In an era of progressive culture, discussions centered around criminal justice reform often end with the conclusion that the American prison system is a racially challenged, outdated institution, which should be abolished. Lack of evidence in support of its effectiveness in combatting crime, combined with inarguable statistics, demonstrating that disenfranchised communities are plagued by incarceration at a disproportionately high rate, have led forward thinking minds to search for solutions better fit for contemporary society. And though many such solutions have been offered and heavily dissected, the reality of our time is that we’re nowhere near exploring a civilization without prisons. But if we’re ever to reach such a point, the conversations must continue. History has taught us that reform tends to happen in increments, and that in undoing systemic oppression, efforts must be led by those most affected.
As a member of the incarcerated Latinx community, I’ve watched countless faces pass through what seems to be a revolving door, leading out, and—all too often—right back into my home. It’s rarely difficult to pinpoint who I’ll see again by their behaviors while incarcerated. Some choose to believe the narrative that they’re little more than animals—as evident by the cages they’re locked in—while others cling to a sense of humanity with a vigor that’s impossible to overlook, because it makes them a glaring minority in an environment where only ignorance and violence are praised. In 2017, I was transferred to Monroe’s Washington State Reformatory from the Penitentiary in Walla Walla, and was introduced to Francisco “Javier” Salazar and his efforts to use a cultural program to effect change within the incarcerated Latinx community.
The Hispanic Culture Group has a long history in WSR, dating back roughly seventy years. Elder prisoners still recall an age when incarcerated members occupied an office in which struggles unique to the Latin experience in confinement were addressed. Younger members could seek guidance in navigating the social climate of prison, and those soon to be released could glean resources to assist with reentry. Eventually, however, the HCG devolved into little more than a self-help group where a small handful of attendees met biweekly to discuss topics of personal interest. The only prisoner-led collective in WSR to retain an office to date, is a nonprofit organization offering liberal arts degrees. As a charismatic leader, Javier utilized his influence within the Latinx community to revitalize the HCG, which may have altogether disappeared had it not been for a pair of committed outside volunteers who had remained involved for decades. Boosting attendance, he developed a charitable program within the group whereby members donated artwork to support various causes, including a local school and a children’s hospital. Though this was a monumental step in reaffirming the humanness of those involved, and transcending stigmas associated with Latino prisoners, Javier still saw potential for growth, rather than a finished product. This is how I came to be involved in what would soon blossom into a movement unprecedented in Washington State prisons.
Recruiting me, and other influential members of our incarcerated Latinx community, Javier formed a committee which met weekly to discuss issues such as: What causes people to come to prison? What are some possible solutions? Are these solutions available here in WSR? The problems, it seemed, revolved mostly around education (or more accurately, lack thereof), and though primary and higher education were attainable, none of the courses being offered were taught in Spanish despite the fact that Latinx prisoners made up nearly fourteen percent of Washington’s incarcerated population. Moreover, those taught in English were of little-to-no value to residents being deported upon release. Recognizing the need to bridge this gap, we began brainstorming on ways to create more equitable educational opportunities. It became clear early on, however, that the limitations placed on prisoners would present hurdles along the way, so after a number of sit-downs with HCG volunteers, a team of outside collaborators came together, and the Latino Development Organization was born.
In 2019, the LDO was incorporated as a nonprofit organization, with an outside board of directors, an incarcerated advisory board, an office in the city of Monroe, and a mission, to promote equity by developing communities in which opportunities, resources, and education are available to all. We currently offer classes inside WSR, and a bilingual arts program (in collaboration with The New Alchemists). Though our emphasis is on the Latinx community, our courses are bilingual and inclusive, and have increasingly gained popularity among the prison’s population. We also facilitate a successful mentorship program—developed by Paul Fuentes—with which incarcerated members mentor each other in various topics ranging from academic, to general guidance. We will soon be implementing Plaza Comunitaria, which provides a certificate—through the Mexican Government—equivalent to a GED for students who will be deported to Mexico upon release.
We believe our rapid success is proof that in order to break chains of oppression, leadership must come from the bottom up, and the underrepresented must be at the forefront of the effort.
We’d love to hear your thoughts or to tell you more about the LDO and the bold work taking place in WSR. Follow us on Facebook, or get in contacts below.
Michael J Moore’s books include Highway Twenty, which appeared on the Preliminary Ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award and the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, After the Change, which is used as curriculum at the University of Washington. His work has received awards, has appeared in various anthologies and magazines and has been adapted for theater.
Michael J Moore is the author of three novels. He’s currently serving 12 years in Washington State for robbery.
Michael J. Moore #888554
Monroe Correctional WSR