An incarcerated man with legal training weighs in on Legislature's prison reform ideas

  • In US
  • 2023-02-05 13:00:00Z
  • By The Olympian

Daniel Simms was a teenager the first time he was institutionalized in the correctional system.

As an abused foster child who later became homeless, he stole to survive, landing him in what some call the "foster care-to-prison pipeline."

In his late teens, Simms was incarcerated again until he was about 23 or 24, he said. Shortly after his release, he returned again to prison where he has now served 19 of his 34-year sentence for armed robbery. He is 42 years old.

During his ongoing sentence, Simms has earned not only a GED but a paralegal certificate, which is why he said he became interested in policy to reform the prison system. That led him to litigating civil lawsuits in prison for other incarcerated people.

"Seeing the people that are coming into prison struck me, and I have a heart for the people here - for poor people, those that have mental health issues and substance abuse, minorities…," Simms said. "You're seeing the most traumatized, most vulnerable populations being the ones most likely to be piped into prison."

Simms is a jailhouse lawyer member of the National Lawyers Guild and a member of Treehouse, a non-profit focused on equity and racial justice in the foster care and education system. And he has written three books about his life experiences, including one on harmful practices conducted within the Department of Corrections, according to his website.

Simms recently spoke to McClatchy regarding the Legislature's latest attempts to reshape the prison system in Washington.

"A lot of people don't like to hear it, but the fact is that millions of Americans are facing the same recidivism cycle largely due to the way the system is structured," Simms said.

"What's happening right now is that people are being warehoused," he said. "They're not being educated, and they're not getting treated for any of their substance abuse problems, their mental health problems, and they're getting out in poverty and debt. Therefore they go back to the same communities with nothing, and quite frankly they're going back worse than they were when they came in."

Scarcity of things such as phones and showers create tensions within groups in prison too. Simms said in this way, the state uses that scarcity mindset as a pretext to punish people who fight over resources.

"The cycle is vicious," he said. "Everything is stacked against the people who come to prison."

At this point, Simms noted, any reformation within the system would help the current conditions.

Bills before the Legislature

Several bills have been introduced this year by Washington legislators to fix the broken system. Simms is keeping an eye on them, he said.

One of those is House Bill 1024, which would require incarcerated individuals be paid at least the state minimum wage if they are part of a Correctional Industries work program. Currently, those who work in prison are paid menial wages, typically between 65 cents and $2.70 per hour. The proposed legislation was introduced by Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, who served time in prison herself.

"Let's not use euphemisms no more, this is slavery that's happening on a grand scale in this country," Simms said. "The state has taken these people's labor for years and years and years and it's keeping them poor. It's keeping them in poverty, and in debt, and it's depriving victims of their victim's compensation. Let's repair the victim."

Simms said an increase in wages could be used to compensate victims, re-entry into society, and communications with friends and families while incarcerated. But Simms doesn't believe the bill goes far enough, as only incarcerated individuals employed in the CI work program would get minimum wage, and most of those in prison are not in that specific program. But he said the bill is headed in the right direction.

Simms also is following HB 1087 and Senate Bill 5135, sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, and Sen. Claire Wilson. D-Auburn. Both would restrict the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities.

"Words can't even describe how that's inflicting trauma on people in prison," Simms said of solitary. "It's debilitating."

SB 5046, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, would allow indigent individuals in prison the opportunity to seek state-funded legal counsel for post-conviction defense.

"Just allowing people to appeal one time and then denying them counsel after that is a fundamental unfairness because a lot of times people can't get all the facts and law together to articulate their grounds for release in time for their first appeal," Simms said.

Another piece of legislation has the attention of many incarcerated individuals, Simms said.

HB 1189, sponsored by Rep. David Hackney, D-Tukwila, would expand and modify the Clemency and Pardons Board. After petitions are received from individuals or organizations, recommendations can be made to the governor for "commutation of sentences and pardoning of incarcerated individuals in extraordinary cases; and conditional commutation of sentences in accordance with additional requirements," according to the bill.

Simms said it would allow incarcerated individuals who are rehabilitated some entitlement to be released.

SB 5131, also sponsored by Wilson, is another bill that would be helpful not just for incarcerated individuals, but also their families, according to Simms. As the law currently stands, up to 95% of the money sent to people in prison by family members is kept by the Department of Corrections for various accounts such as payment of Legal Financial Obligations or simply the cost of being incarcerated.

This legislation would instead prevent money sent by family members from being used for those deductions, and inmates could only spend the money on commissary items. Simms said everyday items in the commissary haven't been immune to inflation, so it's more difficult for people to afford things now than it was before.

HB 1268, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, eliminates sentencing enhancements for minors in gang-related felonies. The bill also would eliminate mandatory stacking of firearms and weapons enhancements, which lengthen sentences, and, would make sentencing enhancements eligible for partial confinement and earned release.

If this legislation had been in place when Simms was sentenced, it could have helped shorten his sentence, he said.

While Simms acknowledged the need for prison reform, he also acknowledged the importance of keeping the victims in mind.

"I understand the victims rights and I 100% agree with that. I think that where we lost our place in this country is that there has been no reconciliation in regards to people that come to prison. That's where we need to address the fairness and equity."

Concerns about proposals

But some legislators don't think the proposed measures are good policy.

Rep. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, is the Assistant Ranking Minority Member for the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee.

He said he believes incarcerated individuals should be rehabilitated and that the DOC is currently not doing "the best job" at rehabilitating people.

Rehabilitation should be centered around "how do we get better?" Griffey said.

The costs of providing incarcerated individuals a minimum wage, however, "is kind of a slap in the face" for victims, he said. He said he doesn't think people should be getting out of prison with "zero money" and that he could potentially get behind the idea of housing vouchers, but minimum wage is "the wrong way to do it."

Griffey also touched on the legislation to restrict the use of solitary confinement.

"There has to be a balance," he said. "The people that are incarcerated have to have fairness and freedom, but the officers also have to have the ability to be the authorities."

Griffey noted that he did testify against total confinement for youth.

"My heart is going in that direction, but my mind is telling me that the people that have to come up with the solution, and the one that's going to make it work, are going to have to be the ones that actually work there, and that's going to be the corrections officers themselves," Griffey said.

He said incarcerated individuals have "injured" society in some way, but "we also have to respect the fact that they are humans, and that is not lost on me."

A 2021 study released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 66% of incarcerated individuals released in 2008 across 24 states were arrested within three years of leaving confinement. Within 10 years, 82% of those individuals were arrested.

Additionally, foster kids are 2-1/2 times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system if they are placed in group homes, according to the Juvenile Law Center. Moreover, 90% of foster children who have had five or more placements will enter the criminal justice system.

"The way that our mass incarceration has evolved is from a place of hate," Simms told McClatchy, when asked how he can convince those who aren't onboard with prison reform. "This country needs to get over that and focus on rehabilitation and equity.

"Whether you hate a person that's an inmate or a felon … that person is going to be released," he said. "Do you want that person to be a rehabilitated person who has the adequate funds to acclimate back into society, or do you want that person to come back out worse? ... How do we want our people to be treated and how do we want them when they come out?"

The Legislature's regular session ends on April 23.


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  • mitchel mark
    (2023-02-09 05:35:43Z)

    In order to decrease the risk that prisoners would commit crimes again while they are in prison or after their release, the reforms are intended to address the fundamental behavioral flaws that lead to criminality.


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