Travis Ray ComesLast, an Assiniboine-Hunkpapa and Lakota Sioux tribal member, grew up near Spokane, Washington. After a chaotic childhood he committed a series of increasingly serious crimes, later explaining to a friend, “I got into as much trouble as possible one day trying to get arrested ’cause I knew that if I did I would get help, and since I didn’t know how to ask for help, that was my way to get help.”
By the time he was an adult a conviction for killing a man had put him in the Washington state prison system for more than fifty years. He would live and possibly die as a prisoner. The system that put him there, the state justice system, cast his imprisonment as compensation for the horrible injury he caused his victim and his victim’s family—a-life-for-a-life being the logical conclusion of a system predicated on an-eye-for-an-eye. Now Travis is forty-five-years old. The victim’s family is still aggrieved; the daughter who never had a father growing up is living with the life-long impact of that loss. And Travis, an entirely changed man in his head and heart, will live most of his life, perhaps even die, as a prisoner.
In the 1990s Travis told his story to a young filmmaker, Heather Dew Oaksen. Over the next decade Oaksen began telling Travis’ story, and the stories of other prisoners, through her films. Anne Focke, in her second piece for the Polity of Literature series, tells the story she learned from Heather’s films and from Travis himself after she joined a team of supporters Oaksen gathered to help Travis in his effort to regain his freedom.
Whose story is this? How should it be told, and by whom? Literature is collective, always. It exists only among writers and readers and never in solitude. Literature displaces solitude by bringing us into the collective space of writing and reading. As such, it is a powerful means for justice, which like its inverse, injustice, is always and only a collective condition.
Ecosystems are so similar to human societies—they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system. And since our world’s systems are composed of individual organisms, they have the capacity to change. We creatures adapt, our genes evolve, and we can learn from experience. A system is ever changing because its parts—the trees and fungi and people—are constantly responding to one another and to the environment. Our success in coevolution—our success as a productive society—is only as good as the strength of these bonds with other individuals and species. Out of the resulting adaptation and evolution emerge behaviors that help us survive, grow, and thrive.
Suzanne Simard in The Mother Tree
This story is not about forests directly, but it benefits from what we, in human societies, can learn from forests. As I write, I want to learn how or whether the many related but disparate people and activities I come across can work together toward something new and larger. Can they become like healthy soil, with mycelia, fungi, mycorrhizal networks, tree rootlets, all feeding and influencing each other? How does this mesh grow thicker and stronger? How can it become visible and, over time, undo or take apart and break down large, seemingly permanent structures and institutions and then grow new ones, like fungal fruiting bodies, to provide nutrition to new or ancient seedlings? New narratives will be needed for this and perhaps are already being created by collectively imagining new futures.
My story begins with a single thread, a single path through the ecosystem of the story. I start with one individual, Travis Ray ComesLast.
Hey Heather, I came across an article in the Spokesman Review by Colin Tiernan… it was a story entitled “All These Children Matter”… it actually made front page! It was a story about the unmarked graves of the children found at some boarding schools and the affects it has had on Native Peoples. It spoke about intergenerational trauma, PTSD and secondary PTSD resulting from the atrocities experienced at the schools. Reading the stories made me cry… it’s sad and frustrating! I couldn’t help but remember all the stories my mom would tell me of her experience at boarding school and the thought of how much the effects had on my upbringing. I wonder what if she would have felt safe enough to teach me and my siblings our traditional ways and language… would I have made better choices, did the trauma [she] experienced at boarding school deprive me of a fair, equal opportunity at life? How many [were there] and to what extent did the boarding school traumas have on Native Americans? Experts say the trauma has been passed on from generation to generation, even to the extent it’s in our DNA!! Had my mom not attended boarding school would I be in prison?? I just know much of what keeps me in place today and made me the man I am today is the traditional ways of my people. The story shed some light on what Indians have been saying… it validates what we have been knowing all along! I encourage you to read the article.
An email sent by Travis Ray ComesLast from Airway Heights Corrections Center,
to a friend, Heather Dew Oaksen, August 2021
Travis Ray ComesLast, Assiniboine-Hunkpapa and Lakota Sioux, is in his twenty-fifth year of incarceration for a murder committed when he had just turned twenty. He will be seventy-four when he finally completes his court-mandated sentence of fifty-one years. Born in 1976 in Spokane Washington, Travis speaks of himself as having felt abandoned as a child, reports Heather Dew Oaksen, a friend of mine as well as Travis’. He grew up in the midst of constant disruption and violence. His father was in prison and his mother mostly absent. An alcoholic for most of her life, his mother, Sharon, would disappear for long stretches of time.
Travis has three siblings, Heather told me, and so many half-siblings she lost track of the number. “I never really knew my biological father,” Travis told her years later. “He was in and out of prison all my life! My earliest memories with him are all bad… giving me beer in the little half beer cans they use to sell, hitting my mom, and going on a high-speed chase with him and my uncles. In the middle of the chase, they dropped me off on the side of the street and told me to go home… dirt was all around me from the car racing down a side road. Asking my mom about this years later she said I wasn’t even two years of age when it happened.”
The extended family is large and sprawling—a stepfather, the stepfather’s brother, aunts and uncles, and many other familial and tribal connections in the Spokane area. What I know of Travis’ early years are the stories he tells. Others have surely had similar childhoods, even if I have not. I repeat the stories that Travis tells because I want to show him as he sees himself. As a five-year-old, an aunt took Travis in and cared for him at her home, which she also ran as a house of prostitution. Travis made easy friends with “all the ladies,” and at some point, they gave him a few quarters for candy. When the news of this exchange got around, the ruling pimp exploded in anger and fired gunshots at the closet where Travis was hiding. Even in this near-parentless context, Heather said, as Travis got older, he followed his aunt’s example and was constantly trying to take care of his younger siblings and his mom. At about age 17, after his three siblings were taken in by relatives, he was left alone in a house with no electricity. “I spiraled out of control after this,” he said. “I got into as much trouble as possible one day trying to get arrested cause I knew that if I did, I would get help, and since I didn’t know how to ask for help, that was my way to get help.”
This family life had a lasting impact that shows in the lives of Travis and his siblings today. A younger brother, Kenneth, is in prison for a double murder he committed at age 15. While an older brother is doing pretty well, his sister suffers from addiction and has multiple children by different fathers. Most of his half-siblings are in jail. “There is much history in the ComesLast name,” Heather told me recently, “and it continues to hold Travis back.”
Even while living in this home environment, Travis learned of his Indigenous culture and was proud of his Sioux heritage. He’d been taught by his stepdad and that side of the family—grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends of the family. They had a drum group called Spokane Falls and travelled around the area performing. He said recently that what he knew of his culture he learned through the drum and singing and dancing. From age eight to thirteen, this kept him out of trouble. He even had his own regalia. At one point, though, the family gave away the drum and all the regalia, collected over years from various relatives. This had a terrible impact. “It changed the dynamic of the family,” Travis said. The family lost its centre, and he began his own downward spiral. Speaking to Heather in a juvenile prison, he told her: “There’s a lot of things I still don’t know about my culture. You know, I feel something in my life is being left out. I don’t feel whole. Until I know fully about my culture and all my ways, that piece of me will always be missing.”
Recently, Travis had a heart-to-heart with his mother about her boarding school experience. He wondered why she waited so long to tell her children the story. She had been reluctant to talk about it earlier, he told Heather. She wanted to forget. Her response is understandable. Stories of the abusive system of Indian Boarding Schools have filled the news over the past year or so. In 2020, the Washington State Senate adopted Resolution 8703, which acknowledges the government’s role in the abuse of Indigenous children at state-funded boarding schools. “This is part of our lives that just won’t go away,” said Tulalip tribal member John McCoy, a retired Washington state senator. McCoy went on to explain that the resolution states that between 1869 and the 1960s children at these schools “were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that might be seen as representing traditional or cultural practices, shorn of their hair, stripped of traditional clothing and all things and behaviors reflective of their native culture, and shamed for being Native American.” The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, begun in 2012 and based in Minneapolis, is launching a ten-year push toward healing, education, and advocacy. Their website quotes board member Sarah Eagle Heart saying, “Our grandmothers are just now talking about the pain they experienced in Indian Boarding Schools.” Travis’ mother is one of these grandmothers and just wanted to put the experience behind her.
Travis made the first big break from his family when he joined a gang at about age 13. It gave him a way to feel he belonged somewhere. He felt the gang had his back. It was exciting. In a film that Heather Dew Oaksen made about these years, Minor Differences, Travis spoke from prison and reflected on his gang life: “You know, a lot of people are lookin’ to fill a void of some sort. They have this misconception about trying to do something, you know, to get a reputation and what not. And after all these years, I look back on some of the things I did, things I’ve done to try to prove myself to people who I, at the time, looked up to, or wanted to be like, or actually thought cared about me.” All the same, he said, “getting in a gang, your life could be taken any day. In a gang you never know when you’re gonna die. I had friends who died in my arms. Back then, the only thing that came to me was anger, retaliation.”
According to a news story in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, in 1994 Travis escaped from a Wenatchee jail where he’d been serving a sentence for robbery. A month later he was arrested for firing fifteen rounds of a semiautomatic assault rifle into an apartment complex. That act led to a conviction for reckless endangerment that put him in Green Hill School in Chehalis, Washington, a maximum-security prison for older male juvenile offenders. The Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation program runs the school.
