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After officials spike WA prison summit on social justice, organizers say they aren't giving up

The Black Prisoners' Caucus summit was originally set to take place Nov. 2, 2023, at the Washington Corrections Center just outside of Shelton, WA.
Provided photo
WA Department of Corrections
The Black Prisoners' Caucus summit was originally set to take place Nov. 2, 2023, at the Washington Corrections Center just outside of Shelton, WA.

Community advocacy organizations are calling for an apology from the Washington Department of Corrections after officials abruptly canceled a social justice reform summit planned by a group of incarcerated Black men. Officials raised safety concerns after learning more details about the size and scope of the event, but organizers say those arguments fall flat and undermine their efforts.

The Black Prisoners' Caucus is a decades-old social justice organization run by incarcerated people in Washington's prisons. The group planned to bring various lawmakers, advocates and community organizations into the Washington Corrections Center, located in Mason County, this fall to talk about social justice reforms and progress – covering topics like mental health, support for incarcerated people leaving prison, and recent changes to state law that affect people in prison and the communities they're from.

When the department canceled the summit, officials offered a small meeting with a handful of lawmakers and some members of the Black Prisoners' Caucus instead. The group declined.

Derrick Jones, president of the Black Prisoners' Caucus at Washington Corrections Center, said the reason for the summit wasn't just about talking to lawmakers – it was also to give hope to the community and showcase the positive work being done inside the prison.

"We're hoping that the work that we're doing in here doesn't stay in here, that it doesn't die in here – that it extends out to the community," Jones said. "The department missed a huge opportunity with the cancellation."

Jones says about 140 people were invited, and the group expected around 100 to show up.

The summit was supposed to take place Nov. 2, but Department of Corrections officials canceled it a week before, saying the event posed safety risks. In a letter to some lawmakers on Oct. 23, Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange said it was "orchestrated" outside of typical protocols, and that discussion of sensitive topics can make large events difficult to safely manage.

"Often, in such situations, emotions run high, sides are chosen, and basic order can be lost," Strange wrote in the letter.

But prison staff were involved in the planning for weeks leading up to the scheduled event.

"Staff – including the assistant superintendent at the facility – were directly engaged with planning logistics, the agenda, reviewing the speeches," said Jazmyn Clark with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. The ACLU sent $1,500 to the prison to help pay for staffing for the event.

Dean Mason, the superintendent of the Washington Corrections Center, later clarified that he was aware of the summit being planned. Groups that want to host events have to submit proposals in advance. But he says too many people were invited to the summit at the last minute.

"It just ballooned to a scope that we weren't prepared to support," Mason said.

The prison hosts several different types of events throughout the year, Mason said. That includes powwows, graduation ceremonies for incarcerated individuals' educational achievements, and a recent "Concert for Hope." Mason says he sees the summit's cancellation as a "one-off," adding that an event similar to the summit at a later time isn't completely "off the table."

In a letter sent to the community Monday, the Black Prisoners' Caucus pushed back on the department's reasons for canceling the event. According to the caucus, the prison has hosted several different summits and events over the years, some with over 200 people in attendance.

The group also said the language used in Strange's letter comes off as "racially charged" – specifically the suggestion that discussing social justice issues could create a safety risk for attendees.

"It is clear that this highly emotive appeal was nothing less than a racially charged cultural attack, intended to incite prejudice and fear, as we move into a legislative session," the caucus' letter said.

In response to the summit's cancellation, community groups – including the Black Prisoners' Caucus – are demanding an apology, a retraction of the Oct. 23 letter from Strange, and that the summit be rescheduled. They're also requesting a meeting between corrections officials and cultural and volunteer groups to discuss how the department can better support them and "avoid further damage" to their work.

Derrick Jones, who heads the Black Prisoners' Caucus at the Mason County facility, remains optimistic. He says the caucus plans to resubmit a proposal to host the summit at a later time, and that responses from community organizations and the staff at the prison have been encouraging.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.