Panel with formerly incarcerated people meets Sunday

A community conversation with formerly incarcerated individuals will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5, in the Land Trust Building. The panel is intended to raise awareness of the plight faced by criminal defendants saddled with “legal financial obligations” (LFOs), which are imposed by the courts and until recently accrued interest as high as 12 percent. Already facing tremendous adversities to rejoin society, people with LFOs often find the burden of their debt — in some cases, totaling as much as $20,000 to $40,000 — nearly impossible to conquer. Failure to make monthly payments can result in re-incarceration without the assistance of counsel, according to a press release.

In the weeks leading up to the panel, portraits of the formerly incarcerated — photographed by Deborah Espinosa and curated by the group Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) — have been displayed in 14 local businesses and public spaces, including the Vashon Public Library, Gravy, Giraffe, the Vashon Bookshop, Raven’s Nest and Rock It! Consignment, among others.

“What a wonderful way to educate people about an issue, really, that is really devastating to people who are incarcerated,” said islander Tammy Shadair, who has been involved with organizing the panel and felt that the gallery walk was a compelling method of telling the stories of the formerly incarcerated. “I really felt attached to some way to really use art education and expose [this issue] to a wider audience.”

Shadair said that she was unfamiliar with LFOs until she became involved with Espinosa and members of SURJ spearheading the project. She underscored Espinosa’s commitment, specifically, to bringing the exhibit to life and pushing for dialogue.

“It really is like a debtor’s prison. The old saying is, ‘If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided to you.’ Until you get hit with fees,” said Shadair. “Most of the people going in are already poor, dealing with inequities, and if you go under that kind of debt, it’s almost impossible to get out from under there.”

Earlier this year, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the removal of the 12 percent interest accrual on non-restitution related LFOs, which many supporters felt was good progress. But waiving the remaining interest requires petitioning the court.

“There are people who are still living with those fees and those fines,” said Shadair. “More engagement [is needed] because although they can now petition the court, that’s still something they have to go out of their way to do, and they might not have the support to do it.”

Shadair said that her wish is for the panel to be eye-opening and educational and for the community to have an opportunity to understand how this demographic is impacted by injustice on a daily basis.

“Aside from being able to give voice to folks rarely able to [speak up], especially given where we live — the increased affluence on the island — what this is doing is connecting people with people whose lives are completely shaped by injustice,” she said.

— Paul Rowley

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