Green Hill School was established in 1891 as the Washington State Reform School. At the beginning it held sixty young people, both boys and girls, aged eight to eighteen, who committed crimes or were orphaned. (In 1913, girls got their own reform school; abandoned children are no longer sent to either school.) State mandates required that the students be “taught and trained in morality, temperance, and frugality” and instructed in various trades and callings. It was the first residential “reform school” in Washington and aimed to punish young offenders while keeping them out of the penitentiary. The school is spread over fourty-four sparsely landscaped acres and until 1970 had no fences. In its early days, young people sometimes simply walked away. Today it is securely fenced. The residential capacity at Green Hill in 2020 was 180 young men aged seventeen to twenty-five.
Though established about twenty years after the Indian Boarding Schools movement began, the Washington Reform School, like the boarding schools, fell in line with a longer history of reform schools in the United States, all of which separated children from their families as a way to socialize the children. By removing young people from their communities and isolating them, it was thought that education and training would “reform” them. Among their goals, Green Hill says, is to give young people “new skills for living in the community.” Obviously, many things have changed since the late 1800s and many differences exist between the two branches of reform schools, but an underlying impulse toward “moral reformation” seems to linger on. In its years as a reform school, the program included non-sectarian (albeit Christian) religious training, though nothing remotely religious appears in any of today’s literature about the school. Despite the many programs Green Hill offered, none addressed the emptiness that Travis expressed when saying, “Until I know fully about my culture and all my ways, that piece of me will always be missing.” Green Hill is where Travis and Heather met in 1994.
This point in my essay, before I properly introduce Heather and her life, seems like a good time to say that my calling her out like this and telling her story is not easy for her. She feels a measure of discomfort about being seen as central to the story. I can feel her squirm. She prefers to see herself as someone working behind the scenes as an advocate and ally. From my perspective, though, I see her as an essential, if usually invisible, part of this story. Perhaps her behind-the-scenes work is similar to the essential life-giving work done underground in a forest, invisible to we humans, where fungal mycelia and mycorrhizal networks diligently shuttle sustenance, advice, and warnings to the trees above.
Despite her qualms, Heather graciously allowed me to share parts of her story, and I’m grateful. I should also say that I do so with care because I know that this kind of work is often most effective when it is invisible, when the behind-the-scenes allies disappear, and the main characters define and take control of their lives. I’ll also mention that she reads along as I write this, commenting, correcting facts, adding insights. I’m grateful to have her as a partner. Much of what I know about Travis comes from her and from the way he is presented in her sensitively produced film. In fact, many of his words in this essay are taken directly from her work. Simply including her name on a list of acknowledgements doesn’t feel sufficient.
As with communication in mycorrhizal networks, our knowledge travels both ways. I periodically send her things I find in my research that she hasn’t seen but that might be helpful in the work she’s doing on Travis’ behalf. Likewise, she makes me aware of new resources she finds and new developments in Travis’ life. The story is not finished. It’s alive as I write. What I discover may affect its course.
Heather Dew Oaksen’s life could hardly have been less like Travis’. Born in 1949, she grew up in the only white, middle-class gentile family in an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in Los Angeles. She moved up the coast to study anthropology at UC Berkeley, with an interest in working with Indigenous tribes. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she moved further up the coast to the University of Oregon, in Eugene, where she received a master’s degree in urban planning. From there she went north again to take a job as a planner with the Tulalip Tribes near Seattle. For four years, she helped develop a tribally controlled, on-reservation health clinic. In the course of her work, and as part of her commitment to the tribe’s self-determination, she trained two tribal members to take over her job.
During the time she worked with the Tulalip, Heather told me, she’d been making short Super 8 films. Surrounded by moviemaking as a young person, she’d picked up its language from her mother’s work as an actor in TV commercials, more than 300 of them altogether. In 1980, after Heather left her job as planner, the Tulalip Tribes asked her to make a film for them. She produced the 16mm film with the help of freelance filmmakers. The film, A Fishing People, traced the integral role fishing plays in the culture and economy of the tribes throughout their history. Earlier, while lobbying in Washington D.C. on behalf of the health clinic, she realized that film, as a story-telling medium, had the potential to speak for the tribes, telling their stories and serving as an effective lobbying tool. Her hope was that A Fishing People could help the tribes raise awareness of the rights they had secured in the 1974 Boldt ruling to fish in their “usual and accustomed places.” The experience got her hooked on filmmaking. “I discovered that I loved working with people and their stories, combining film and social aims,” she said. Her documentary was also shown at an artist-run space in Seattle named and/or, and that is where I first met her. In the 1970s, with a half-dozen other artists, I had co-founded this “artist space” (as funding language of the time called our big storefront rooms), never thinking it would lead me to Travis Ray ComesLast and this story. But that’s typical. The most important paths often begin one place and end somewhere else entirely.
Increasingly, photography and film became the principal tools that Heather used in her work. She founded an independent media centre in 1984 as an offshoot of and/or; produced socially-conscious films, videotapes, media installations, and experimental collaborations; founded and operated a full-service media production company; and for almost twenty-five years was a college professor of digital art and Super 8 film. She married, had a son, and became an active member of the Seattle arts community.
In 1994, in the midst of this busy life, Heather and fellow artist Barbara Earl Thomas were given the chance to work in an experimental art program at medium-security detention facilities in the state. She was overwhelmed by the stories of the incarcerated youth. “These fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds were so articulate. Their stories were amazingly brutal and honest. I wondered how come I’d never had a chance to hear this. And I bet I’m not the only one.”
Heather got so taken with this work that she proposed to Green Hill School, the maximum-security juvenile facility, that she make a documentary movie with the youths held there. In response, the school’s superintendent proposed that if she agreed to teach a video production class, she could make her film. Currently, Green Hill is one of eleven residential facilities in Washington State’s Juvenile Rehabilitation (JR) program, a program not run by the state’s correctional system but, instead, by the state’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families. The JR program serves the highest-risk young people—the “deep end youth” who have committed serious crimes. A description of the program calls it “the farthest end of the continuum” in the state’s entire juvenile justice system, a facility for the young men who came closest to receiving serious adult charges. Green Hill offers educational programs, both high school and college, a wide range of vocational programs, and a variety of counselling and treatment options.
After a recent visit Heather observed that the school feels more rigid and prison-like than it did in the mid-90s. When she taught there most residents had rooms with shared bunks, and most were not on drugs. She could come and go freely and never felt threatened, certainly not by the teens. Later, she wondered whether being seen as that “sweet young thing with a hand-held camera” gave her an easier opening than she might otherwise have had. She had two classes of fifteen boys between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, each chosen by the superintendent in part because they were likely to be there for at least a year.
According to Heather, her students were smart, likeable, creative teenagers, eager to learn new skills. They made short films of their own, and she just let them go with their ideas, even letting them take the cameras back to their rooms. The experience gave them a chance to create images and stories from their own perspectives and with their own voices. They were also model citizens, she added, “anything to get out of their cells.” “In creating their pieces, the boys momentarily shed their label of ‘offender’ or ‘gang banger’ and revealed themselves to be engaging young people who aspired to stay out of jail and lead satisfying lives. They still had hopes for the future.”
Thinking of her own son, Erik, who was about the same age as these teenagers, she realized that “simple differences separate the adolescent boy who does crazy, immature things from the adolescent in prison—the neighborhood he lives in, one influential adult who pays attention, a better sense of what lines not to cross.” Later, after finishing the work, she would introduce the film by asking, “What do a thief, kidnapper, two murderers, and a heroin addict have in common with your child, brother, father? Take away the labels and you’ll find these imprisoned teenagers are an awful lot like people you know.” These boys deserved better. They’d burrowed into her heart, and she’d gained their trust. She stayed in contact. Travis ComesLast was one of the teens she met, worked with, and documented in 1994 at Green Hill and with whom, as with the others, she built a lasting relationship.
The footage that Heather and her students shot while at Green Hill was the beginning of two projects: the first was a storefront media installation, Gulf, completed in 1999, and the second, the full-length documentary, Minor Differences, completed in 2012.
This seems like a good time to ask, whose story is this? The story I set out to tell is Travis’. But I quickly learned how integral Heather is to my understanding of it. Travis acknowledged Heather’s role in a letter he wrote in early May of 2021 to his Indigenous friends and relatives: “I am in a documentary film, Minor Differences, by film director Heather Dew Oaksen,” he told them. “Minor Differences tells the harsh truth about growing up behind bars. Mrs. Oaksen has been a dear friend and mentor for the past twenty-seven years and leads my team of supporters.” He then advised anyone interested to contact her for information about his case or how to help. Although I’ve known her for about same length of time, I hadn’t realized until writing this how intertwined their lives have become in those twenty-seven years. To bring you Travis’ story, I have to tell Heather’s story too.
As the essay continues, I’ll also tell my story. If I write well, you might tell this story to someone else, and then whose story will it be? The story draws us in because what happened to Travis is not his burden to bear alone. Justice and injustice are only realized collectively. To show up for justice or against injury, to bear witness to it, is one way to act as part of the collective and take part in a process of repair.
Questions I ask myself at this point are: By carrying Travis’ story farther am I “helping”? By sharing this story with you, can I partly relieve Travis of burdens that we all should carry in common? Or am I taking his story from him and making it about me? I may think of it as caring or helping or showing up, but is this really true? Is it any help to Travis for this story to be told again? Questions like these put us deep inside the mycelial network of human ecosystems, the societies we create, often quietly or invisibly, through relationships and connections that tie us together.
