MONROE CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX, Wash. — Bill Joice can’t recall a time when he didn’t believe in social justice. Even during the nine years he worked as a Snohomish County prosecuting attorney. Today, he sits across from me at a metal table in one of two day-rooms in the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) — where he’s serving a 380-month sentence for murder — to discuss a new legislative agenda he’s written proposing various modes of reform in the criminal justice and prison systems.
“It’s unlike previous endeavors,” he tells me, “in that this agenda covers many interrelated areas of society plagued by racial and economic inequalities that desperately need to be transformed.”
Bill is meek and unassuming, yet tall and somehow commanding at the same time. Though his cell is just above and two down from my own, I had been living in WSR for more than two years before I learned of his existence from a neighbor who pointed him out, informing me he had been a prosecutor. What they’re seldom told, however, is that Mr. Joice has also worked as a defense lawyer, helped countless people win appeals and has spent the past 10 years actively pursuing reform by meeting with legislators, proposing legislation and using his knowledge of the system — inside and out — to make recommendations for systemic change.
Born in the Los Angeles area in 1954, Bill grew up in what he describes as a “Leave it to Beaver” neighborhood and had a relatively uneventful childhood until his father passed away when he was 10.
“After that, my mom had to go back to work,” he says, “but my brother and I were never left alone. She would either meet us at home, or we would go to her work and wait until she got off.”
Though a working mother in the 1960s was unable to generate the income to which they had grown accustomed, Bill says she always managed to sustain her family. As he sips coffee from his prison-issued, plastic mug and recounts tales set in an unapologetic era of gender inequalities, I find myself wondering if these early glimpses into societal disparities may have paved the road for a child who would grow up to become an activist. His earliest memories were all accompanied by a desire to scale the skies.
“I wanted to fly,” he asserts with traces of a smile that can be seen beneath his white COVID-mask. “That’s what drove me through school. I managed to stay off drugs, which in the early ’70s wasn’t easy to do.”
In 1972, at 22-years-of-age, Bill graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations, and promptly “got his wings.” He joined the Air Force, and flew the F-4 for the next eight years. During his second tour to Asia, he met the woman he would marry upon transfer back to the US. A fascination with the American Constitution nudged him toward law school, which he started in 1988 and completed in two years through an accelerated program, going on to become a deputy prosecutor.
I ask him why this office, and he replies, “It’s the only real avenue to learning how to do criminal law. The alternatives are to become a public defender, where you’re overwhelmed and don’t really get to learn or to go into private practice and dive right into the deep end.”
In 1999, backed by a near-decade of experience, Bill did go into private practice, working as a defense lawyer until November 3, 2004, when the boy who had wanted nothing more than to fly became a man who would spend the next three decades caged like a bird in captivity.
Though not eager to talk about the details surrounding the incident that led to his incarceration, Bill offers, “The short of it was that I had an altercation with someone, and I shot him. He ended up dying. It was a low point in my life. Every day — literally every day — I pray for his family. It’s not that I’m sorry I got caught. It’s that I’m sorry I destroyed two families. His and mine. I deliberately keep that thought alive in me.”
At 51, Bill was sentenced to 31 years in prison, 30 with good behavior. He says there was no fear of entering the notorious Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Though he endured a bit of hassle initially, it didn’t take long for his new neighbors to recognize the value of having a former lawyer around. For the first seven years, when communicating with his wife, he could be found in the prison’s law library or atop his metal bunk between the pages of one of the many successful appeals he’s written.
Then, it occurred to him that his skills could be utilized to affect change on a macro-level as well, and he began drafting up proposals and making himself known to legislators. Eventually he was transferred to WSR in Monroe, where today, a culture of positive programming abounds. He’s been able to gain the support of every social-justice and cultural organization operating in the facility, and the agenda we discuss today is a collaborative project between the Concerned Lifers Organization, the Black Prisoners Caucus, the Latino Development Organization, the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Group, the WSR Native American Circle and the Veterans Action Group.
I ask him to summarize its mission, and he explains, “When the Sentencing Reform Act came out in the early ’80s, something was said in the preface that meant the criminal justice system would no longer be focused on rehabilitation. It would be punishment: This is your criminal history, and this is your crime, so we’re gonna give you a standard range. It took away incentives for self-improvement. The Department of Corrections became focused on short-term security issues, and lost their focus on long-term public safety. Instead of rewarding positive behavior, they only punish negative behavior. We need to shift that focus back.”
The 28-page proposal, “A Joint 2021 Legislative Agenda,” addresses police reform, prosecutorial and judicial reform, sentencing reform, prison reform, education reform, affordable housing and job creation. Identifying inequities in each area that lead the disenfranchised to become incarcerated disproportionately, it offers practical solutions, such as how to implement the demilitarization of police, and ways to bring the standard of education offered in poor, minority-dense neighborhoods up to that of wealthier, white-majority communities.
“I realized that changing issues was useless if you didn’t change everything,” he claims, “so this agenda highlights these areas, gives reasons why the change is necessary, and then gives suggestions on how to implement the change.”
Bill is hopeful in a social climate where conversations about progress are finally front-and-center in the media and politics, it will be given the bipartisan consideration that any project of its nature deserves — regardless of what community organized it. He says people can back each project by contacting legislators and expressing their support for it.
The boy who wanted to fly will be 80 before he’s considered to have paid back his debt to society by a system that incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other in the world. On that day, it won’t matter if he’s spent 30 years sharpening knives for prison gangs, or fighting for recidivism-reducing reform in order to make communities safer. The “Tough on Crime” law enacted just before his arrest (and still in practice today), hungers only for time. Time for one’s wings to wither, along with their dreams. Time spent away from children who will be more likely to further generational patterns of incarceration because of it. Time to endure dehumanization that disables one’s ability to reintegrate. Time for friends and family to grow distant, and more often than not, time for nonviolent offenders to become serious criminals.
I ask Mr. Joice if there’s anything else he’d like to say in closing, and prepare to hear about what he’s lost to the past 17 years in prison. His reply, however, is as selfless as his work toward equity. It resonates with me on a level I didn’t expect, as I type “The point of this story is not about me. It’s about the revelation I’ve received since being locked up, and the many talented men I’ve met. Men talented in art, music, and literature. Men who dropped out of school, and now teach other prisoners math, grammar, and other languages. This makes me ask, ‘How different — how much better would our communities and our country be if we’d invested in their schools and their neighborhoods — if we’d invested in people, instead of investing in the concrete and razor-wire that imprisons their talents?'”