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Cry Freedom: A Lifer’s Lament

Still, I will survive. I will endure. I will keep trying to live with hope.

On May 19, 1992, I shot and killed Tecle Ghebremichaele and injured Efrem Isak. I was 14 years old.

As I awaited trial, Anthony Powers sat in a juvenile detention center hundreds of miles away for committing a misdemeanor assault. A counselor showed him an article written about me and told Anthony, “You’re going to end up just like this guy if you keep doing what you’re doing.” The 15 year-old just smiled, rolled his eyes, then read the article out of curiosity. In it, he learned that I might never be released.

The following year, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Months later, Anthony committed a murder and faced the prospect that he, too, would never be freed. A year later, the judge imposed a 77-year sentence upon Anthony. His counselor’s words had been prophetic. Anthony had become just like me.

Five years later, Anthony and I shared the same cell at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. Our prison experiences mirrored one another. Both of us had been assaulted over those years. I had spent years in solitary confinement for everything from assaulting staff to using weapons on prisoners. He had spent years in solitary confinement for committing assaults along with weapon possession. We were lost, we were angry, and we were living with the reality that we would never return to society.

We had no hope of anything.

Anthony and I parted ways in 1999 when, once again, I was sent to solitary confinement for assaulting another correctional officer. I spent the next two years in a cell, 23 hours a day, each and every day. I had already grown accustomed to living like this. Most of the years I had been imprisoned were spent segregated from the general prison population for violent and disruptive behavior.

Fortunately, this stay in segregation did not produce the same result. I began to view my situation quite differently. By the time I was released back into the general prison population, I knew that I had to find a better way to do my time. To survive. To endure. To live.

I earned a paralegal diploma. I started working towards my bachelor’s degree. I advocated for criminal justice reform. A law journal published my writing. This was not just survival. I did more than endure. I somehow found value in my existence. All of this transformed me.

Anthony also managed to overcome his circumstances and find value in his existence. He read. He reflected. He was transformed and began to live. When he began to live, he wanted to transform those around him. That desire turned into a movement. That movement became the Redemption Project.

Anthony wrote a workbook that became the foundation of a 21-week rehabilitative program offered at the facility where he was confined. Hundreds of prisoners participated. Violence was reduced. Anthony wasn’t satisfied. He wanted this movement to transform the entire prison system.

The Department of Corrections sent him to prisons across the state to implement his program. The deputy director of prisons wrote Anthony after the Redemption Project had spread, writing,

I recognize your contributions to making Washington State prisons safer for both offenders and staff. Your efforts have made a difference. I also believe those efforts will continue to make a difference for the men that are released back into the community.

Anthony and I found ourselves together again in 2014. Fifteen years had passed since we had last seen one another. The youth counselor who spoke to him at age 15 would have been quite pleased, I believe. We were not just surviving and enduring. We were living in ways no one would have ever foreseen when we were sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed in our teens.

We talked about our future. Our hopes and dreams. No longer did we face spending the rest of our lives behind bars. We were now eligible for release.

In 2012, the US Supreme Court decided that sentencing children who have been convicted of murder to life without the possibility of parole violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In the wake of this decision, Washington State amended its sentencing laws to make juvenile-lifers like me and de facto lifers like Anthony eligible for release. This meant that Anthony could be free once he had served 20 years in custody. This meant that I would be eligible for parole in June 2017.

The new law was designed with the presumption that juvenile-lifers would be freed when our minimum terms were complete. Unless a preponderance of the evidence demonstrated it was more likely than not that we would commit crimes if released, the parole board is directed to set us free. I truly believed mine and Anthony’s days in prison were coming to an end. The laws had changed. We had changed. Soon, we would be living productive lives in the community.

On June 10, 2015, the parole board refused to release Anthony on the basis that it was more likely than not he would commit crimes. That no matter the conditions imposed upon him in the community, he would be a “criminal” if set free. The decision astounded me. It dejected me. It has truly frightened me.

When the deputy director of prisons wrote Anthony before his parole hearing, he closed by saying, “I encourage you to continue to be a role model for other offenders. You have made a difference in many lives.” Nevertheless, Anthony committed himself to doing just that: being a role model and making a difference in the lives of those around him.

However, since Anthony was denied parole, I have been haunted by thoughts that the same fate may be in store for me.

After all these years, it is once again difficult for me to feel optimistic. For me to hold fast to my belief that remorse and rehabilitation will affect my destiny. Still, I will survive. I will endure. I will keep trying to live with hope.