Note from Melissa Schmitt, She-EO of Adopt an Inmate: My husband Jacob (he tells the story below the player) is what they call a “jailhouse lawyer.” He has a heart of gold, and a compulsion to help everyone around him, especially with their legal work. Within hours of the Blake decision (linked below), Jacob wrote and filed a motion for a fellow prisoner in WA DOC, to vacate his now-unconstitutional sentence. Jacob was actually able to walk his friend out the door on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. The following day, I received this voice mail (his voice is weakened by COPD, but the joy is clear):
On February 25, 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled (in State v Blake) that Washington State’s possession of a controlled substance law violated the due process clause of both the Washington State and U.S. Constitution. I know there has been much controversy and debate over this, and I’ll address that after I tell you how Blake has returned hope to a life gone hopeless.
It was sheer coincidence and fortune that I talked with my attorney (and friend) Jeff Ellis on the morning of February 25th, just an hour after the Blake opinion was published. An hour later I was in the institution law library, where I announced our Court’s holding in Blake. That is what the law library is for — contrary to popular belief, it isn’t some insidious meeting place where prisoners figure out how to sue DOC. Rather, it is where we share knowledge — and in this instance: hope.
An old man turned around from his computer and told me that he is serving a life sentence on a third strike for a simple possession. Even though the fear mongers tell the public that people have committed a violent crime in order to be sentenced to life as a third striker in Washington, that is a lie. Possession of a firearm (which is not a violent crime) while being in possession of drugs (which is not a violent crime) is a strike. In this case, the man was arrested for having a gun in January of 2007, and when booked into jail, a ziplock baggie with meth residue was found in his pocket. His sentence for the fireams? Less than 4 years. His sentence for the ziplock baggie? Life without the possibility of parole.
Just over 14 years later, I’m standing in the law library telling him what he is afraid to believe — that he is going free…and that I would help him.
Ultimately, all that I really did was know who to call: Rene Alsept. She jumped right in, and with the help of the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office (thank you for your humanity!), and a Judge committed to justice, the man (who’s name I cannot mention lest the mailroom Gestapo censor this missive!) is free right now, in the arms of his wife. After serving 14 years, with a destiny to die in a prison cell, he is a free man.
As for the righteousness of our Court’s holding in Blake. Again, the fear mongers would mislead the public and say that our Court is moving to decriminalize drug possession (as the Sheriff of Island County posted). However, that is not what happened. The law that our Court struck down did not require proof of knowledge — and that is the cornerstone of American Jurisprudence. The fact that no one will lose life or liberty without proof beyond a reasonable doubt (established by the government) that a person had a “guilty mind” (mens rea).
Allowing people to be arrested, incarcerated, and have legal financial obligations imposed, without ever proving they had knowledge or intent to possess drugs — that is precisely what the founders of the United States Constitution sought to protect Americans from.
The five Justices that struck down this unconscionable law deserve to be applauded for their commitment to what is right — and for their courage in pursuing it.
Tonight, as I fall asleep, I’ll still be sad that I am in this concrete tomb, separate from my loving wife. But I’ll be smiling because there’s an old man who is in his wife’s arms…and hopefully not sleeping!
It deeply saddens me that what has become institutionalized hypocrisy is rapidly leading to the erosion of civility and free speech in this country. Opposing views are rarely debated with substance and intellectual force. They are attacked with ritual humiliation and even violence. It is truly stunning how far we’ve strayed.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution has guaranteed the free expression of ideas:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
— First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
There are no established ideas that are untouchable. We are all free to think for ourselves. This uniquely American ideal has informed and shaped the culture of this country for over 240 years. Recently, it seems, this is changing. But if congress — the body of elected officials granted the power to write the laws of the nation — cannot curtail the free expression of ideas, why are we doing it to each other?
The spirit of the First Amendment holds us to a standard: I may utterly despise absolutely everything you have to say, but I will always fight for your right to say it. Unfortunately, the shifting temperament of present-day culture has forgotten how precious this privilege is in history. People groups galvanized against other people groups have turned countrymen into enemies by alienating those who think differently. Examples are legion.
For instance, take the NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in protest: They have a fundamental right to express their displeasure with the structures of society they feel need to change — it is okay for them to have those views and to speak out about them! On the other hand, there are those who feel the sideline of a football field during the singing of the national anthem is not the venue for protest and are, consequently, offended — it is okay for them to have those views and to speak out about them! Regardless of one’s opinion about the issue, we should all cherish the fact that we live in a country where we can openly disagree, rather than attacking one another.