In a scene from Minor Differences, Travis, at Green Hill, is seen reciting into a microphone: “People used to tell me, like relatives, you know, ‘You’re gonna grow up just like your dad, locked up all the time.’ For a long time I hated my dad for bein’ like that, and I always told myself that I wasn’t never gonna be like him. But now, here I am, locked up, doin’ three and a half years … I’m starting out just like him. Here I am in a juvenile institution, just tryin’ to get my life back on track so I don’t end up like him.” A little later, Travis’ voice is heard again, this time over images of him in the school’s barbershop as he concentrates on shaving and giving a haircut to a fellow inmate: “I got a busy day now, sun up to sundown basically—eight to four, cosmetology; four to ten I work at Rec. I’m every day gonna rehabilitate myself, every day do something positive…helping me out in the long run.”
Travis’ voice from Green Hill continues as the camera shifts to a blurry night scene, clearly outside the prison, a busy street with moving lights and traffic:
I don’t really fear too much nothing when I get out. What I do fear, though, is falling back into that gangster mentality, hangin’ out with old friends that are still out there, gangbanging. If I get back around that and hang around with that, day after day after day, I bet I’d get back into that whole cycle. That’d be pretty tough for me to break.
Unfortunately, his fears played out and he did fall back. In fact, all five men in Minor Differences were multiple recidivists. In 1996, at age twenty, Travis was arrested for murder and robbery, and in 1997 he was sentenced to fifty-one years in prison without the possibility of parole. Travis’ story speaks of sufferings that are collective; they aren’t his alone. I’m compelled to bear witness to that suffering as Heather did before me. In the process, Travis’ story turned into “Heather’s film” and now into “my essay.” This essay is my attempt to stay inside of the story and its questions, to move around in them, and maybe understand them better. Telling other people’s stories always carries risk.
In the mid-1990s, when Travis was sentenced, a new theory was spreading rapidly through the news. A new breed of ruthless young criminals, the press proclaimed, was about to terrorize the country—the “super predators.” John DiIulio, an academic and criminologist, coined the term in 1995 in a cover story for the National Standard: “Ticking Time Bomb: The Coming of the Super-Predator.” In his article, DiIulio wrote of being “inundated by war stories” from district attorneys about the “ever-growing numbers of hardened, remorseless juveniles who were showing up in the system… They kill or maim on impulse, without any intelligible motive.” The surge in youth crime was most acute among inner-city Black males, he added, and many of his examples highlighted the actions of young inner-city men of colour. Furthermore, he warned that, as a consequence of the baby boom generation, their numbers were about to increase dramatically; “more boys begets more bad boys,” as DiIulio put it. By the year 2000, he claimed, at least 30,000 more young murderers, rapists, and muggers would be on the streets. The media grabbed the story and ran with it. The scare spread widely.
The actual fact was that even at the time DiIulio’s story ran, youth crime rates were starting to fall, and since then the theory has been discredited. Even DiIulio eventually disavowed it. But serious damage was already done. Lawmakers across the country had taken the theory to heart and put in place tough-on-crime policies for juveniles, including life without parole sentences. These policies disproportionately affected Black and brown youth. A majority of juvenile “lifers” were young people of color. It’s painful to see that this year, again, major media are circulating false stories of rising crime rates and violent threats for which, we’re told, more policing is the only protection. Will lawmakers again act on bad information?
Travis’ 1997 sentence of fifty-one years without parole came at the height of the super-predator scare. A sentence as long as his is generally considered “virtual life,” that is, for a crime committed as a juvenile this is, in essence, a life sentence. In subsequent years, based on new studies and on rulings from the Supreme Court making the case that kids are different from adults in terms of crime, states have begun to reconsider how they punish juveniles. Without denying for a minute the severity of Travis’ offence, Heather told me if he were tried for the same crime today, he would likely receive twenty years. The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole. According to the Sentencing Project, at the start of 2020, 1,455 people across the country were in prison serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. It’s reassuring to note that just four years earlier, the total had been 2,300. So the number is going down.
Late in 1997, Travis was at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, just beginning to serve his long sentence. Minor Differences captures the reality of being there. With the sound of prison cell doors slamming behind him, Travis speaks directly into the camera:
Prison changes you.
‘Cause with the amount of time that I got … just the reality of it, just like a bomb droppin’ on Hiroshima. At first it didn’t really hit me. Then it came down on me one day, and BOOM! I got fifty-one years here. Woke me up. The only way I’m goin’ to get out of here is to change.
There’s not a lot of people out there that knows what it’s like to, you know, take someone’s life, and regardless of what circumstances you took it under, it caused a death. It’s hard on me also. And on the people’s family. It’s hard on me ‘cause I have to accept what I did and come to terms with what I did and accept that. It’s just … like … wow, man.
Comin’ here with all that time…everything you hoped for when you was younger, that’s gone. All’s you got is what you’ve got in here and that’s, literally, nothin’.
Over the next twelve years, after first being incarcerated, Travis was transferred from Walla Walla Penitentiary and moved six times to private prisons throughout the Southwest. From Walla Walla he was sent, in succession, to prisons in Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, a different prison in Arizona, and back to Walla Walla. At the end of the twelve years, Travis was returned to the Spokane area and since the fall of 2009 he has served at Airway Heights Corrections Center. My knowledge of what his life was like during this time is based on what I heard and saw in Minor Differences. For me, a strength of the video comes through the voices in it. With only a few brief exceptions when Heather or her voice appears briefly in the film—prompting a question here, setting up a camera or adjusting a mic there—the voices and images are those of the young men telling their own story.
The camera scans the corrections centre, seen through a chain link fence gleaming with razor wire. Travis’ voice is heard over a slow scan of the facility’s flat buildings and stark, flat landscape. He speaks calmly.
Being locked up physically is not the challenge. We’re humans. We learn to adapt. It’s the emotional and mental struggles that . . . I’ve seen that break people. I’ve seen people who are just the shell of who they used to be.
And it’s just a cesspool of, of . . . man . . . of evil, darkness. I mean . . . It’s just a statistic, a number.
Some stories circulate more powerfully than others. Demonizing, convicting, and imprisoning mythical super predators was just one tactic in a much wider get-tough-on-crime “war” that overwhelmed the U.S. in those days. Fear and thinly veiled racist rhetoric supported increasingly punitive policies. These policies in the 1990s had their roots in the 1960s when imprisonment in the United States went from being, at least in part, a method of rehabilitation (practiced, with all its flaws, by the reform schools of the late 1800s) to being one of control and punishment. Corresponding systems of policing and criminal justice also ramped up significantly after the uprisings of the 1960s civil rights movement, a growing insurgency in Black urban communities, and an active and vocal anti-war movement.
The growth in America’s prison population has been constant, regardless of which party is in power. From Nixon to Carter to Reagan to Bill Clinton, federal policies force-fed the rapid expansion of what became the largest prison system ever to exist, one with racism at its core. Lawyer and scholar Michelle Alexander, in her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, reported that between 1982 and 2010, the prison population went from 300,000 to over two million, with the majority of the increase coming from drug convictions. The United States, both then and now, incarcerates more people than any other nation. And the impact of this mass incarceration hits communities of colour hardest. In 2018, the Brennan Center for Justice stated, “America’s approach to punishment often lacks a public safety rationale, disproportionately affects minorities, and inflicts overly harsh sentences.” The Center attributes much of the high rate of incarceration in the U.S. to the use of prison as a one-size-fits-all solution to crime.
In The New Jim Crow, Alexander points to the perhaps surprising fact that when the “drug war” was declared during Richard Nixon’s second term, drug use was actually going down. Her source? —the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards, appointed in 1971 by the Nixon administration no less to formulate national standards for crime reduction. The commission’s findings included this bit of wisdom: “The prison, the reformatory, and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.” Further, the commission recommended that no new adult prisons be built and that institutions for juveniles be closed. Clearly, the recommendations were never followed by the Nixon administration nor by any administration since.
The rise in rates of incarceration was accelerated in part by laws like the 1994 Crime Bill, passed during Bill Clinton’s first term, which, as the Brennan Center put it, “gave states money to perpetuate policies that bred a bloated prison system.” A continuing obstacle to developing alternative systems to prevent crime and violence is the stubborn economic dependency that many communities now have on prisons as economic engines.
Beyond providing economic benefits for certain communities, what has this burgeoning system of prisons accomplished? “The stark and sobering reality,” writes Alexander, “is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.” Our expansive system of mass incarceration has created a new racialized system of social control and a new under-caste. “I use the term racial caste,” she writes, “to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration.” Importantly, from the perspective of Travis ComesLast and the other young men in Minor Differences, she considers “mass incarceration” to include not just our criminal justice system, but also the “hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion,” enforced by a larger web of laws, policies, and customs that control people labelled “criminals” both in and out of prison.
Alexander believes this massive system won’t be taken down by piecemeal policy reform or litigation. “Nothing short of a major social movement can successfully dismantle this new caste system.”
At the close of the 1997 trial where Travis ComesLast was convicted of first-degree murder, the Spokesman-Review reported that his attorney, Doug Boe, told the court that ComesLast was “a quiet sensitive man who is proud of his Sioux heritage but fell victim to the lure of gangs and guns.” This is not a picture of a super predator. Travis’ feeling of connection with his Indigenous heritage could be seen in a still photo taken earlier at Green Hill in 1994. In the photo, a nineteen-year-old Travis leans in front of a chalkboard and stares intently into Heather’s camera. On the blackboard behind him, carefully hand chalked with a flourish, are the words, “Native Pride” alongside a drawing reminiscent of dream catchers in Lakota culture. During his years in prison his heritage gave him hope and helped him begin to change. In Minor Differences, with the 1994 photo as backdrop, he speaks into the camera’s microphone: “When I got to Green Hill, I was real young, naive. I really had no sense of direction, of where I wanted to go.” The image on screen shifts to a Pow Wow ceremony fifteen years later, with colourful regalia, dancing, drumming, and chanting. An older Travis is visible with other men, all of them intensely focused, concentrating on their dance and music.
