in their life to sacrifice an evening to go to a speaking event without getting paid. Right? And so we, um, on one hand we're doing better about making sure that people are compensated, but we're not doing as good of a job in making sure that people are compensated in a, in a stable way that helps them value themselves as professionals and helps other people value them as professionals. Um, and I think like in some ways, like paying people for certain contributions in some ways like takes away also from - there's civic participation, right? Like there are things that people who, um, people who have privilege do in order to just contribute to their community. Right? And they do that freely, but they do that because they have the stability to, to sacrifice that, that time and it doesn't sort of take away from supporting their family. Right? Um, so I think we need, we need to move a little bit further and think about welcoming formerly incarcerated people into professional positions. You know, things like, um, I don't, I don't wanna I don't want to call out individual opportunities, but I do want to say that there are a lot of professional positions in the State of Washington that support prison-based education, that support post-prison education, that support re-entry in general. And there are a lot of people working in those positions that haven't been directly impacted themselves. And I don't want to take anything away from the great work that they do, but I do want to say that those are opportunities in which directly impacted people can bring a unique perspective, a unique lived experience that adds value combined with the academic knowledge that they have. And they can really bring something special to that position, and people coming out they look for and they recognize that. If you look at the research on transitions from prison to college, one of the things that's important for those transitions is to see people like you who have had similar experiences, whether it's skin color or lived experiences with incarceration or whatever, right? That you see people like you and that helps you, one, feel immediately comfortable in that setting, feel welcomed in that setting, But it also helps you envision different possibilities in your life. Right? If I'm getting out and I'm working with a formerly incarcerated person in re-entry or re-entry education, um, I immediately could see that as a possibility. It turns a light bulb on. So I think it's important to include formerly incarcerated people in this work out of an ethical responsibility of making sure that those who have experienced the most consequences share in the rewards of that. Um, whenever we, when we pumped money into, into this system, um, that they share in those rewards. I think it's important because they bring this lived experience and I think it's important because, um, it makes, it, it, it, it helps formerly incarcerated people be able to contribute to the community in many different ways because of that stability it offers.

Omari Amili:

Yeah. My experience has been a little bit different as far as the, um, like there's a lot of people who expect just because you had come from this, disadvantage that you will just give your time for this. So I feel like we still have a long way to go with the speaking engagements with, um, just any, anything where you're speaking about your life and your experiences and you're benefiting other people with that. I feel like that expertise is not quite valued, um, in the way if you earned a college degree or if you had worked in some field for a certain amount of time and you learned a lot of things about that. I feel like those people are valued a lot more. You know, like no one's asking these professionals to donate their time for free. To me, I don't feel like the value has been there enough. If I wasn't a part of the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, I would say that the majority of speaking engagements that come that- my way or people who expect me to give my time freely.

Chris Beasley:

Sometimes what happens is people who are in a privileged place in life, which I consider myself in that in that place right now too, but I haven't always been there. So I think I bring, have a little bit of a different like historical perspective that I can bring to it. Um, but I think people who are in a privileged place in life don't necessarily, I think, understand the pressures that get placed on people that have those experiences in all of the things that, that we're asked to contribute in ways. And I think also sometimes don't understand like what an even- being an eve- an evening means, right? So when doing a speaking event or driving two hours, right? Whenever you have limited time, whenever you have really limited financial resources to pay for gas to pay for a vehicle, whatever, right? Um, you might have daycare and sort of what does daycare cost, right? To somebody in privilege, maybe that's not a big deal and you can just drop your kids off somewhere, or you have family members that can take care of them or whatever, right? But people are often making sacrifices that aren't completely understan- understood by people that sort of are living a privileged life. Um, and so not only is each sacrifice, maybe not understood, but also the totality of all the requests that are getting put on people and the pressures that, that people put themselves in.

Maria Crisostomo:

So I'm curious to know more about your thoughts on the criminal justice system.

Omari Amili:

So I feel like the criminal - a lot of people like, they think it's broken and things like that. I feel like it's working. The way that it was designed to work is putting people in this permanent underclass is, um, creating financial instability in people's lives is, you know, taking people away from their families and creating cycles of poverty and things like that. You know, I feel like capitalism relies on systems like this in order for it to function.

