An interview with prison reform activist, Willie Stokes
Willie Stokes has been incarcerated in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison three times since 1994. Since his release, Stokes has authored the book The Testimony of a Black Sheep and is now the founder and executive director of the Black Sheep Redemption Program, whose mission involves: “providing youth with the mentoring, counseling, and support needed to develop the personal, academic, and career goals necessary for the creation of a path toward success in their own lives.”
With the United States holding five percent of the world population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners according to the NAACP, an understanding of incarceration has become imperative in the U.S. today, however the issue of incarceration has been largely mute in today’s societal and political landscape.
With these reasons in mind, Buzzsaw reached out to Stokes to talk about his experience with the punitive arm of the state.
Matthew Nitzberg: So right off the bat, I’d love to ask you what you feel resulted in your incarceration and in general the punitive arm of the state.
Willie Stokes: I think a lot of it had to do with my upbringing and looking up to the wrong role models… Like I had a cousin who was involved in gangs and drugs. I didn’t have a father figure, so he was my father figure, and I looked up to him and tried to be like him. I guess, really what led to my incarceration, was my mom being murdered and me moving away; and I started living on the streets and started dealing drugs to support myself. That’s when I was first incarcerated.
Nitzberg: How old were you when you were first locked up?
Stokes: I was 15 when I first got incarcerated in juvenile hall. I would get out and start selling and using drugs again. That continued until I was 35 years old.
Nitzberg: Could you tell me about the time in between juvenile hall and Pelican [Bay State Prison]?
Stokes: So at Pelican Bay, that’s where they send the worst of the worst. Going to Pelican Bay was really an eye opener for me because I looked up to the guys there and for a lot of us in gangs, going to Pelican Bay feels like what going to a prestigious college might for you.
You become somebody there. But when I got there I got a rude awakening that these guys aren’t my enemies, and at Pelican Bay we all got up there and all got along regardless of what gang you belonged to. There’s no fighting amongst each other there, that was an eye opener for me because I didn’t know it was like that.
I was put in a section with nothing but people who I would have considered my enemies and they were the ones who were helping me with the stuff that I needed. That allowed me to take a step back and say, “What am I doing? What is this really all about?” And what I was told was really just a big old lie.
Nitzberg: There’s a sentiment in the academic world that prisons should be about correction but are entirely punitive. I was wondering if you could expand on that, regarding both your time in Pelican Bay and in juvenile detention.
Stokes: So when I went to juvenile hall you will have counselors that will help kids out, like one counselor helped me get a job when I got out. He hooked me up with a job at a gym and I was like the custodian there.
But that’s all it is, especially at Pelican Bay. All we were doing was learning how to deal with the prison. That’s how I feel about the prison system. It really doesn’t do any justice. If anything, I went in and came out feeling like I was a more equipped criminal to tell you the truth.
Nitzberg: Any closing remarks, is there anything you think I missed that you feel needs to be mentioned or understood when speaking about the prison?
Stokes: I think the biggest thing and why I do what I do is, I want people to know that people can change. And many of these guys have so much potential and all they need is for people to believe in them and be there for them.
And it doesn’t matter what your background is or where you come from, man. Cause all these people need is for someone to believe in them. And I speak from experience from this man I worked with, he’s this older white man [Stokes told me this man was a catholic priest who did work in Pelican Bay], that just believed in me that I could be better, and that’s all it takes.
‘Cause if people in society don’t believe in them, not society but people that are doing good in life, people that are not a part of this gang culture or this criminal mentality behavior; if people like that don’t believe in people who are incarcerated and have made mistakes, then guess what: other people will believe in them. And it’s the gang members. All you gotta do is get involved, man. Believe in these people, and they will believe in themselves. That’s what happened to me. People would give up on me and I was like, “Why do I have to change?”
Matthew Nitzberg is a junior sociology major. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.