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S.A.G. Letter in Support of SB114

Re: Statement of Support for SB114

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing this letter today in support of SB114. The idea of revisiting the prison sentences for juvenile offenders is long overdue and is our moral and ethical obligation as Alaskans.

My own life has been one of a lot of hard work, but, also somewhat “privileged”, by the fact that although I have absolutely worked (hard) for all that I have, additional road blocks that others have had in their lives were not present in my life. I was raised by a family who loved me, I was afforded a great education, and most of my goals have been obtainable if I just worked hard enough to achieve them. I am now an educator, successful small business owner, and respected community contributor. I have been lucky enough to have traveled the world and met a lot of different people. The truth is that I’ve been exceptionally lucky in more ways than one. I am also aware that had my initial situation been different, I could very well be in a much different (less free) situation.

Alaska will also always be a home to me. To me, Alaska is a place of fun people, opportunity, and landscapes that bring me to my knees. It is also the place where I truly learned what community meant, what it meant to be a fair and contributing member of society, and is still the model of what I think of when I think of how society ought to be. Alaskans are fair, honest, and reasonable. We are experts on getting things done and doing them well- either in the cities, or (certainly) while out on the trails or waters. What is happening in our prison system by putting people (especially juveniles) away for extremely long sentences and barely affording them rehabilitative opportunities is not only absurd but simply cruel. This doesn’t make sense is not representative of who we are.

People change. Children grow up and mature. By in large, we, as Alaskans, are good, reasonable people. We have also (all) made mistakes and learned from them. It is who we are and how we do things. The idea of holding people (especially juveniles) accountable for their actions from one event in their life- for the rest of their lives is not justice- it is unreasonable and cruel. Alaskans are not cruel people. We are now the unintended perpetrators, stealing the lives from (likely) good people, with unusually long prison sentences, who have been long ago rehabilitated and are no longer threats to society. Most other states do not give juveniles as long of sentences as we do and many are now deciding that it is unlawful to sentence children as if they were adults. Alaska as a state is always ahead of the others when it comes to quality of life and the happiness (and fairness) of the people; why are we so behind on justice reform- especially for our juveniles??? No one deserves to be judged, for the rest of their lives, by their worst act; rather, people ought to be judged by the decisions they make to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. This is to say that, “when people know better and they choose to do better, it is our obligation, as a civilized and reasonable society to recognize and honor growth”. (This is also why we vote.)

I know the above facts because I have had the pleasure and honor of actually getting to know some incarcerated individuals in our prison system that simply do not belong there. These people, these men, are good people, who are certainly not a threat to society, and definitely do not deserve to spend any more years in prison. Yes, I do not deny that when these men were younger, they made mistakes- horrible mistakes. These mistakes have had dramatic and drastic results on many people. People died. Tragedies happened. Still, these are men who are CLEARLY more than their worst decision and quite frankly, these are (now) men, who were once CHILDREN who made mistakes but have GROWN and CHANGED. They have already served sentences for crimes they committed while children- when they were not yet capable of fully understanding the consequences of their actions, and, in other parts of the world, would already have served life sentences. This is simply wrong. Most of the men that I have met bear little resemblance to the “juvenile delinquents” they were once classified as, and are now, reasonable, grown men trying to do what they can, to live their lives well and to contribute positively to their surroundings. I respect this.

I will not say that everyone in prison needs to be released. I do think inmates are people- who grow- whose cases ought to be reviewed for the appropriateness of their sentence every few years, and if the time comes where the person is no longer a threat to society and has done what they can to make amends for their crimes (as best as possible), they need to be afforded the opportunity to be released. This is especially applicable to juvenile offenders. If not, what is the reason for people to even bother to pursue rehabilitation? “Reasonable hope” is a powerful motivator for people to change their lives for the better and to learn (then practice) integrity, honesty, compassion, kindness, empathy, and self-restraint. For some people, these powerful and important life skills can only be learned the hard way- but if we (as a society) take away “hope for a free life” I believe people (especially those who went in as juvenile offenders) will be less likely to learn these lessons- not more. Inmates are in prison because of the result of their actions; let their actions since they’ve been incarcerated show who merits release or parole.

I will speak only on those men who I have met personally and I genuinely believe (in my soul) that they deserve to be judged by their actions. I have known Mr. Philip Chad Wilson, Alaska inmate #321210 since Summer 2006. I met him because of his artwork and in the time that I have known Mr. Wilson he has only shown himself to be respectful, dependable, mature, reasonable, capable- and most of all- a man who is clearly someone who does not belong in a prison! He is honest and compassionate. He is a rule follower- and someone who contributes to the society around him. In no way is he a threat to society. While I know his story about how he came to prison, I certainly do not believe that he is a threat to anyone and he has more than paid his debt to society. Keeping him in prison is simply wrong. He should be out amongst the community, carving and creating, and helping communities with their electricity challenges! Mr. Wilson has a work ethic that doesn’t quit and I have only known him to conduct himself with integrity and respect. I trust him completely.

