MONROE CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX, Washington state — Brooks Laughlin lives in a six-by-nine-foot steel and concrete cage located within the confines of the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) in Washington state. He enjoys weightlifting, playing his guitar, and planning how to best join the fight for criminal justice reform once he’s finished serving his 96-month prison sentence. He’s uniquely fit for the job, because he’s been on both sides of the handcuffs. Brooks, basically, became a cop in 1999, at 14-years-old.
“I’d say a lot of it was that I had an older brother who became a Police Explorer. Police Explorers are like cadets, but they’re usually high-schoolers. I did it when I turned 14, though, which was a year before I went into high school. I got to do ride-alongs and wear uniforms and bullet proof vests,” Brooks tells me. “I would even get to do whole shifts with officers. The first vehicle I ever drove was when they let me park a police car.”
Brooks grew up in Bellingham, Washington. During his time as an Explorer, he became friends with members of the SWAT team. Initially that friendship meant he had to play victim, hostage, or even the bad guy as those veterans with big guns ran through countless training scenarios.
“Sometimes I’d be the guy hiding. I’d get shot with a sim-round, which is a paint-ball bullet. I got teargassed, and I got to play with all their equipment and even threw flash grenades,” Brooks gleefully recounts. “I really liked the guns, the shooting, and the kick-ass-take-names stuff.”
At 21, he graduated with top honors from the state police academy in Washington, winning every award and going on to become the Bellingham Police Department’s youngest hire in decades. He spent the next 13 years climbing the law enforcement ladder. That meant working as a beat-cop, detective, range master, undercover operative, patrol supervisor, and eventually one of those big-gun-wielding members of the SWAT team he idolized as a teen.
“See that guy over there?
He used to be a cop.”
“I was a golden boy. Less than a year on my own, I got assigned to the narcotics unit, which was super early. In that unit I was a drug detective, and I worked undercover cases for four years,” Brooks recalls with pride. “I worked with the DEA, ICE, Border Patrol, ATF, FBI, NAD, US Marshal Services, and various local agencies.”
Now that he’s behind bars, when that former golden boy plays his guitar in his cell, he often sings along. The lyrics tend to be loaded with social justice messages. Brooks is known here.
“See that guy over there? He used to be a cop,” isn’t something new prisoners at MCC expect to hear. Yet it’s something they all do.
But Brooks Laughlin was more than a cop. He was a cop’s cop. He went where others wouldn’t and became a member of the International Association of Undercover Officers. Over his storied career he helped conduct exhilarating, scary, and potentially deadly drug raids, adopted new identities as an undercover operative, disrupted money laundering schemes, helped bag and tag more drugs than you can likely imagine, and was trusted to disrupt the big dogs: The organized crime rings known to shoot first, second, and last.
“Sometimes we had to go to the federal building in Seattle to make cases for why our operations should be funded. My ID-tag said ‘special agent,’ and I was a go-to undercover for multiple agencies. I specialized in operational planning, executions of take downs, and running informants,” Brooks recounts.
Two and a half years ago, however, the golden-boy’s views on the justice system were challenged when he was charged with assault. That’s when he became a defendant in the same court he’d been to as an expert law enforcement witness, until he was eventually booked into the very jail in which he had dropped off countless suspects.
“I had undiagnosed bipolar disorders type one. It was something we knew I had since I was young, but from the time I found out, I was already a Police Explorer and wanted to be a cop,” Brooks says. “Plus, having my mom as a support system kept me guided. Then, in 2015, she passed away suddenly of cancer, and it threw me into a meltdown.”
Initially, he was kept in segregation for 10 months, because the guards didn’t know what to do with a former cop. While there, he was housed next to two men he had arrested, which is exactly what the guards had tried to shield him from.
“They were actually really cool to me. One was a gang-member, and the other guy was the one who prepped me for prison. It turned out, he never steered me wrong. We traded commissary and talked about how my ex-wife had arrested me,” Brooks says. “Then he ended up getting bailed out and murdered in a drug deal. It changed my perspective a lot, because before that, he was the ‘them’ and I was the ‘us.’ When I found out he got murdered because of the war on drugs, that hit me kinda hard.”
Eventually, Brooks was sentenced to eight years and transferred to MCC. And the social climate here isn’t exactly welcoming to current or ex-cops. Even though he was sure he’d be forced, at some point, to defend himself, he opted to enter into general population rather than protective custody.
“I was just sick of being in the hole and of the boredom. By the time I got here I was so numb I wasn’t afraid anymore,” Brooks says.
Instead of problems, however, he encountered friends; like his first cellmate who was incarcerated on drug charges but who eventually became his lifeline. Here was a guy whose profession Brooks had previously swore to eradicate assisting him immensely in his transition to life inside these concrete and steel confines.
“He told me his story of addiction and his fall, and for the first time, I felt incredible regret for having been the proverbial hammer in the war on drugs,” Brooks laments.
Then there’s his power-lifting partner. He’s serving more than 20 years on drug charges, yet they’re now best friends. Brooks is even slated to be the best-man at his upcoming wedding.
“I was a golden boy”Brooks recalls
On the other side of this razor-wire you’ve seen in movies, we’ve all been given a new perspective on the criminal justice system. Or I should say “systems”? Because every level of confinement – from the back of a squad car and your first stay in county jail to being shackled as you shuffle into court until eventually the metal prison bars close, leaving you in state-sanctioned loneliness – is governed by a new, if unwritten, set of principles that are expertly crafted to dehumanize us humans before they dehumanize us again and then again and again in this socially acceptable cage.
But just as the pain of the system is prescribed by policy makers at every level, those legal mandates passed from the historic confines of ornate legislative chambers are eventually carried out by beat cops and undercover units alike. They dutifully handcuff us and then pass us on to judges, who then seal our fates by shipping us into the ward of the (mostly) obedient prison guards. That’s the system. It’s made to dehumanize. But you can’t take the human out of a human being, no matter how hard you try.
In here, we also get flares of inspiration, because ultimately we control our own fate. Prison may be intentionally isolating, but it’s also filled with tinges of hope – the type of inspiration that can only be gained by treading in the footsteps of the oppressed.
“Once released, I’m starting a consulting firm to use my expertise and experience to work with social justice organizations on drug-law and prison and police reform,” Brooks resolutely says. “Addiction and mental health need to be handled as public health issues, not law enforcement issues which disproportionately impact people of color and results in mass-incarceration.”
When asked why he thinks nobody hassles him in prison, this new, older, and wiser golden-boy smiles, “Probably because I never get buddy-buddy with the guards. I consider myself a convict now.”
Because this includes banned words that wouldn’t make it past prison censors Michael dictated it to his wife from behind the steel and concrete of the Monroe Correctional Complex.