Freedom Project East helps people reintegrate
By Marijke Fakasiieiki
After serving more than 25 years in prison, Jermaine Williams, who entered the criminal justice system as a youth, now uses his experience to help others reintegrate into area communities.
He began re-engaging with that system and people emerging from it as a volunteer and now as the director of Freedom Project East.
"What I do is rooted in racial equity. Systems are structured to disenfranchise folks, disadvantage them and create makeshift positions of authority. I address that head on, in a humane, culturally-sensitive way, understanding that our liberation is tied together," he said.
Born into poverty in the "hood" or "real ghetto" of Chicago, Jermaine moved back and forth to Milwaukee. At 15, he went to Seattle for a cousin's funeral. For the next two and a half years, he floated between Seattle, Milwaukee and Chicago.
At 17, he assaulted a man and sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl. In two trials, he was sentenced to 36 years, but was released after 25 years and three months in prison.
Jermaine was transferred to Airway Heights Corrections Center in April 2016 after his first juvenile board hearing, the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board. Before he met with them again in January 2020, he completed the programs required and had "checked every box and more," which is why they found him eligible for release.
A nonviolent communications program of Freedom Project Washington and a psychological evaluation led a panel to determine Jermaine was suitable for early release.
While in prison, he started volunteering with Freedom Project WA. A week after his release in May 2020 in Spokane, he continued volunteering with the project, doing research for the Black Brilliance Research Project and King County Equity Now.
By fall 2020, Jermaine became director of Freedom Project East.
"I seek to dismantle systems of oppression rooted in white supremacy and mass incarceration," he said.
Aware that the police force evolved in part from runaway slave enforcement, Jermaine believes that the criminal justice system should be abolished because it is inherently structured in an inequitable, racially unbalanced, inhumane way.
"I also focus on the humanity of individuals we support," said Jermaine, who focuses on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) formerly incarcerated people who are struggling with re-entry.
Freedom Project WA provides services for both BIPOC communities and white participants.
Jermaine has completed a 14-month term on the Washington Supreme Court Racial Justice Consortium, an effort to bring racial equity to the justice system through partnerships of community leaders with everyday people.
"My prison experiences contributed to my passion for this work. There were themes in my life I didn't understand, such as the trauma heaped on my people, growing up in poverty, the heritage of slavery, the theory that black people have a higher pain threshold and medical professionals assuming black people cannot afford services," he said.
Jermaine saw the impact with his grandmother and mother relying on home remedies, rather than going to a doctor.
Jermaine began practicing Islam two years after he was imprisoned. Becoming Muslim gave him contact with people of other cultures and countries. Islam offered him new ideals and traditions. One principle of Islam is "to love for your brother what you love for yourself." Such principles took root in him.
Eventually, he said, others in prison saw him as an example and sought his counsel because of how he carried himself as a result of his Islamic beliefs.
"That helped me set aside what I was dealing with. My first marriage was in shambles. I didn't know if I would ever be outside," he said. "My family was living in abject poverty. I faced immediate problems but focused on getting out to have a second chance."
While incarcerated, he felt he was too old to be considered young, but too young to be considered old, so he said he had people look up to him while he was trying to find others to look up to.
"Prison supervisors sent people getting in trouble to talk to me. It made a difference. I became a peer specialist, using my lived experience to inspire others to make different choices," he said.
He met Dora Hunter, now Duaa-Rahemaah Williams, during a visitation at a Juneteenth Celebration in June 2014 at the Coyote Ridge Correctiona Center in Connell. They married nearly four years ago.
"When you find your passion, you find your purpose," she told him, encouraging him to find what he was passionate about.
Freedom Project WA's executive director, who is also directly impacted, and the Freedom Project Team, created a volunteer position for Jermaine, where he began to live out his passion.
"I knew this was my destiny. Even if I was not working for Freedom Project, I would have continued this work as a volunteer on the inside," he said.
Another principle of Islam is that "any time we remove an obstacle or distress for another, God will remove an obstacle from our life now or in the next life," he said.
"Using that principle in my work, I seek to remove an obstacle from someone else's way. People come to me with many obstacles. I encounter people who are more than qualified for a job, have finances to purchase or rent a house, have skill sets in hospitality or take care of disabled parents or friends, but as a result of a past blemish on their record, they no longer qualify," he said. "With obstacles to the formerly incarcerated reintegrating, we help those transitioning from prison to meet their basic needs."
Jermaine helps people understand the importance of meeting their needs, so they are not tempted to harm themselves or others in their frustration.
"It was psychologically tough when I came out in a new city," said Jermaine, whose health suffered in prison.
With support from The Carl Maxey Center, I Did the Time, the Smart Justice Coalition, Spokane Community Against Racism and The Way to Justice, he created the Freedom Project East, incorporating their services and the relationships that he needed when he first reentered the community.
"When resources dry up, relationships are there for the long haul. Sometimes people need to talk and may call at 3 a.m. They want to be heard and accept advice based on my lived experience," he said. "The relational part is crucial."
Wrap-around services include housing support, jobs, clothing, work, food, transportation, medical support, mental health services, peer counseling and peer support.
Freedom Project East also provides anti-oppression and mass incarceration (AOMI) training, using Nonviolent Communication (NVC) with a racial equity lens to help with healing. Groups pay for the trainings.
In one workshop, he gives people information and chance to see and work on issues.
In a second workshop one to two months later, he covers how people see themselves and how to see people for who, not what, they are.
This is a way to help people overcome implicit bias, so they can move beyond white supremacy, Jermaine said.
"If I'm aware of what is happening in my environment and the internalized oppression, I cannot just go along to get along," he added. "I made some bad choices but I grew and reformed. I'm not an exception. Each of us is amazing. Some need to be cultivated so they keep dreaming, rather than letting others stomp on their dreams."
Jermaine knows many amazing people who are or were incarcerated, people who lack the opportunity to let their glory shine.
"Most staff and volunteers in Freedom Project were once incarcerated and seek to give back," he said. "That makes our work credible. We are better than our past mistakes. Our philosophy is to know that everyone can do better and to instruct others how to do better," he said. "Our liberation is tied together.
Jermaine hopes formerly incarcerated people will have the same chance as those who make mistakes but were not incarcerated: to sweep their mistakes under the rug, rise above them, do amazing things and be who they are meant to be.
For information, call 904-3367 or firstname.lastname@example.org