Now, after all these years, I built the positive change I made on a solid foundation, on a spiritual foundation. I find strength in a lot of our ceremony, our songs . . . like, our songs teach you discipline, strength. It just keeps you structured and focused.
During his first decade in prison Travis had become responsible for Indigenous healing ceremonies, which he based on traditional Lakota values of balance and harmony. He encouraged other men in the prison to take part in the ceremonies, teaching and leading them through the songs and the rhythms. The big annual Pow Wow, which he established seven or eight years ago and continues to organize, is witnessed by family and friends, an intense experience for everyone who participates. In the film, Travis’ voice can be heard behind footage of at least a dozen men preparing for and then performing the ceremony. Images and sounds of the Pow Wow in Minor Differences are accompanied by Travis’ words. He speaks slowly, seeming to think carefully about each word.
[In Native culture], everything has to be in harmony with the next thing for it all to be strong and for it to work. It’s just revolving, like the earth. Everything just keeps coming back, full circle. Put out good, and it’s all going to come back, to you, to your family.
Pow Wow . . . our sweat. It’s one day that we’re free from all this. Nothing else but this, this ceremony, this fellowship. You really forget where you’re at . . . literally, you forget where you’re at.”
His childhood impulse to care for his younger siblings, even as a kid himself, suggests an inherent caring that continues to build as he makes his own change. His voice continues under the dance:
These guys grew up not knowing about their culture. All they knew was their street life. Coming here and learning their culture and seeing that fire inside them and the desire to learn about their ways and our people . . . that helps me do what I do.
I was talking with someone, a few days ago. He’s also in here for a long time. I asked… “How do you want to be remembered? This ain’t it. Just because you’re in here, life ain’t over. You can still make it worth somethin’. It’s worth something to the people you love. If anything, it’s worth doing it for them. You just never seen it like that.” It’s like a light bulb just clicked on in his head, and now his cycle of change has begun. All because of just a little two-, three-minute conversation. Actually seein’ change in other people and then them telling me, “If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be doin’ this, I’d still be doin’ that.” For me, that’s . . . You just can’t put that into words, the way that makes me feel.”
When stories that circulate powerfully cause harm, as the myth of “super predators” did, what can those who tell countervailing stories do? Nearing completion of Minor Differences in 2010, Heather and the film’s producer, Caroline Cumming, created a group they called First Thinkers. She invited me to participate. As a person who had only been touched by this world in an abstract or second-hand way, I had a lot to learn. And I still do. I fit the profile of a key part of Heather’s and Caroline’s intended audience, a population they described this way: “Most Americans are unaware of the expanding prison-industrial complex and its devastating impact on juvenile offenders. They may not have given much thought to juvenile justice and don’t know any juveniles who have been imprisoned. Moreover, few understand that it is a profit-driven endeavour. The film’s intention is to evoke thought about how quickly and inappropriately our society jailed these teens and the price they, and we, pay for not employing other options first.” I’m grateful for all I’ve learned since then.
First Thinkers included eight people who agreed to come together with Heather and Caroline to consider how to conclude the work and make the best use of it. The knowledge and expertise represented among the eight of us was both individually deep and collectively broad, spanning the fields of art, music, policing and law enforcement, juvenile detention and criminal justice, psychology, and the law. Many of us were community activists or advocates for alternatives to current policies around youth incarceration. We met together in June 2010 at a retreat centre that took us out of our daily lives and gave us a full day of focused conversation about questions raised by the film. Heather was in residence at the retreat centre completing a narrative film treatment and an updated trailer for a funding request. She imagined that our conversation would help inform, enrich, and maybe even transform her process. Organizing the group of First Thinkers was one of the ways Heather brought people together to discuss our criminal justice system. Our job was to consider how the project could be used to change policy and support political action. It was a chance to sit with other people and imagine something different.
Minor Differences premiered in October 2012 at Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum as a way to honour its director at the time, Barbara Earl Thomas, who was Heather’s collaborator on the project in its earliest days. The completed film presents a story that is exceptional both for the level of trust in Heather that each of the five men conveyed from the beginning and also for the way their trust was matched by Heather’s commitment to each of them personally and to working for justice on their behalf. At some point during the fifteen years of making the film, Heather told me she realized she was the only person any of them talked with regularly who wasn’t inside the prison. Their isolation from the world outside was nearly complete.
In 2013 Andrew Tsao interviewed Heather for his show Backstory: The Filmmaker’s Vision, and he commented on the remarkable honesty portrayed by the men in her film. “What you’ve done is not just about making a film, it’s about going out and immersing yourself in different lives, in difficult circumstances. You must have had a strategy to convey such a sense of being part of that life. It comes across as very authentic. Clearly you built a lot of trust with these young men.” He asked how she did it.
Her quick first response was to refer to the familiar adage that ninety percent of success is just showing up. She went on to say that she became sort of a participant observer. She wasn’t judging them. She was there consistently and over a long period of time to listen, and she herself was learning a lot. After the documentary was completed, she presented it in many venues—schools, workshops, conferences—and one or two of the men in the film often accompanied her. At one of these showings, the men were asked how they came to trust her, especially since they were from such different worlds. “Well, you know, she just kept showing up, and she was true each time. It made me decide that maybe there were people who wanted the same things I did.” Heather added, “We were able to make that bridge through repeated conversations. But it’s a social language that isn’t that common. We’re not relatives. We’re not employer-employees. We aren’t colleagues. So we had to define our own way of relating with each other. And they were incredibly honest. They never asked me for anything. They were never paid; I didn’t have the money. Ours was just a relationship that we each valued.”
As I listened to the interview recently, the strength of the bonds they’d built became clear. After they left Green Hill, the men went in many directions. Some moved or disappeared from view, but she stayed in touch with them all. “I became quite a detective over the years,” Heather said. “I talked with their families. I knew their sister, or maybe a cousin. You do that when you have someone in your life. I became as common a thread for them over those 20 years as anyone.”
Today Travis is the only one of the five men in Minor Differences who is still incarcerated, but all of them continue to live lives deeply scarred by their time in prison. From what I’ve learned of the 2.3 million people caught in the prison system at any given time, Travis is unusual in having been able to make his changes pretty much through his own determination while confined in prison.
In fact, overwhelming evidence shows that incarceration almost never works the way many of us have been led to believe. Except in rare instances, prisons don’t repair individuals, neither those who are harmed nor those who created the harm, and they don’t keep the rest of us safe. For one thing, the vast amount of harm in our society isn’t punished: fifty percent of violent crime isn’t reported, and twenty-five percent of that is dismissed at an early stage in the judicial process. A tiny fraction of reported violent crimes are ever solved. On top of which violence committed by the state is rarely punished.
Violence is a defining feature of the United States, and we have a strong impulse toward punishment as a response. According to Danielle Sered, in Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair, most violence is not due to individual pathology but is created by poverty, inequity, lack of opportunity, shame, and isolation. These, Sered points out, are also the core features of incarceration. That is, our core policy to fight violence breeds more violence. Incarceration is an inadequate tool to transform those who commit violence, and it is inadequate to protect and restore those who are harmed by it. There are three ways to respond to harm, Sered says: 1) with another harm, maybe vengeance or retaliation—in other words, with more harm; 2) by avoiding it, hoping it will go away, which only causes it to fester; or 3) by “leaning into the harm and conflict in order to learn from it and grow.”
In the spirit of collaboration with Heather and her behind-the-scenes efforts, I’ll pause here to note that it was she who introduced me to Sered’s work when she forwarded information about a webinar, “Imagining Justice | The Imperative of Repair: Race, Crime, and Restorative Justice.” Heather’s suggestion, along with watching and listening to the webinar itself, was like the moment a rootlet connects with fungi in the soil and receives necessary nutrients: it connected me to new information and possibility and gave me signposts pointing toward other avenues for research and learning.
Sered came to the webinar with a reputation as a renowned expert on violence. She founded and directs Brooklyn-based Common Justice, an organization that develops practical solutions to violence, supporting racial equity and meeting the needs of the harmed without incarceration. One of the biggest barriers to reducing violence, Sered states, is the story we tell about crime and violence, the story that helped lead to the rise of mass incarceration. It’s a story of danger, of “an imagined monstrous other who is not quite human the way we are,” who is capable of great harm but incapable of empathy, who inflicts pain but doesn’t feel it like we do, “a monster we and our children have to be protected from at any price.” It is not new, and it is not race-neutral. White people have told this story about Indigenous people, Black people, immigrants, and more. “Any substantial and lasting change will require that we not dance around this, but rather that we take on this story at its roots.”
The stories told by the young men in Heather’s documentary convey a dramatically different reality from the super predators conjured up by John DiIulio in the 1990s and the not-quite-human monsters in the wider societal stories of crime and violence that Sered mentioned. In Andrew Tsao’s interview with Heather, he wondered how she structured the video to make that difference so clear. Heather recalled a documentary about Vietnam vets she’d seen years earlier. What stuck in her memory were the head shots, typically death for a dramatic story, she noted. “The men looked directly at you, right into the camera, telling their stories. It was riveting.” Minor Differences often presents the five young men the same way, in what Tsao referred to as “direct address,” allowing us to connect with them by acknowledging us, the viewers. “You’re right,” Heather emphasized “I wanted to humanize these men who have been dehumanized and made invisible by the prison system. Letting their humanity come forward was really important. I also didn’t want to weave their stories together around common themes, which is so often done. I wanted each to be seen individually, so we could see what happened and what they said when they were fifteen and again when they were thirty-five.”