In the time that I have known Mr. Wilson, I have also had the opportunity to meet a couple other offenders who were acquaintances of his that also (absolutely) deserve to be especially recognized. Mr. Brian Hall, Alaska inmate #303582 may once have been a boy who made questionable decisions, but the kind man that I have met bears little resemblance to a kid who made bad decisions. Mr. Hall has always been especially respectful to me (and everyone else) and shows only integrity and compassion. He is clearly out of place in a prison environment and, in my opinion, deserves to be recognized for his growth and released!

Mr. Sylvester Byrd, Alaska inmate #334434 hardly seems to me like a hardened, dangerous criminal who needs to be locked up, but, rather more like a grown man, who probably would be an excellent therapist. On more than one occasion, Mr. Byrd went out of his way to be especially compassionate and helpful to me- and he certainly didn’t need to. I can only assume that if he treated me this way (more than once), this is likely how he is amongst everyone else. Isn’t this the conduct of people that we want in our community? Thankfully, Mr. Byrd is set to be released this May and, in my opinion, it is far long overdue.

Finally, I want to mention my experience with Mr. Sababu Hodari, Alaska inmate #247395. I have gone to the prisons to visit (usually to visit Mr. Wilson) and while I love seeing him, being in there is just a horribly uncomfortable and high-anxiety producing experience for me. On the last occasion I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Hodari and while I was absolutely not comfortable (in any way), Mr. Hodari went far out of his way to be extra kind to me. He didn’t even know me and certainly had no reason to be anything other than civil to me. Still, out of the kindness of his heart (and truly just being a good human being), he actually went out of his way to talk with me, and show a noticeable amount of empathy and compassion. I know very little about his case about why he was there, but I am absolutely certain that, in no way, is this man a threat to society- he is only a help! I’ve heard it said that “these inmates are not worthy of anything- they’ve offended society and deserve only the bare minimum”. I’m here to tell you that there are men (and likely women) in prison that absolutely do not deserve to be there. These are kind, intelligent human beings who are worthy of our attention. After all, if situations might have been different, their situations might easily have been ours. My experience with Mr. Hodari absolutely told me he has no place in a prison environment and deserves a second look.

I strongly encourage you to actually not take my word on these men. Please- meet these men for yourself and then decide! This is the whole purpose for SB114. These men absolutely deserve for their cases (and lives) to be looked at and then, have their sentences reevaluated for appropriateness. All of three of these men went into prison when they were juveniles and while, at that time their actions required them to be kept away from society, clearly they have been rehabilitated and are now grown, reasonable, honest men. Their extremely long sentences are just inappropriate for the men they have grown into and keeping them incarcerated is simply wrong. Again though- don’t take my word for it. Meet these men (especially Mr. Wilson) for yourselves and then decide; revisit their cases, just as SB114 is calling for.

I have been lucky in my life to have access to family and friends who loved me, guided me, and made sure I conducted myself appropriately. I had an education and life experiences to guide me and help me know right from wrong. I also afforded the opportunity to learn from my mistakes to do better, when I knew better. These men did not. They have still made the conscious choice to grow up into being stable, trustworthy, honest citizens.

As Alaskans we are honest, reasonable, trust-worthy people. We rely on another and we know how to work together to get things done. We are moral people who get along with each other and support one another. We forgive each other when people have shown remorse and done what they can to make amends. Surely we owe it to ourselves to do the right thing and revisit the sentences of juveniles who have clearly grown to be contributing and trust-worthy members of society and allow them the opportunity to live a free life. We have made a mistake in confusing “punishment and retribution” with “rehabilitation”. If these men (who also made mistakes) can grow out of their immature actions and decision, surely, we, as trustworthy and stable (voting) Alaskans can also admit our mistake of issuing extremely long and inappropriate sentences to juveniles and make a change. SB114 does not require that we let dangerous people out of prison; it does necessitate that we give juvenile offenders a second look, and if the individual has shown they are no longer a threat to society, it does give them the opportunity to have another chance at life. SB114 gives those who deserve it hope.

Thank you reading this. Please take the opportunity to get to know these men on your own and see them by their own merit. It was only an accident that I became acquainted with Mr. Wilson. I did not seek out meeting people in prison but I am so grateful I did. Meeting him and others has helped to shape my thoughts on integrity, compassion, and empathy. I strongly encourage others to meet him as well. You will not be disappointed.

Written by S.A.G. 4/5/2021

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