The story of a man returned to prison after a DOC error argues for criminal-justice reform.
Vincent Stillgess got out of prison again April 1, and he’s still trying to adjust to starting over a second time after the state erred by setting him free too soon, then sent him back to prison.
“I’m just trying to put together a life from some other substance than criminality,” he told me Monday in the basement of his grandmothers’ home in Southeast Seattle. That may seem too modest a goal, until you know more about him.
Stillgess, 38, was among those freed early because of a state Department of Corrections computer-programming error that for several years miscalculated release dates for some prisoners. He was one of those summoned back to serve more time. In his case, 65 days.
He owns up to the choices that cost him his freedom in the first place. But being pulled back in the middle of trying to change feels cruel and not constructive for him or anyone. It’s more punishment when rehabilitation would be smarter.
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His grandmothers, Beth Reis and Barbara Steele, worked unsuccessfully to keep him from going back.
“He’s made decisions he’s not proud of, and I’m not happy about,” Reis said. “But he didn’t deserve to be sent back to prison for a mistake the state made.”
They told me why Stillgess first went to prison. A guy who owed him money for drugs showed up at his place with a gun. Stillgess took the gun and beat him with it, then sent him out to get the money he owed.
Stillgess was imprisoned for second-degree assault with a gun and kidnapping.
He got out Sept. 9, 2014, after serving eight years, and was free for 18 months before he got a phone call in January from his probation officer, who asked if he’d seen the news. He hadn’t. The probation officer told him he’d better sit down.
Stillgess said he was more depressed than he’d ever been. “Even going to prison in the first place didn’t hit me as hard.” But, he said, “My family went to bat for me. It was amazing, and it touched my heart.”
His grandmothers have always been his rock, but there was a lot going on early in his life that they didn’t know about until later.
Stillgess said he didn’t know his father. His mother was addicted to drugs and had a series of often-abusive boyfriends. Stillgess was often left to care for his younger brother and sister.
The grandmothers became aware of the situation after one of the boyfriends beat his mother so badly she had to be hospitalized. Stillgess was about 11.
The children were sent to live with different relatives. He was taken in by his grandmothers.
“Through my grandmothers, I got to see the kindness and beauty in life and how humans are supposed to treat each other,” he said.
Eventually his mother got her children back, but a new boyfriend threw the two boys out. Stillgess, a teenager then, went to live with friends and took up their drug habit.
Stillgess told me he knew his grandmothers would be upset with the way his life was going, so he avoided them and continued on the path that led to prison.
Some bad things happened early on in prison, but being locked up also gave him time to evaluate his life — “Everything I’d been through and everything I’d put myself through.”
He started reading, and he met “intelligent and inspiring people who had been in awful circumstances,” and he learned how they changed behind bars. He decided to do better once he was out.
Adjusting was rough, but friends and relatives found jobs for him to do. He got an apartment, started community college and was 14 credits from an associate degree when he was sent back.
He’s angry about the disruption, but he also knows now how much support he has. Friends and family paid his bills so he wouldn’t lose his apartment while he was imprisoned.
His aunt and uncle asked their church, Seattle First Baptist, for prayers. Every day, he got letters from members, and the choir sent him books to read.
His goal may seem modest, but it is actually mountainous. His odds of making it are greater because of the people around him, but in Washington thousands of people leave prison each year without that support.
For most people who make poor choices that land them in prison, rehabilitation should be at the core of a public-policy response. More and more officials here and nationally are moving toward criminal-justice system reform to change lives and fight crime.
They need to move faster.