Kern County

A Journey to Redemption

The 38-year-old Bakersfield native, knows first-hand what it is like to be haunted by the stigma of incarceration.
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Beyond Bars

A Journey to Redemption

By Claudia Gonzalez

Photo via Joey Williams

Bakersfield, Calif.—  Joey Williams eyes light up when he speaks about dismantling mass incarceration, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and highlighting the importance of Prop 47, a ballot measure voted into California law in November 2014 that changed six low-level felonies to misdemeanors and also allows individuals formerly convicted to reclassify those felonies into misdemeanors.

The 38-year-old Bakersfield native, knows first-hand what it is like to be haunted by the stigma of incarceration.

As a juvenile, Williams was funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline, eventually being expelled from high school and leading him into a life of drugs and alcohol.

With his life at stake, Williams knew the only way to escape his torment would be to walk away from his toxic environment and leave his hometown behind. He ventured to Santa Barbara looking for a fresh start.

Struggling at first, Williams turned to education and went on to thrive at Santa Barbara City College. While at SBCC, he joined MEChA and eventually became the Associated Student Body President.

Having made a name for himself on campus, Williams received multiple acceptance letters from universities, but ultimately,  decided to transfer  to Cal State Bakersfield.

Returning back home a changed man,  Williams immediately saw the need for change in his community.

Over the last decade, Kern County has been plagued by mass incarceration. Late last year, The Guardian published an investigative series profiling  Kern County law enforcement as having killed more people per capita than any other place in the United States -deeming it the deadliest police force in the nation.

Now serving as the  Executive Director of Faith in Action (FIA), a PICO California federation, Williams has been organizing the community around important issues affecting the area. Police brutality and mass incarceration have become an important focus of their work.

In 2014, the FIA team focused much of their energy on Prop 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. Williams himself became one of the million Californians eligible for reclassification. With the help of Kern County’s Public Defender’s Office, William was able to reduce his felony to a misdemeanor and finally get his life back.

In 2015, FIA one of many PICO California affiliates working as a part of the Communities United Coalition, began working to pass AB 953. Sponsored by Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), AB 953 aims to put a stop to racial profiling by police in California by tracking identification data of all police stops. This data would then be used to ensure law enforcement agencies in places like Kern County are finally held accountable for incidents and patterns of racial profiling.

During an act of nonviolent civil disobedience on September 2, 2015 as a part of a day of action in support of AB 953 that included die-ins on the capitol stairs, Williams along with 1,000 other Californians, shutdown Governor Jerry Brown’s office. Feeling the pressure from those most impacted by the trauma of racial profiling, Governor Brown signed the bill into law.

Now, in an attempt to engage people in his work, Williams shares his story of redemption as a tool to counteract the shame associated with being formerly incarcerated and to mobilize the community.

“Sharing my story opens up avenues for people to reflect, heal and act,” says Williams. “It gives people hope.”

Williams insists the only way we can  change our communities is through powerful storytelling.

“The bad decisions people made when they were young should not follow them for the rest of their life,” he added. “Second opportunities do work.”

“As organizers, it is our responsibility to remind our community that change is possible and redemption is obtainable.”

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