Tsao also guessed that part of the argument for the documentary is that the way it was made had an effect on the men. Heather agreed. “I didn’t set out to ‘reform’ these kids. But I think anytime you give someone a voice, whether it’s in writing—or, especially for this generation, in music or video—it gives them the chance to express themselves. This is one of the things we don’t usually get as children, or as adults, for that matter. And if somebody listens to you, really listens, you get a different sense of yourself, and you get validation. In my classes, I didn’t ask these guys to do anything specific, I didn’t make them do anything ‘socially redeeming.’ They just got to do anything they wanted, as long as they weren’t just messing around.”
She went on to give a quick picture of the arc of the project’s twenty years from 1994 to the time of Tsao’s interview in 2013. When she finished Gulf, the first film, in 1999, Heather thought she was done. But she couldn’t give up the relationships. So she turned to another way of keeping the relationships alive—letter writing. Over the next five to six years, she and the men in the film exchanged hundreds of letters, “beautiful handwritten monologues,” she said of the men’s letters. In 2008, noting that young people in the U.S. were still being incarcerated at an alarming rate, they decided to jump back into the film and continue their story. Referring to the entire twenty years since her project began, she told Tsao:
What it had taught us all, the guys in the film and me, was that you stick with something you believe in. We each had to reflect on our lives. We each had grown. We trusted each other. We’d walked some pretty strange little roads together trying to do the right thing. From what the guys said, it was sort of like a mirror. They didn’t want to screw up because it was all being recorded. For them it has been redemptive. They want to help other kids. They’re very intelligent. They’re very capable. And for me, I doubt I could ever again be as lucky as I’ve been with this project. It’s fulfilling to feel like your work means something, both to yourself and to other people.
The interview with Heather along with a presentation of the film played on Tsao’s UWTV program, Backstory, for several years.
In 2008, on one of the many trips they made to show and discuss the film, Heather, Caroline, and Casey (one of the men in the documentary) presented Minor Differences at several events in Oakland, California. Two of these were “house parties” to raise funds to complete the film. They also showed a workshop version with a post-showing discussion at the CR10 conference, marking the tenth anniversary of Critical Resistance, a national organization dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex. The conference attracted about 3,000 people and allowed the Minor Differences team to connect with like-minded efforts across the country. Until I began researching and writing this essay, I was unfamiliar with Critical Resistance. I’d heard the term “prison industrial complex” earlier and had learned something of its meaning and massive scope about a decade ago from musician/artist friend and fellow Minor Differences “First Thinker” Paul Rucker.
Critical Resistance began in 1997, the same year that a twenty-year-old Travis ComesLast was sentenced to fifty-one years in prison. In an online conversation in October, 2021, Angela Davis, who was a key organizer, briefly described those early years. Critical Resistance began, she said, “back in the late 1990s when a number of us were organizing a gathering to bring together people doing radical work against prisons, doing anti-prison work. We were all evolutionists, but we knew that if we simply invited people to join a movement to get rid of prisons, they would think we were absolutely out of our minds. We knew we had a lot of educational work to do.” Their discussions, she said, encompassed the enormous economic changes driven by global capitalism—privatizing health care and education, getting rid of welfare, and outsourcing industry to places were labour was cheaper. Among other things, these changes led to the elimination of jobs in the auto industry, mining, and steel mills, for instance, that were once available to Black and POC workers. Unemployment fed other social problems and poverty was, in effect, criminalized. The term “prison industrial complex” came out of these discussions. Davis went on to say:
[The term] came from the scholar-activist Mike Davis to describe the way California’s economy was shifting from an agricultural economy to an economy that centred prisons. We decided to adopt the term to look at what was happening with the increasing incarceration of Black people and POC people at the time. We thought that if we explained what we meant by the prison industrial complex it would help dismantle some of the ideological assumptions of the role that prisons play. Many people at the time just assumed, “You do the crime, you do the time. This is just natural. This is just what happens.” We sought to shift the discourse. It wasn’t so much about how to change the prisons… Working to explain the prison industrial complex would help us imagine a new world. The question became, How do we create a society that no longer has to rely on these racist and repressive institutions? And that’s the abolitionist’s imagination!
The conference they organized in 1998 brought more than 3,500 people to Berkeley, with participants from all fifty states. Activists, academics, former and current prisoners, labour leaders, religious groups, feminists, gay, lesbian, and transgender activists, youth, families, and policy makers examined and challenged the prison industrial complex (PIC). For Critical Resistance and others, the term “prison industrial complex” does not simply mean the prisons themselves but rather, “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.“ A definition and discussion of the PIC appears on Critical Resistance’s website, along with a clear and helpful chart outlining the industries and professions involved, the forces that empower them, the tools they use to respond, the problems they claim to address, the people they affect or target, and the actual results of their actions. The extensive reach of the PIC is clearly outlined. Their website also provides a short but helpful discussion of the term “prison abolition:”
From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.
When all the protests erupted in the summer of 2020 following George Floyd’s killing, demands rang out to “defund the police,” “abolish the police,” and “abolish prisons.” At first I understood them only as direct responses to actions by Seattle police on the streets, sidewalks, and parks near my home. I live a few blocks from the main hub of that summer’s protests here. It’s clear to me now that the demands didn’t come out of nowhere but have a long history, going back not just to the 1990s, but at least as far back as the early 1970s. In 1971, while in prison on false charges, Angela Davis collaborated with scholar-activist Bettina Aptheker to co-author and co-edit a book of resistance writing by people both inside and outside prison, If They Come in the Morning. In a Polity of Literature essay about that work, Aptheker noted that by 1971 “Angela had already begun to call attention to the politics of mass incarceration and articulate the contours of what would become the prison abolition movement.” In the book’s preface, Davis and Aptheker refer to their demand at the time “for the abolition of the prison system its current form,” calling it “an instrument for class, racial, and national oppression.” They also believed that the Nixon administration’s massive use of surveillance and the imprisonment of protestors would ultimately enhance the call for revolutionary transformation. It’s a call that grew in parallel to the growth of the hostile stories of “super predators” and a “War on Drugs” that swelled the ranks of America’s prisons with Black men and people of colour.
The abolition movement is still led by Angela Davis and many other Black women, including Mariame Kaba. In a prominent New York Times editorial at the height of 2020’s George Floyd protests, Kaba wrote, “Yes. We mean literally abolish the police.” The abolitionist’s imagination aims to develop practical strategies for small steps that can move us to a new society and no longer rely on today’s prison and policing institutions. Travis Ray ComesLast’s story fits into that vision and draws energy and sustenance from it.
On March 11, 2021, after twenty-five years of incarceration, Travis Ray ComesLast appeared before the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board in an appeal for early release. Heather reached out in advance to the First Thinkers and other friends and supporters, inviting us to attend the hearing which would be conducted on live video stream. In her invitation, she wrote:
I can confirm without reservation that Travis ComesLast, now forty-five years old, has grown into a man of integrity, generosity, and compassion. He is worthy of our trust. This moment is the “second chance” we advocated for in our film. To show that the community is pulling for him, I am trying to get as many people as possible to attend the hearing via Zoom. Just showing up will strengthen Travis’s case. If you can participate, please let me know and I will send you the Zoom link.
By the time of the hearing, I learned from Heather that Travis would be well represented by attendees at the hearing. I was one of over ninety people who showed up for him. What I’d learned of Travis from Heather, from my research, and from Minor Differences filled my mind as I sat staring at my computer screen on the morning of March 11. I’d never been to a clemency hearing before, much less one conducted online. I couldn’t pull away from the screen for the entire three hours. Even after nearly a year of constant Zoom meetings, it felt strange to be watching such a charged live event on a screen. Travis and members of the hearing board knew how many of us were “in attendance,” even though they couldn’t see us or hear us cough or rustle around in our seats. I felt a little like a voyeur peering in a window or an investigator on the other side of a one-way mirror. Even so, I absorbed a lot from what was said and from people’s facial expressions. I felt present. It felt like I’d showed up.
The hearing opened with a statement from the clemency board chair, Jim McDevitt, a former Spokane attorney and retired air force guardsman. He introduced the other board members present and listed the factors they’d use in making their decision. As background for the case, the board had received written testimonies from speakers testifying both for and against Travis’ petition. The first people invited to testify spoke in support of Travis—his counsel and four others, Heather first among them, plus Travis himself. All together, they emphasized just how much Travis has changed; he is no longer the person he was when he entered prison. They spoke of his determination to better himself and support others, referring to the many classes he has taken, the training he has sought out, and his service to other inmates in the prison. He has become a Native American cultural and spiritual leader and conducts traditional ceremonies for other Indigenous inmates. Among other things, he studied to become a certified drug and alcohol facilitator and now actively hosts weekly White Bison 12-Step sessions. He studied for and now practices as one of the very few experienced Journeyman Beekeepers in the state’s corrections system and is certified to train others.
A significant argument in support of Travis focused on his youth at the time of the crime and current scientific findings about adolescent brains. Heather spoke as the mother of a son who is about the same age as Travis. “At fifteen, he was a good kid,” she said, “but he was a teenager—low impulse control, immediate gratification, and peer pressure in full force. Auto insurers know this behavior is dangerous, which is why they won’t insure a young man under the age of twenty-five without a co-signer. My son was lucky. He had parents with resources to make sure mistakes did not expand and compound.” More than any other person, Heather has maintained regular communication with Travis while he’s been in prison. “He has created a remarkable life inside the prison,” she told the board. “Despite claims to the contrary, our prison system is not designed for reformation nor does it reward and recognize redemption. Travis ComesLast has succeeded through painful self-reflection and Native community engagement. And it was the only way he could see to make amends for the grief he had caused.”
