Members of the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG), an inmate-led cultural group, in a haka performance in October, 2018. The performance preceded a Deportation Town Hall held at Stafford Creek Corrections Facility in Grays Harbor County. Photo by Bunthay Cheam.

Cultural awareness groups within the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) have a long legacy of resistance, tradition, and love. They provide prisoners with a platform for true growth and liberation through cultural preservation — while building community and creating safe spaces for healing.

Organizations such as the Black Prisoners Caucus (BPC), who have been organizing since at least the 60s-70s, have helped pave the way for other cultural groups, and have been a model of resistance and perseverance throughout generations of discrimination.

Another organization, the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG), founded by Andres Pacificar in the early 90s at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, was borne out of necessity when there were no true resources for a growing population of API prisoners — many of whom were non-English speakers, and still struggling with the traumas of a refugee’s journey.

Similarly, newer groups such as the Nuestro Grupo Cultural (NGC — formerly Hispanic Cultural Group) and Latino Developmental Organization (LDO) have also spawned out of the need for genuine cultural identity and lack of resources within DOC.

Throughout the years, these various cultural groups, including the API Sisters who have been organizing at the women’s facilities, have accomplished amazing achievements despite any real support from local administrations and DOC as a whole.

Ethnic studies classes, peer-led education programs, youth outreach workshops, legislative summits, reentry fairs, immigration seminars, social justice forums, anti-domestic violence courses, internalized oppression trainings — are just a fraction of what is produced by these organizers and their community networks.

While all of these groups and their various chapters at their respective correctional facilities around the state have their own independent legacies, one thing is for certain — they have been united by the love for their people, a radical love for themselves, and a hope for something better.

However, as conservative rhetoric continues to dominate nationwide media outlets fueling the right-wing’s war on a so-called “woke mob” and sparking bans on the teaching of Critical Race Theory and other ethnic studies, DOC is following suit with similar attacks on prisoner-led cultural awareness groups within their facilities — despite Governor Jay Inslee’s proclaimed commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, and respect.

This is nothing new to cultural group members who have become accustomed to navigating these contradictory discriminatory practices.

As the former president of Clallam Bay Corrections Center’s APICAG and current senior advisor of the group’s Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC) chapter, I have experienced first-hand how far DOC will go to maintain their power over prisoners, and eliminate any sense of true liberation.

Members and leaders are under constant scrutiny and threats of retaliation from prison officials who dislike any sense of liberation from their captives. This can include anything from unwarranted cell searches, arbitrary mail rejections, suspicious infractions, all the way up to being shipped to solitary confinement at a different facility across the state — which was the case for me in 2019.

The latest wave of attacks by prison officials has been in the form of the drafting of a new cultural group policy meant to eliminate these independent groups and consolidate them under a more administration-friendly group ironically named “Diversity” in which only “heritage months” like Black History Month in February and AAPI Hertige Month in May are celebrated.

While on the surface a group which calls themselves “Diversity” may sound like an appeasing concept, past interactions with this group by some cultural group members have proven otherwise.

In 2017, a member of the APICAG was participating in a “Diversity” event at SCCC where he was asked to give a speech on his experience as a Filipino-American. However, upon submitting his speech which included describing past discrimination and unpacking the intergenerational trauma faced by his people, he was told by “Diversity” staff that he would not be allowed to speak about anything that was not more politically festive.

This censorship and lack of respect for truth led to a walkout and discouraged future participation in “Diversity” events by many APICAG members who valued autonomy over the dry piece of chicken “Diversity” provided as cheap reimbursement for their services.

Furthermore, “Diversity” lacks any true substance and social awareness that’s foundation in groups like the BPC, APICAG, and NGC.

Unfortunately, there are some inmates who still promote the existence of “Diversity.”

While some just can’t resist the temptation of a chicken quarter, others lack the political education to understand that their participation does nothing but legitimize a racist institution meant to keep them oppressed, and is actually currently turning them into blind agents of the Prison Industrial Complex in which any cultural and self autonomy is a threat.

But quite frankly, many just desire any sort of acknowledgment from the oppressors who control the shackles.

Who needs freedom when you can have chicken with your chains?

Although there are many problematic issues regarding DOC’s “Diversity” group, they alone are not the problem. The fact that DOC and their staff continuously try to use this group as a way of eliminating other independent cultural groups and essentially maintain a white supremacist status quo is ultimately the underlying issue.

As of this writing, Director of Correctional Services Lisa Flynn and Family Services Program Manager Dawn Taylor, whom DOC have put in charge of this policymaking process, have repeatedly refused requests by cultural group members to have an in-person meeting where their voices are heard.

In addition, community stakeholders who have also been advocating for a more accountable and transparent process have constantly been given the runaround and disrespected — including being accosted by security at DOC headquarters where Lisa Flynn and Dawn Taylor both failed to show up to a scheduled meeting after community members representing the BPC, APICAG, NGC, Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (F.I.G.H.T.), and Freedom Project all took time off work and drove from King and Pierce County to Tumwater on a Tuesday morning to discuss this potential policy.

Lisa Flynn and Dawn Taylor’s latest act of retaliation for this audacious display of defiant advocacy — the suspension of all APICAG meetings until they are done drafting a policy. Not surprisingly, “Diversity” is currently the only “cultural” group still officially operating within DOC facilities.

This is just another example of what happens when whiteness is challenged — communities of color face the consequences.

Community members are encouraged to get involved by contacting DOC headquarters and demanding that DOC immediately resume the operations of all cultural awareness group functions statewide, meet with cultural groups in an accountable manner to get collective input on this policy, and revise their practices to have more respectful and transparent interactions with community members moving forward.

Meanwhile, cultural group members have vowed to protect their existence, legacies, and autonomy no matter the cost.

And the beautiful struggle continues…

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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