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  • A ‘Q and A’ with a former inmate, member of Community Collaborative

    In April 2016, Pima County received $1.5 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge to fund programs here designed to safely reduce the population of the County jail.

    Helping guide that effort is a 33-member Community Collaborative made up of justice system partners and community representatives, including formerly-incarcerated men and women who provide a valuable perspective to the discussion.
    Gerald Williams
    Among them is 46-year-old Gerald Williams, a father of five who works in building maintenance and who spent a total of nearly 10 years in prisons in Wisconsin, Texas, and Arizona. Williams applied to join the Collaborative because he wants to give back to the community and serve as a voice for other former inmates. In October, he traveled to New Orleans, La., with other Collaborative members for the SJC’s semi-annual all-sites meeting, a two-day gathering of SJC partner municipalities that featured workshops and roundtable discussions on a variety of topics, including bail reform and the effects of the opioid epidemic. We sat down with Williams to get his take on the event, his participation in the Collaborative and the overall effort to rethink jails and criminal justice reform.

    PCFYI: What were your impressions of the SJC all-sites meeting in New Orleans?

    GW: Initially, I was impressed with everyone in the room. That’s because they’ve accepted the challenge they’ve accepted in remaking our justice system, trying to correct some of the things that are wrong with it and give a lot of people who deserve help, who are just sitting in jail, help. So, that was my initial thought. I’d been to New Orleans before and it’s grown obviously but it wasn’t what I was excited about. As far as going to New Orleans, I was definitely impressed by what Laurie Garduque [Director of Justice Reform at the MacArthur Foundation] and Cherise Fanno Burdeen [Chief Executive Officer at the Pretrial Justice Institute] had to say and to hear what all the sites are doing. So it was, all in all, a good trip.

    PCFYI: What other sites piqued your interest?

    GW: Well, first of all, Pima County is definitely neck-and-neck with Harris County, TX in terms of innovation. I think we’re number one. We’re setting the precedent for other locations. I also liked what St. Louis County, MO is doing. I also was impressed with what the Sheriff of Multnomah County, OR had to say during the panel discussion. I think that was informative as far as trying to show other counties who may be a bit behind what to do and how to do it.

    PCFYI: Did you have any expectations before going to the All Sites Meeting?

    GW: I didn’t know what to expect because it was my first time. What Carolina Almarante-Terrero from the Burns Institute discussed was kind of what I expected at first - for there to be community members such as myself who have a history and have turned our lives around who can share our perspectives. That’s what I expected. But when we broke up into our little groups and meeting and had the other cities talk, that was when I got clarity about what we were doing at the All Sites Meeting. Just sharing information and really showing those who are behind the curve and bringing them up to speed. That was very informative because, for me, being a community member and not a city representative or council member or anything like that, it was just a pleasure to be invited. They exceeded my expectations. There was never a dull moment.

    PCFYI: Which workgroups did you focus on in New Orleans? Was there a particular emphasis?

    GW: I really feel like the SJC is the key to making changes to our justice system. There wasn’t anything I was looking for as far as the prison system. That’s where all of my concern is. Because what happens in county jails sets ripple effects in motion. Everything goes down from the county jail. Some people need to be home to rectify family and jobs and so forth; people who might not even be going to the penitentiary. But for those who are in the penitentiary there has to be better educational programs and work skills programs, not only just for those who are there who might not come home but for those who are coming home so they can have something to come home to instead of being put back in to that same environment. That’s where everyone fails.

    It’s like I say, if you don’t have a strong support system, you’re going to fail. The system is set up for you to fail. A really strong-minded person can make it. I’m not saying that you can’t but we have to have something strictly for felons. You know, unemployment and all these labor agencies, they’ll deal with you but they’ll only deal with you to a certain extent and then they take advantage of you because they know you’re a felon and they underpay you. So, if a felon came home with a certificate or with a trade under his belt and he could come home make a decent amount of money then he wouldn’t be worrying about “I can’t pay my court fees and my fines and my probation fees and still pay bills and try to go out and have a decent time with my family.” Those are the pressures in life that everyone goes through being reintegrated into society. If you don’t have anything in place, you’re just setting up everyone who’s coming out for failure to go right back in to that revolving door. That’s where, to me, the key is.