Travis began his own testimony this way:
First off, I’d like to thank this board and everyone involved for the opportunity. I gave a lot of thought to what I would say. One of the biggest things that struck my heart and that’s been on my mind for many, many years is that I haven’t had the opportunity to say, I’m sorry, to apologize to the victims, their families, the communities, the city of Spokane, and anyone affected by my horrible actions… When I came in I was a young kid, dumb, stupid, and I take full responsibility for what I did…It wasn’t until I was in a healthy state of mind, had begun to change my life and start healing, that I was able to really appreciate and really, really process everything and be remorseful. There’s nothin’ I wouldn’t do to make amends to the victims, to both sides.
In his advance statement to the board, he had written, “Changing my life was a way of showing remorse, taking responsibility, and making amends. I have always believed ‘sorry’ means nothing if you don’t do anything to make sure it never happens again.” Most of all, he told them, he’s proud of his achievements as a dad, husband of eleven years, and grandfather.
The hearing’s final testimonies came from the victim’s wife and from their daughter who had been a baby at the time and never knew her father. His wife spoke of the huge toll Travis’ actions that night twenty-five years ago had taken on more than half her life and on all of her daughter’s life. This hearing and having to relive the crime was painful and retraumatizing for her and her daughter: her husband was murdered right in front of her in her own home. As a member of both Spokane and Makah tribes, she said: “I know the trauma we face. I know many families who have broken that cycle, and many grow up facing the same trials Travis did and didn’t grow up to commit the crimes that he did. I’m a very involved community leader and tribal member, and I won’t be finding the peace and joy in Pow Wows that he enjoys if he’s released.” The victim’s daughter deserves to have her father’s murderer kept behind bars, she said. Her words were devastating, and her daughter was in tears, both clearly still full of pain.
After a final statement by the legal counsel for the family, the vice chair of the board moved to deny the appeal, and it was seconded. Following a few brief summary comments from board members referring to specific factors guiding their decision and a note of encouragement to Travis from Chair McDevitt to “keep up the good work,” each member, one by one, voted their agreement to deny.
After the hearing I did what I often do when I’m riled up and by myself; I grabbed a pen and scratched out my dismay, anger, frustration, critiques, and unresolved questions on a pad of paper. Not knowing yet what writing this essay would teach me, I ranted on about some things I already knew and many things I did not know at the time. How is it, I asked myself then, that we’ve let our justice system allow some perpetrators of wide-spread harm, whose acts have damaged many lives, to continue living freely while someone like Travis, who has accomplished so much for others even from prison, is sentenced to spend his life there? We have a “justice” system that’s failing us. We have a society that doesn’t provide the minimum resources to support ALL human lives. I didn’t understand the specifics of the prosecutor’s legal arguments, but they sounded arcane. Sadly, it seemed to me that in the past twenty-five years, the surviving wife and daughter hadn’t themselves had a chance to heal. I worried that resources to support them had not been available. I put much responsibility for the harm I saw on what I called “the meaning of justice in our culture,” a culture that seems to focus more on punishing criminals than on healing victims, more on revenge than on repair.
During the hearing I’d been nervous for Travis and for Heather, wanting the best for him, and hoping Heather would manage under the stress of speaking. I’d hardly taken any notes. Reviewing the state’s recording as I worked on this essay I learned more about the cause of my frustration and anger. While pained by details of the murder and deeply saddened by the words of the victim’s wife, I often felt as though board members came to the hearing without open minds and, whether consciously or not, were inclined to misconstrue or find fault with Travis’ words. To offer just one example, in response to Travis’ testimony, the board’s vice chair Raoul Almeida, a retired police chief with thirty-nine years in law enforcement, began with a leading statement, an assumption he’d made, to set the stage for his questions. “All right,” he said, “so you say you’ve changed. But when you first came in, there was fightin’, right? So then, you’re not followin’ the rules, right?” Then, with no pause for Travis to respond, Almeida continued with his questioning. That statement was one that really set me off. Almeida made it sound like Travis didn’t follow prison management rules. Almeida simply wasn’t listening or had no knowledge of what prison life was like.
Both Travis and Heather had referred to Travis’ early days at Walla Walla. Heather referred to “the elaborate rules and taboos” he faced, rules that forced him to decide immediately whether he would “join a prison gang for security or go it alone.” It was clear, even to me, that the rules in question were the rules of the prison inmate culture, the gang culture inside the prison, a culture Travis decided right at the start not to join. Travis reinforced this in his own testimony when he said, “In changin’ my life, I went against the grain. I went against everything that prison teaches a person comin’ in. For that, I put myself in harm’s way, just by the choices I made.” As Almeida wrapped up his questions, he seemed to rub it in: “But, again,” he said “following the rules? That’s very important.” To which Travis responded, “Yes, sir. It is.” What else could he say?
One last observation of the hearing. The final statement by the legal counsel for the victim’s wife included this: “The Department of Corrections spends a lot of money on rehabilitation programs. Changes in behavior are to be expected while in prison.” This statement astonished and angered another hearing attendee who spoke with me afterward. As foundation chair of Grandmothers against Gun Violence, her personal experience with the prison system directly counters the counsel’s expectations.
The day after the hearing, Heather wrote to all of us who attended and thanked us for showing up. The denial, she said, was “a huge disappointment, but honestly not unexpected for a murder case. Very few petitioners, in fact, even get a clemency hearing so obviously there is merit to his petition.” A new team, “Justice for Travis,” has formed in the past year, she told us, and is regrouping to assess the most effective path to freedom for Travis going forward. “So, our work is not finished…the time is right to promote healing over retribution.” Travis also sent us his thanks with a big “Pilamaya” (Lakota for thank you).
I am truly honored for your love and support. Though yesterday’s decision was disappointing, I am thankful that I had the opportunity. I am a firm believer everything happens for a reason and I hope if anything that yesterday’s hearing allowed the daughter of the victim to begin to heal… Sadly, it was the first time she was able to express her loss in such a way. I have lived with the shame and guilt of the pain and suffering I caused everyone from both sides, for that I am truly sorry and I apologize!
After the clemency hearing, the Justice for Travis team wasted no time getting back to work. We figure we have about two and a half years before Travis can get another hearing. We’ll be advocating for him before then and during future proceedings. The work is spearheaded by a three-person team—a former city police chief, an attorney, and Heather—and receives help and support from what she refers to as a “dream team” of First Thinkers, members of Spokane-area Indigenous communities, lawyers with relevant expertise, an Indigenous state legislator, and many other engaged people who provide services and make professional connections. I count myself among them.
Crucially, the group supports Travis’ outreach to his Indigenous contacts in the Spokane area. The Indigenous community there is fairly small, and family, kinship, and community connections are complex and intertwined. Travis is in touch with many community members individually, including some he knew in his childhood and early adolescence who are still there, some of whom now hold leadership positions. He has also written two letters to all his tribal contacts as a way to begin the healing process. Unfortunately, he was forbidden by his initial sentence to contact the surviving family, formally or informally, so his letters were not sent to them. The first letter emphasized all the work he’s done in prison to better himself and help others, and the second explicitly apologized to them for the harm he caused—not just to the surviving family but to the whole community. In the second letter he also outlined ways that, if released, he would give back to the community, such as working with at-risk youth to help combat drug and alcohol abuse and gang activity. As a Journeyman Beekeeper he would also incorporate bee programs into cultural workshops for the youth, offering working knowledge that would qualify them to be certified beekeepers and improve their job opportunities. He is also reaching out to younger community members, bringing young people who have been outside the story to the inside as a way to further the effort to heal the community. And he’s learning to ask for help, which in some cases has been crucial to receiving assistance. “It’s all about relationships,” Heather told me. “Change happens through people, it’s not an intellectual process.”
Through all this, Heather has quietly kept things rolling. Recently, I asked her why she has stayed involved for so long, now nearly thirty years. “I’m just so pleased to be in these men’s lives,” she told me. She definitely gets something back. The relationships matter. And lately, she’s buoyed by other people’s involvement. It’s now a big group, and we’re working well together. Heather’s own family is also involved. They visit and talk with Travis, and he knows they’re there for him. At the hearing, she periodically referred to “we”—efforts we are doing, the care and commitment we have. In the question period the hearing board chair, asked, “You keep referring to “we.” Who is “we”? Almost instantly, her husband Greg and her son Erik showed up on the screen at her side, hugging her as they did. It’s a family thing.
Mariame Kaba, community organizer, thinker, and writer, expands on the abolitionist’s imagination and vision as articulated by Angela Davis and Critical Resistance. In an essay from late 2020, “So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist,” Kaba writes:
Let’s begin our abolitionist journey not with the question, “What do we have now, and how can we make it better?” Instead, let’s ask, “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” If we do that, then boundless possibilities of a more just world await us.
Kaba’s focus on imagining a better future feels necessary. As she describes it, the abolitionist imagination follows a path that goes something like this. First, to transform society we must transform ourselves. We are deeply entangled, she writes, in the systems we’re trying to change. Alone, our imaginations can be limited. Working collectively helps us imagine new worlds and imagine ourselves differently. She calls on us to imagine and experiment with new collective forms for action, ones that are less hierarchical and more transparent. A key strategy is reducing contact between people and the criminal legal system; the goal is not to create a gentler prison and policing system, but to first limit its use and ultimately to abolish it. Finally, she says an abolitionist imagination requires changing everything; the PIC is linked in its logics and operation with all other systems. As daunting as this seems, she stresses that “this means there are many places to start, infinite opportunities to collaborate, and endless imaginative interventions and experiments to create.”