Inflammatory personal attacks are increasingly poisoning our public discourse, normalizing the degradation of the human beings with which we disagree. This is fragmenting American society, resulting in opposing factions taking stands against each other.
Another example, Laura Ingraham, a commentator on Fox News, told Lebron James to “Shut up and dribble” on her show that reaches roughly 20 million people. Her statement was made in response to Lebron’s posting of a private conversation with fellow NBA star Kevin Durant in which he expressed some political views.
Long-time comedian, Roseanne Barr, was publicly vilified and subsequently fired because of an admittedly grotesque and racist tweet about an African-American woman who formerly worked in President Obama’s administration. Yet the New York Times — just last week — defended one of its reporters after several derogatory, racist, and even violent tweets against White people surfaced. President Trump has continued to normalize incendiary remarks about virtually everyone with whom he disagrees. On college campuses across the nation ideas are shouted down if they are perceived to be controversial. The list goes on.
C’mon man! We are destroying our First Amendment rights in the fog of tribalistic warfare. What seems to have escaped our culture’s grasp is that we must remain united, linked together by the core values, the shared privileges of the First Amendment — because ideas and methods of expression are inherently subjective, and in the United States, we have been granted the privilege of being able to think differently than everyone else, even to hold racist, sexist, or homophobic views if we choose, as long as we do not act on them in ways that injure others.
Personally, I despise racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, or any other ideas that work to install an artificial hierarchy based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, or socioeconomic background, and I appreciate substantive arguments that marginalize those views. Yet, I still hold dear the Constitution that provides the liberty, by law, to hold and to express not only abhorrent ideas like these, but also those ideas that generate honesty, equality, progress, innovation, forgiveness, and love.
Freedom of speech is not free. We must never forget that. With the freedom to express our thoughts, feelings, opinions, and ideas comes the freedom to disagree — and the responsibility to defend that freedom. We may not like what someone else has to say, but we should engage those ideas in order to change the opinions behind the words we don’t like. Even if we strongly disagree with the opinions expressed, or the venues chosen to express them, we still must stand up for the right of them to be expressed. When opposing ideas are silenced, it should make all Americans tremble, whether they are black, white, brown, man or woman, gay or straight, young or old, republican or democrat. It is precisely for times like these that the First Amendment was ratified. Throughout history we have seen what happens in societies that succumb to the pressure to silence unpopular opinions — atrocity is never far behind. What if the winds of popular culture shift, and it’s your opinion they come for next?
This is an email I received from our remarkable friend Jacob, incarcerated in Washington’s Monroe Correctional Complex. Jacob is organizing an inmate fundraiser, to help us pay for our new website after we lost our funding.
Oddly, America, and I suppose humanity as a whole has a long history of allowing our diversity to cause divisiveness.
When the English first began settling here, they persecuted and slaughtered innumerable Native Americans. Then as more Europeans came, the divisiveness continued as the Irish, German, Italian and others were designated as less than because they were different.
The era of slavery, which many of us (myself included) imagine as ending after the civil war, took on many more sinister faces.
One startling example is the Black Codes, which were enacted by the southern states post war, and required freed “blacks” to have a written verification of employment every year, else they were arrested for vagrancy, and rented out to the highest labor contractor. Then, since they were not slaves which required food and health to be useful, they would work them to death, or beat them brutally and leave them to die.
This provoked the Reconstruction Era, and brought about the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to our constitution.
However, the horrors persisted through the 1960’s when the civil rights movement gave a minor reprieve… Which brought about the creation of our modern prison industrial complex. Devastation to communities torn asunder by the incarceration of their (for the most part) men, fatherless children, families without providers…and then the return of men damaged beyond repair by their incarceration experience. Men who further burdened their communities by the cruelty they often had to embrace in order to survive inside.
Our diversity in here has caused divisiveness, historically. Whites v Blacks, Latino v Latino…and all of us against the guards, as well as society.
We are all human. We are all citizens of America. We all matter. We all have much more in common than we do differences.
Yes, my dear friend, you and I know this truth, but how do we get that message to the people that do not know?
When I get out, I intend to do public speaking and one of my key goals will be to raise awareness about the continued value of every man, woman, and child. Free or incarcerated.