    I understand that the County Jail is there in place to stop you from going to the penitentiary, I understand that but for those that are shooting past that and this might be their third time stealing and they might have to go do a year, two years in jail or three years in jail; anywhere like a five-year sentence and under, you have light. You will be home soon. If you can get them, in that grey area right there as they come through the door, on some programs, help them get their education, help them get some good work skills - that is where I’m focused. That’s what my concern is, 100 percent.

    PCFYI: Tell us a little bit about your history and your background. What prompted you to get started with the Safety and Justice Challenge?

    GW: I came to Tucson in 2004. I was still wild then. I wasn’t trying to work. I was on parole when I came here. And I had that mindset that what I was doing before I changed my life that the world still owed me. I was 17 when I started into the game and I was like, “OK, I should be further in life than I am right now.” And I came out to Pima County and I thought I just needed one big score. That’s how everybody thinks: “I just need one big score and I’ll be set for life.” And I came here in 2004 and caught a case [was arrested for attempted marijuana trafficking] and I’ve been here ever since. I went through parole, was paroled successfully and was reintegrated into society. Everything was good but I still was hungry for more. And the only thing I knew how to do was what I’d done before. I went back to selling drugs and, lo and behold, I was caught again. But this time I wasn’t gone for that long. I did a year. That was in 2009. From 2009 to 2010 I prayed daily to come home to a changed Gerald and here I am today a part of the SJC. I went through some things here in Pima County: unpleasant things. But what can I say? But it changed me. Because I do not want to go back to the penitentiary, to the County Jail ever, ever again. I got the opportunity because my one of my community members gave me a heads up that you guys were going to be forming the SJC and she asked me did I want to be a part of it. And I told her “yes.” And I was able to write a brief summary of why I wanted to be a part of the SJC. And, lo and behold, I am a member.

    As far as penitentiary time I’ve done a little bit over ten years out of my 46 years in life. There’s not one thing that I regret but I wouldn’t do it again. I mean I regret the craziness I did because I was young. It totally went against what my family taught me, what my upbringing was. But as I look at it now, that part of life, that little deviation in my life was my story to be able to help someone else change. That’s the way I look at it. That’s the reason why the Lord has kept me here all this time through all the hurt and horrible danger that was headed toward my way. So, my story is unique. I’ve been there on pretty much every level that anyone who’s been in the system can be, except I’ve never done anything sexual to anyone. And I’ve never done armed robbery or any of that stuff. But I can relate to people as far as when they need someone to talk to. Because, like I say, there’s going to be a situation, no matter what, it’s going to happen, unless you have a strong support system - that person, that ear. I still need an ear. As long as I’ve been out and all the things I have going, I still need someone to talk to, to set me straight. By the grace of God I have several people I can call to get advice or just to air out when I need an ear to talk to. So, even with all my ups and downs in Pima County everything is beautiful right now. I can’t complain. Like I say, I was given that opportunity to submit an essay about why I wanted to be on the Safety and Justice Committee. My main thing is equality and justice for everyone. Not just the rich - everyone.

    PCFYI: How does your background inform your involvement on the Community Collaborative? What is your role among all the other members?

    GW: Right now it’s kind of minimal. But as we continue to grow my role could be major. With my history, my background, I just have first-hand knowledge of the good and the bad on both sides. I’m just the information guy. If you want to know the real, the nitty gritty, the stuff that people won’t tell you, I’m pretty much the guy that will tell you. As we go further I hope to increase my role in the SJC and do whatever needs to be done. If there’s a venue or avenue that could open up for me, I’m all for it. If not, I’m there to assist anyone who needs assistance.

    PCFYI: Who do you hope to connect with?

    GW: A lot of the people that I’ve been telling about the Warrant Resolution Court, they’re still kind of negative as far as thinking something is going to happen. I’ve almost gotten it cleared to step outside of the courthouse and go to the Boys and Girls Club and hold the Court there. I know I have the approval to let people know that we could offer that service there if need be. I’m just trying to really break the ice with people and let them know “you’re not going to get in trouble.” So, the core group of Collaborative members I’ve been dealing with, pretty much all of them is who I want to reach. I can pretty much access anyone in the group if I need anything or they need anything or if I have any questions or If I have any good ideas to bring to the table.