Although Kaba has written a lot—zines, blogs, books, essays, pamphlets, almost all of them collaboratively written, drawn, or published—she says, “I am not interested in writing. I am an organizer who writes.” And, in fact, the “about me” page on her personal website, We Need Each Other, reads like an index of community organizing toward ending violence, dismantling the prison industrial complex, transforming justice, and supporting youth development. Her recent book, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, includes a chapter I especially like titled, “Show Up and Don’t Travel Alone.” It prompts me to want to respond to her call. This essay is one way I’m doing so. In an interview she explained, “Community matters. Collectivity matters. To me that’s the whole thing. And if we can’t get along with each other, and we can’t take responsibility for what we do with each other, then what the hell are we doing?” This commitment came, in part, from her father, who had been involved in Guinea’s independence struggle. Kaba grew up hearing her father’s conversations about political struggles around the world. He often told her and her siblings, “You are interconnected to everyone, because the world doesn’t work without everyone. You may think you’re alone, but you’re never actually alone.” In her own words, she says, “Everything that’s worthwhile is done with other people.” For me, wherever I find it, her message consistently gains power through her down-to-earth language. The ideas aren’t watered down, but her plain-spoken and passion-filled words are meant for everyone.
Speaking to activists today in the wake of the abolitionist protests of 2020, Angela Davis said, “This is precisely the moment when we should be consolidating our movement. People tend to assume that uprisings like we had in 2020 are spontaneous, she added, “but keep in mind that people have been organizing against police violence and structural racism for decades and decades, even centuries.” The protests last year expressed a confluence of forces, “a conjunctural moment,” Davis called it. The pandemic helped reveal the structural nature of racism by showing which communities suffered the most and who were the essential workers. This collective insight coincided with the eruption of a worldwide response to the murder of George Floyd and resulted in, as Davis described it, “huge demonstrations and people on the streets participating by the millions.” She added that it’s not possible to predict when these moments of collective consciousness will occur. She’d previously thought it would never come in her lifetime. But events in 2020 proved her wrong. Recently, Davis put it this way:
We’re no longer in that moment of massive demonstrations every day. Some people feel depressed that the moment seems to have passed. But we cannot live at that level of intensity all the time. It’s not possible. Movements experience ebbs and flows. It’s important to do work that can only be done in these relatively quiet moments. In my opinion, this is the time when the real work happens. Uprisings experienced together are when we imagine the future together. We see that we are millions strong and we want another world, a better world… This [quiet time] is when we have to begin to work on the institutions, transforming the institutions—education, health care, housing. And that work doesn’t necessarily put us in the spotlight. But it’s the work that can happen as a consequence of recognizing that so many people are with us. It’s important to generate excitement about this moment.
Among the ways that Mariame Kaba takes advantage of this moment is the One Million Experiments Project, which she organized with others (always with others!). It is a living example of Kaba’s belief in the “boundless possibilities” of opportunities where we can start to make a more just world. One Million Experiments includes a zine series highlighting the nuts and bolts of new approaches to safety and thinking about safety. Also available on the One Million Experiments website is a growing encyclopedia of community-based safety strategies from across the country that can be sorted by region or by type of activity—mutual aid, support, events, and “Not 9-1-1.” The latest addition to the project is a new podcast featuring interviews with movement workers from across the world and celebrating the work already underway to build solutions grounded in transformation rather than punishment. The first interview is with Kaba herself, discussing the evolution of the project and her hope that it will move people to action. These are powerful stories circulating through a mycelial system that is super charged by the rise of widely dispersed social media, networks that, though often problematic, can also connect the most unlikely people and places.
Travis, Heather, and Justice for Travis are not alone in their work. A growing number of people, actions, and initiatives across the country are working to change or abolish our criminal justice system—or as Kaba and others call it, our “criminal legal system” or our “criminal punishment system.” The efforts are disparate. They operate at different scales and take on different aspects of the challenge, often disagreeing sharply with each other’s tactics. They don’t all, for instance, work outside our current system and some probably fit more into what Kaba would consider “tinkering.” All the same, they are evidence that an increasing number of people realize that what we have now doesn’t work, and they want something better. This essay includes quite a few examples already. A small selection of the many more that I’ve discovered in my research is included below as an appendix.
Can all this begin to build thicker connections and eventually make a dense mycelial web—diverse, dispersed, pluralistic—capable of fundamental change? Can all these ideas, actions, experiments, and individuals, all so different, find ways to be in relationship with each other and to inspire even more people? I believe they can. Replacing systemic obstacles won’t be easy. And there isn’t yet a coherent alternative to the systems we have now. Building a different, better future will require the combined strength of many experiments and different kinds of work being done both through expansive ideas and discrete actions, from thinking and writing to physical and tangible action, from broad national-international efforts and large collective imagining to smaller, decentralized, and hyper-local projects. Can we work the way the fungi in the soil do when they break down huge forest logs, turning them into nutrients that the forest needs? With that, perhaps the momentum for change can build the “major social movement” that Michelle Alexander called for.
An intractable sense of hope seems built into my very being, an approach to life that I’m sure annoys my friends at times. I’ve been able to name my hopefulness more clearly in the past decade or so with help from writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, who says: “Hope for me is deeply tied to the fact that we don’t know what will happen. This gives us ground to act… even while we still know that terrible things are happening. We’re not talking about a future that’s already written. What the story is, is what we make it.” The powerful voices of people in this story further strengthen my understanding of what hope is.
When asked for a “call to action,” Angela Davis encouraged everyone to think deeply about their own passions, their own aspirations, and to figure out ways to connect those passions and aspirations to larger struggles for justice, for democracy, for freedom. “People are sometimes under the impression that to do something important, they have to stop what they’re doing and do something else… But if this is going to be a lifetime commitment on your part, it must involve something that you really love, must involve your passions. Whatever you do, recognize that you’re not alone. Together we will win. I guarantee it!”
For her part, Mariame Kaba has said, “The reason I’m struggling through all this is because I’m a deeply, profoundly hopeful person. Because I know that human beings, with all our foibles and all the things that are failing, have the capacity to do amazingly beautiful things too.” Kaba believes that hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or anger or any other emotion that makes sense. She writes, “Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope isn’t optimism.” She learned of hope from a nun who spoke of making sure we are of the world and in the world and who talked of a kind of grounded hope that people practiced all the time. It’s a philosophy of living, Kaba has said. “Hope is a discipline, and we have to practice it every single day.”
At the end of her hearing testimony, Heather told the clemency board:
Today, more than ever, we are all facing drastic modification to how we live, work, and socialize. We are challenged daily to see things differently, to reconsider our beliefs about what we value and hold worthy. Isn’t this the right time to reconsider the use of excessive punishment? Can we not choose to support healing over revenge?
Sometime earlier, Heather told me that she had attended and been moved by Travis’ beekeeping certification event in 2019, and she gave me an insight into his work with bees, an activity mentioned by several speakers at the hearing. For him, she said, everything is about the well-being of the hive. Where some beekeepers use smoke to dull the bees when taking honey or working with the hive, Travis gives the bees spearmint water and sings to them to calm them down. At the hearing, Travis described his relationship with the bees.
Out there, working with the bees, I found myself at peace. One of the biggest things I learned after bein’ with them bees day after day after day, is that a bee will do whatever it takes for the health of the hive. It’ll fly itself to death, it’ll starve. Just so the hive can be healthy. I just thought that was the most amazing thing for those little creatures. And if we, as a people, could do the same thing, to do good, the world would be a better place.
Experiments and actions that move us toward a more just world
Here is an idiosyncratic and randomly organized list of groups, experiments, and actions that are part of the web of connections working toward a better and more just future. There are many more. They are sources of hope.
Quotations in these descriptions are from websites or news reports of the specific entry. Following this list is another list of references (books, videos, websites) mentioned in the essay.
Huy is a tribally-controlled nonprofit organization in Washington State that “provides economic, educational, rehabilitative, and religious support for Indigenous prisoners in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the United States.” Its chairman is Gabriel Galanda, a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, an Indian lawyer, and an advisor to Justice for Travis. The last time I looked at its website home page it presented a 2013 quote from Indian Country Today by an Indigenous inmate at Airway Heights Corrections Center: “This [pow wow] is the biggest event of the year for the prison. Without this event, life would really suck. This is a really happy event… We can look at each other and think, that’s my brother, my friend. This is almost like being free.”
The Penobscot Nation’s Healing to Wellness Court on Indian Island in Penobscot, Maine, is one of about ninety tribal wellness courts nationwide that are part of a project of court reforms begun in the late 1990s that bring Indigenous culture together with principles of rehabilitation and restorative justice. The opening quote in an article in Dissent magazine by Michelle Chen on April 16, 2021, described these courts this way: “Wellness courts provide an example of how some tribal governments are using indigenous sovereignty to build a community-based justice system, rooted in support and trust rather than punishment.” They deal mostly with drug- and alcohol-related charges and use ancestral cultural practices to help people in treatment rebuild their lives and integrate into the community.
70 Million is “a documentary podcast that investigates how locals are addressing the role of jails in their backyards. Our reporters travel around the country and hear from people directly impacted by encounters with jails and adjacent policies and from those committed to reversing the negative effects on people and communities.” One of its podcasts reported on the Penobscot Nation’s Healing to Wellness Court.