Chris Beasley:

Yeah. I think the, the criminal punishment systems, sometimes they call it the punishment system. Our criminal punishment system is, um, is, is, is really about punishment, right? Is about saying like, "stop being like that. Stop being like that stop being like that." Um, and so it's sort of like a slap on the wrist and in order to try to get people to conform to whatever rules, accepted rules are put in place by it, by those in power. Um, but as a punishment system, um, it doesn't really provide much of an alternative. And if it's a system in which it's saying "stop being like that, stop being like that, stop being like that" and there is no alternative, then what is it really saying? Well, essentially it's saying "stop being" and I don't know about you, but as a human I'm just not very good at not being, right? I have to be something. Um, so it's a system that's like trying to pull things out of people but often doesn't provide an alternative and provide supports for that alternative. And I think that that's, that's critical to have, right? If you're, if you, if you are going to have a system that has like certain people that decide what the rules are and is going to try to get people to conform to those rules and we can sort of debate like the ethics of that and sort of who's at the table and, um, who, who makes those decisions. Um, but if you are going to have that system, um, you need to provide some supports and some alternative opportunities so that people can contribute and be part of that system that you're trying to get them to be part of.

Maria Crisostomo:

What can you say to those people who have a negative stigma about incarcerated people?

Omari Amili:

Yeah I would say that, you know, when they, um, live their life on a day to day basis, they never know who they might encounter and what that person's background was, what they've gotten away with, what they'd been caught for. So the best way to go about it is, is treat everybody with human decency. You know, like there's no reason to have these irrational fears. Just because this person had been caught 10 years ago, doing something that they no longer do, doesn't mean that they're a bad person, you know, here today or that they ever were a bad person. You know, sometimes people make decisions that violate what the written rules, what the written laws are. But there's also a lot of laws that are unjust. You know, there's a lot of people who make the laws that are unjust. So I, I just, I feel like that stigma is really just, it's irrational. You know, there, there's a lot of people who have been able to grow up and mature and they look back at what they did and they're not even the same person anymore. You know? So those people, like, say you're like 40 years old, 50 years, just think back. Are you the same today as you were when you were 20, 25, or even, you know, have you learned lessons throughout your life? Have you made mistakes? And I feel like every person, if they're honest, they're going to say yes, their mistakes might not have been the same, it might not have led them to incarceration, but if we're honest with ourselves, like it could've , you know.

Chris Beasley:

Yeah. And I, I think like if, if you ask people about like specific things that they've done in life, um, I think many people that you talk to will say that they've probably committed a felony at some point in their life. Right? Like, have you ever taken a medication that wasn't prescribed to you and sometimes that are like non-narcotic painkillers and maybe you had a grandma that like had some prescription ibuprofen. It's the only thing in the house. If you've taken one, right? Or have you even possessed that without having a prescription for it? Did you go to the pharmacy and pick up a prescription for someone and take it back with them? Right. You've committed a felony. Um, sometimes whenever people are kids, they just do stupid stuff, right? Like steal a bicycle or something. If it's over $300 in most states, like that's a felony, right? Um, possession of any like chemical substance. Right. And so sometimes like when people are sort of in their teens or early adulthood and later on they've, you know, have used like ecstasy or like cocaine or something like that. And like those, um, I think especially like you see ecstasy use by people that sometimes don't see themselves as like criminals, if you will, and sort of whatever we're going to like think about criminals, right? But I think that what I'm trying to get at is that many people do things in their lives that could be felonies and they're just less likely to be, um, policed, less likely to be charged, less likely to be prosecuted and less likely to receive a lengthy sentence because of their situation in life. Um, and I think the stigma that we create around that, um, is really, really important because what it does is it is, is it silences people from vocalizing their, their past and sorta speaking about their past. Um, and what does that do? Well, if I'm getting out of prison and I look around me in life and I don't see anyone who's a lawyer, a professor, um, uh, an executive at, at a successful business or a teacher, or a social worker or anything like that, right? What kind of possibility am I imagining it in my future? Well, that stigma keeps people who make, make it to those positions from being open about their background. And whenever somebody gets out of prison, they don't see that. And so they don't imagine that as a possibility in their lives. Um, and I think like the, there are some things that we could learn from the marriage equality, some people might call it queer liberation movement. Um, there's some things that we could learn about that, about the importance of being out and combating that stigma, so that everyone starts to see the alternative narrative, right? Everyone starts to see that there are people who get out of prison and go on and do these amazing things, and then they're likely, less likely to support harmful policies. And also people who get out, see all the amazing things that people are doing. And they're more likely to set that as a goal for themselves and, and pursue that, and sort of transform their lives.

Maria Crisostomo:

Thank you to our guests and a big thank you to our senior lecturer, Nicole Blair for letting us play your music on the show. Thank you to Moon Yard Recording Studio and thank you for joining us today. Be sure to subscribe and go to iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts , Stitcher, and Pocketcasts .