    PCFYI: Do you think it is unusual or different for community members such as yourself to sit at the same table with judges and prosecutors to talk about this and to be able to share ideas?

    GW: That’s the unique thing about it. That’s what we really need. That’s what keeps me really intrigued. I know they probably feel the same way. We all need to be able to hear each other’s side because we all play a part. It’s not like we’ve followed the same path. So we’re coming from that past to our present and we can relate to those that need to get over their past and into their new present. Whatever life holds for them to reach. The judges and all the lawyers and all the officials who are on the panel, it’s not unusual anymore. It feels good to me. It feels really good.

    PCFYI: What do you hope is going to happen out of being at the same table with each other?

    GW: For me, I’m hoping to increase my role in my community. I think about stuff all the time. If there’s a job that’s going to come up that’s going to steer me towards in the service that I’m doing right now, whatever it is, if I can get an internship, if I need to go to school, I’m willing to do that to make shift to be able to show people “you too can do what I did.” There’s never a cap on your ceiling. I have no ceiling. My motto is: “If I can put my mind to it, I can speak it into existence.” I just went and got my LLC for my small business. I’m hopefully making my insurance payment tomorrow to get the insurance for the business. No matter what a person’s past was there’s always change. If that person is willing to change.

    Safety and Justice Challenge
    PCFYI: Big picture. What is your priority for changing the Criminal Justice System?

    GW: The SJC was the start of it. We started with county jails. Now we need to do the same thing to go over the sentences that people already have and compare them with one another and see why one person has five years and another is doing 15 to 20 for the same crime; or 20 to life. What does not make sense to me is you can get more time for selling drugs than you get for murder. Murder. Not self-defense murder. Murder. That’s wrong right there.

    I understand you have your career felons. There are special things for them. That’s what the federal system’s for. But to be in the state prison for life for selling drugs, there’s something that can be done better. There has to be something done better. To me, that’s just like modern day slavery. You’re locked up and don’t have any way to help your family. If you don’t have any family, now you’re behind bars doing Lord knows what for canteen. And if you do have family, your family is suffering trying to send you money so you won’t be doing whatever for canteen. Just looking at the sentences that people have right now and just trying to restructure it. Giving people hope is more important than people really think.

    I think there would be a lot of people doing their own legal work if they still had law libraries in the penitentiary system. They’ve taken a lot of the law libraries, if I’m not mistaken, out of the system because people were filing motions. I understand that there were a lot of frivolous motions but there has to be hope. You can’t just stick somebody behind bars. Everybody makes a bad choice at some point. Everyone. There’s no perfect person on this Earth. The County Jail is just the tip of the iceberg. The private prisons, it’s a whole business. The penitentiary system in the United States is a whole entity of its own. It needs to stop. I’ve spent time in a private prison when they first started doing private prisons, in 1996 in Texas. There were a lot of people who couldn’t afford a lawyer and maybe got railroaded and they don’t know what they signed their life away to because of their mental illness to just because of a lack of caring or lack of due diligence but a court-appointed attorney.

    I’m not saying just turn over everyone’s sentences. I’m not saying that. I’m saying give an incentive to those who want to change or who are on the cusp of freedom or could get some time back. Work towards it and I believe you’ll see a lot of change as far as the racial tension and everything that’s in the penitentiary system. I know you will because everyone will be like, “I don’t want to mess up. I’m going home.” When you’re not going home and you have no family to care for you, that’s where the “frontline riders” are. Those guys aren’t waiting on a ride home. You have people that go into the penitentiary system who become institutionalized. Some people have got in in their mind that they would rather be in jail because they get “three hots and a cot” and can smoke cigarettes all day. That’s their reality. Instead of coming out here and working or staying in a half-way house or renting a room for men who have been in the system or men that need help. There’s more to it than what we see.

    Photo captions: Top: Gerald Williams; Bottom: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge funds programs such as this 2016 gathering in Tucson where participants discussed ways to reduce over-incarceration.
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