Defend the Defund is a Seattle group committed toward the abolition of policing and incarceration in the city. In October 2021 a friend wrote, “It’s City budget season right now so we’re especially busy. We’re pretty narrowly focused on pressuring the city council to move money out of Seattle Police Department.” Though the group is part of the abolition movement, he told me, “we’re not doing the work of rethinking existing systems. We’re mostly the part that’s trying to take systems apart and make sure the funds that are freed up are directed towards those who are doing new experiments in public safety.” The group collaborates with Black Brilliance Research and is part of a larger coalition, the 2022 Seattle Solidarity Budget, that calls for a City budget centring the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable city residents.
The community court of Auburn (a city near Seattle) “is a diversion program to address the city’s populace who face low-level misdemeanor crimes—such as criminal trespass, disorderly conduct or theft—as an alternative to fines or jail time,” wrote Samira George on July 7, 2021 in Real Change, Seattle’s progressive street newspaper. The court is part of a push to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system by addressing underlying factors such as drug addiction or the lack of housing, with resources readily available. There are three other community courts in the county.
CAHOOTS, Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets in Eugene, Oregon, is a mobile crisis intervention program that uses City vehicles and is staffed by White Bird Clinic, an emergency mental health service, a medical clinic, and a drug abuse program. CAHOOTS has been in place for nearly 30 years and is “well-embedded in the community.” It diverts five to eight percent of social service calls received by the Eugene Police Department. Its services include initial contact and transport for people who are intoxicated, mentally ill, or disoriented as well as certain non-emergency medical care. It’s funded by a contract with the police department.
The Seattle Clemency Project increases access to justice by matching free, high-quality, legal representation with people seeking early release from prison and people facing deportation due to old criminal convictions. The staff and board of this group have been a big help to Travis and Heather.
Interrupting Criminalization is an initiative led by researchers Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie that “aims to interrupt and end the growing criminalization and incarceration of women and LGBTQ people of color for criminalized acts related to public order, poverty, child welfare, drug use, survival and self-defense, including criminalization and incarceration of survivors of violence.” It’s a good resource for relevant news and publications. From Defend the Defund’s website I also learned of this initiative’s “Imagination Cards,” a program that provides inspirational quotes and artwork for community use.
Common Justice is a victim-service and alternative-to-incarceration program based in Brooklyn, New York, that focuses on violent felonies. Founded and directed by Danielle Sered, it works primarily with serious street violence—gunpoint robberies, assaults, and shootings committed by 16-26 year-olds, and it is guided by restorative justice principles that “honor those harmed and hold those who cause the harm accountable with dignity.” It has been in operation since 2008.
The Marshall Project is “a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.” It directs its efforts toward inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system, influencing it through journalism and “rendering it more fair, effective, transparent and humane.”
Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans works for people in the criminal legal system through “strategic defense litigation,” direct services, and community engagement. Their tools include criminal and civil litigation, organizing, direct support, and policy advocacy. Some of their areas of focus include: ending the death penalty, challenging inhumane conditions of confinement, exposing prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, providing pro bono representation for criminal defendants, and fighting racism in the criminal legal system. It’s referred to in a recent article in the New Yorker, “A fight to expose hidden human costs of incarceration,” August 16, 2021.
Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, provides “hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and incarcerated men and women, allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of their communities.” Formed in 1988 by Father Gregory Boyle, known as “Father G,” it is the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. “We imagine a world without prisons, and then we try to create that world.“
The Sentencing Project, a national organization, “promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic and gender justice.” It “envisions the full inclusion in society of people with criminal records and an end to extreme sentences.” They’ve spent 35 years fighting to end mass incarceration.
Examples of state legal reforms are evidence of changing attitudes toward our system of justice, and as Danielle Sered has noted, our current system is, for now at least, where people most affected by it are found. The Sentencing Project lists “Top trends” in state criminal justice reforms in 2020 and gives specific examples by category, such as scaling back sentencing practices, challenging racial disparity, and taking a second look at extreme sentences.
The Monschke Case, one example of state legal reform, was decided by the Washington State Supreme Court on March 11, 2021, the same day that Travis’ appeal for early release was denied. The ruling barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for anyone under the age of 21. The case considered separate life-without-parole sentences that had been given to two men for murders committed years ago when they were 19 and 20. The ruling declared that courts “must consider the mitigating qualities of youth” and ordered that the defendants receive new sentencing hearings. Travis had been 20.
Project NIA—“nia” meaning “with purpose” in Swahili—is a grassroots organization that works to end the arrest, detention, and incarceration of children and young adults by promoting restorative and transformative justice practices. Its founder and director is Mariame Kaba.
The One Million Experiments website includes an encyclopedia of experiments with snapshots of community-based safety strategies. Four examples follow here. There are many more.
• Until We Are All Free, a “support” example in Minneapolis, “is a human rights organization led by formerly incarcerated criminal justice experts. We focus on building capital, resources and support to provide pathways to civic and economic liberation for individuals disenfranchised by mass incarceration.” https://uwaaf.org
• Guns Down, Squabble Up, a program of Backyard Squabbles in Los Angeles, gives fighters a space to settle disputes outside the streets. In one of the fights, dubbed a ‘beef fight,’ two men resolved their problem in the ring instead of in the streets, which often has deadly consequences.” https://backyardsquabbles.com
• Rogers Park Yard Sharing, a “mutual aid” project in Chicago, “started in 2011 as a project of a small non-profit called LETS GO Chicago that focused on local solutions to environmental, social and economic issues in our world today.” It describes “Yard Sharing” as, “a term used to define a relationship in which a landowner opens up part or all of their yard for the use by a neighbor who does not have access to land.” https://letsgochicago.org/our-programs/yard-sharing-network/
• Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (PAD), a “Not 9-1-1” example, works to reduce arrest and incarceration of people experiencing extreme poverty, problematic substance use, or mental health concerns, and to increase the accessibility of supportive services in Atlanta & Fulton County.” https://www.atlantapad.org
Restorative justice circles. Circles are an important part of most restorative justice practices, with origins in Indigenous practices in many places around the world. Here are descriptions of the process from several groups:
• “The process is, at its essence, a story sharing process, which brings together people as equals to have open exchanges about difficult issues or painful experiences in an atmosphere of respect and concern for everyone. It is called ‘Circle’ because everyone sits in a circle.” – The Healing Justice Project
• “Restorative justice circles are born out of indigenous (pre-colonized) societies around the world. Circles tap into our communal nature, and our desire to be in positive relationships with one another. In circles, no one is seen as dispensable and everyone is valued for their knowledge and unique gifts. In this way, communities remain whole and reciprocal. Circles build accountability between individuals and the larger community.” – Nicole Smith, XQ Rethink Together
• “Circles are found in the Native American cultures of the United States and Canada, and are used there for many purposes. Their adaptation to the criminal justice system developed in the 1980s as First Nations peoples of the Yukon and local justice officials attempted to build closer ties between the community and the formal justice system. In 1991, Judge Barry Stuart of the Yukon Territorial Court introduced the sentencing circle as a means of sharing the justice process with the community.” – The Centre for Justice & Reconciliation
• Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.
• Heather Dew Oaksen, Minor Differences, a feature documentary film, 2012, 1 hour, 12 minutes. Also for rent or sale on Amazon Prime.
• Heather Dew Oaksen, clips from Minor Differences about Travis Ray ComesLast, 13-minute video.
• “Help Native Americans like Travis Win Justice,” a new fundraising site sponsored by Heather Dew Oaksen and Justice for Travis. The work continues.
• Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Tenth Anniversary Edition with a new preface by the author, The New Press, 2020.
• The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1973. https://www.nlada.org/defender-standards/national-advisory-commission
• “The Coming of the Super-Spreaders,” John J. DiIulio Jr., The Weekly Standard, November 27, 1995.
• Andrew Tsao, interview with Heather Dew Oaksen on “Behind the Scenes,” produced by UW TV, 2013, 23 minutes.
• Danielle Sered, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair, The New Press, 2019.
• “Imagining Justice | Imperative of Repair: Race, Crime, and Restorative Justice,” a webinar with Fania Davis, Danielle Sered, and Matthew Clair, May 7, 2021, sponsored by the Stanford Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, Stanford Arts Institute, Stanford Criminal Justice Center, and Stanford Faculty Women’s Forum.
• Critical Resistance, website “about” page.
• Critical Resistance, “What Is the PIC? What Is Abolition?” Includes the graphic of the prison industrial complex mentioned in this essay.
• Conversation with Dr. Angela Davis, interviewed by Sandra Davis and Tamu Jones, presented by CalEndow Live, on October 20, 2021, 1 hour.
• Bettina Aptheker, “If They Come in the Morning: Writing with Angela Davis,” Polity of Literature, ArtsEverywhere, June 11, 2020.
• Angela Y. Davis and Bettina Aptheker, “Preface to: If They Come in the Morning,” Polity of Literature, ArtsEverywhere, June 11, 2020.
• Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board, virtual hearing to hear two petitions for commutation, the first of which is from Travis Ray ComesLast, whose portion of the hearing is 2:17 hours long. The hearing was held on March 11, 2021 at 9 am, Pacific time.
• Grandmothers against Gun Violence, Seattle.
• Manjana Milkoreit, “Imaginary Politics: Climate Change and Making the Future,” published by Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, University of California Press, November 6, 2017.
• Mariame Kaba, “We Need Each Other,” personal website. Check out her list of projects, publications, workshops, and more.
• Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, Haymarket Books, 2021.