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Throughout the years, peer-led education and programming have been an essential part of prisoner rehabilitation within the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC).

Many of these self-sustaining programs – such as Black Prisoners Caucus’ T.E.A.C.H. (Taking Education and Creating History), an initiative which brings higher education to Washington State inmates – were originally established by prisoners out of necessity. 

The lack of support from local administrations and the minimal resources dedicated to education, reentry, and recidivism were explored in filmmaker and professor Gilda Shepard’s 2020 documentary Since I Been Down. Recidivism, for those who might not know, is a core criminal justice concept referring to a person’a relapse into criminal behavior.

While these prisoner-taught classes, including many ethnic studies courses, provide a platform for true growth and healing in a place known for its inhumanity, their existence and positive impact on the lives of participants may become a distant memory if the DOC has its way. The department wants to eliminate peer-led programs in favor of an “evidence-based” curriculum.

The DOC’s history of co-optation and whitewashing of these peer-led programs under the guise of “evidence-based” rhetoric is nothing new to prisoners who have been forced to protect their intellectual property, the integrity of their classes, and the legacies of resistance for generations.

The latest attack on curriculum by DOC officials in their mission to repress prisoner voices to maintain a white supremacist patriarchal status quo, surrounds a course intended to reduce intimate partner violence and violence against women as a whole. 

In 2014, in collaboration with group sponsor Teresa Shiraishi and other advocacy organizations, members of Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG) founded an Anti-Domestic Violence/Family Communication program at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center.

The core objectives of the class include recognizing types of abusive behavior, understanding how domestic violence may be learned through social attitudes, practicing setting and respecting boundaries, identifying personal values and strategies to achieve choice-value alignment, and understanding how race, class, sexuality, gender, and immigration status intersects with abuse. 

As the DOC ramps up its efforts to erase the legacies of cultural awareness groups and replace them with their own watered-down groups like “Diversity,” an effort discussed in a previous IE piece, the same is happening to peer-led programs.

Since 2021, APICAG has worked tirelessly to launch the Anti-Domestic Violence/Family Communication class at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC) and was finally approved to begin teaching classes on March 4th, 2023.

As a result of APICAG’s work to maintain group autonomy and advocacy regarding a policy making process, the group’s programs have now come under intense scrutiny by the DOC. All group activities and meetings were suspended without explanation and, unsurprisingly, all DOC-sanctioned groups and programs are still flourishing with full administrative support.

Most recently, the approval to launch the Anti-Domestic Violence/Family Communication course at SCCC was fully revoked as further retaliation, but only after administration gained access to the group’s curriculum and class materials.

Adding further insult and suspicions of co-optation, the DOC’s official reasoning for the cancellation of APICAG’s class was that the department has plans to launch their own “evidence-based” version of an anti-domestic violence program.

The blatant co-optation and disrespect is almost laughable. But this is the true nature of the prison industrial complex, especially here in Washington State. While the DOC tries to profit from and imitate what APICAG has offered to the community free-of-charge for nearly a decade, they lack the important characteristics of love, compassion, and empathy.

As one of the founders of APICAG’s Anti-Domestic Violence/Family Communication course and a longtime facilitator, I’m extremely saddened by the recent events. 

Honestly, I feel like I’ve let my community down. How could I let this happen on my watch?

I reminisce and remember fondly the many intense conversations throughout the years, standing in front of my peers to introduce new and intimidating feminist theories we would learn together in community. We challenged one another, gave the space to heal, the grace to make mistakes. I think about the beautiful intergenerational debates about what “consent” really means, nights of tears and major breakthroughs, and other evenings where I just felt like giving up.

I’m grateful for the support that API Chaya and community have shown throughout the years and I’m humbled by the former students who’ve committed to being better people for their community – because they choose to.

This is what the DOC can never replace. This is what the DOC will never be able to replicate. And this is what the DOC is afraid of. They fear any ideas that challenge their desire to uphold patriarchy and Whiteness. They fear liberated minds. They fear feminism in practice.

But what they fear most is love. And that can never be taken from us.

As the beautiful struggle continues, APICAG is appreciatively open to any suggestions and support in reinstating all group activities and programs, including the Anti-Domestic Violence/Family Communication class. Please join us in our mission of spreading radical love and resistance.

Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. You can reach him via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, 191 Constantine Way, Aberdeen, WA 98520.

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