The story of my brother, Tommy, is tough to tell but important so that people are aware of just how mass incarceration affects families. He is in prison under Washington’s harsh Three Strikes law. The judge assigned him six life sentences for an incident in which he was the only person shot.
As an adolescent, Tommy was caught up in gang life. At 17, he was charged with robbery. The prosecutor offered him a plea deal, a strike in place of a longer prison sentence. Too young to realize that this decision would later cost him his life in the free world, Tommy accepted the deal.
At 18, Tommy committed armed robbery and was sentenced to more than 8 years in prison, his second strike. During that time, my family and I supported my brother through his sentence the best way we knew how, but he still struggled trying to make his way into adulthood.
When Tommy was released in 2008, he moved in with my parents, found a job, and began to work towards a better future. Unfortunately, he did not have the tools necessary to restart a stable life outside of prison and the pull of the streets was too strong. He lost his job shortly after he started and was unable to find new work or housing. We didn’t know how to help him. Desperate to find some kind of financial stability, Tommy turned to people he thought had his back: his street family.
At 25, Tommy robbed a house where he thought he could get drugs. As Tommy was fleeing, he was shot in the back three times. The doctors told us they didn’t think he would make it. We sat with him, terrified that he was dying. Officials came into the hospital room, and woke him from his medically-induced coma to interrogate him about taking a plea deal. They were more concerned about incarcerating my brother than making sure he lived.
Ultimately, it was not the bullets, but Washington’s harsh criminal justice policies that took him away from us. The judge gave him a life sentence for each charge, ensuring that if he ever successfully appealed one charge, he would have five life sentences waiting behind him.
Tommy is the father of two beautiful children, Jayla and Braden. They are the light of his life. Since my brother is incarcerated, I have been the one to handle many things that a father should be doing. Braden lives in a very volatile situation with his mother, so I have spent the last seven years making sure he and his siblings at least have food and shelter.
I do everything I can to support Braden and Jayla maintaining a bond with their father, even though prison makes that very hard to do. I ensure that Braden and Jayla always have birthday and Christmas presents from their father. I keep money on Tommy’s phone account so he can talk with his kids. I take Braden to visit my brother every other month, even though it is a 8-hour trip each way from Spokane to Clallam Bay. Jayla lives in Texas and was only able to meet her dad for the first time this December. It was an incredible moment, but she cried endlessly when she realized he couldn’t go home with her.
Cassandra Butler is advocating to end mass incarceration and a 2-year member of Washington CAN.