Cass and the Freedom Warriors -- How Sisterhood Took 10 Years Off of a Prison Sentence

Editor's Note:

Cassandra is the first woman in California history who received a reduction in her sentence due to a change in sentencing law called 1170(d)(1). Amika, now the Policy Director at the Young Women's Freedom Center, met Cassandra when they were in prison together. When Amika was released, she lead an effort to free her sister from an unjust sentence. This is Amika and Cass' story of the power of the sister warriors.

In my seven years in California state penitentiaries, I spent a lot of time in the law library working on my own case. Over the years I had become known on the yard as a jailhouse lawyer, and women wanted me to read through their cases for them. I had no legal background or education, just the ability to research and communicate an understanding of legal language. 

That was how I met Cassandra at the Central California Women’s Facility, in January of 2011. Her play mom Cindy introduced us in the chow hall. Cindy had told me about Cass, and said, “You got to know her story, she needs some help.”

28 Year Sentence at 22 Years Old
My first impression of Cass was her exterior — she is small, fierce and beautiful. She wore a coat of being a lil’ boy on the yard, a stud broad, bald, sea of tattoos that spilled from her head to her feet, neck, arms, hands, salutes to her neighborhood and her loyalties making themselves known. A “typical” gang member in the eyes of law enforcement, and that exterior leads to assumptions about what kind of person she was. Those assumptions were all wrong.

(Cass with her mother and brother.)

We set up a meeting, she just wanted to tell me her story, and I told her I would review her case later. We met in the dayroom, and we spent some time getting to know each other.  She was a powerful presence, and immediately went deep and talked about her vulnerabilities. She started telling me her whole life story and began with her childhood. She was mixed, her father was black, mama was Mexican. Her family had fought hard to get to where they were, her father was a lab tech, her mama was a doctor. From the outside looking in, Cass was in a position that few in her neighborhood were, her family was financially stable, and she had plenty of opportunities to have a “normal” life. Behind closed doors it was a different story. 

Cass had masculine characteristics at an early age and navigated what it felt like to be a boy in a girl’s body. She endured a lot of shit on the schoolyard about who she was, and her father was ashamed that his little girl was more like a little boy. He tried to beat the little boy out of her, for years and years she suffered at the hands of physical abuse in her family. In fourth grade, a boy in her class started paying her some attention. He saw the bruises, and the pain she carried with her to school every day. She started kicking it at his house and found what she thought was real love and friendship from the homies at the house. She had found protection from her father and was jumped into the gang at 9 years old. The streets became her faithful companion, and in Cass’ words, she spent her days, “thieving and earning respect on the streets.” She began to have frequent police contact and was at this point a self-admitted gang member. The evolution of a fearful young girl escaping violence at home by finding a new family on the streets, and then committing low-level crimes to prove herself as being down for her new family, is not a clear cut, simple process. It’s complex, no one just chooses to commit crimes, there is always more to the story. This is the reality of life on the streets, and the process of young women surviving and navigating their social context. When no options are good options, choices become about the lesser of two evils. 

She was 22 years old when she committed the crime that landed her in prison this time. Her homegirl was facing an eviction notice, she and her baby were about to be out on the streets. They hit an AM/PM to get that rent money. They robbed a mini-mart, made off with $128, and were caught in their vehicle a block away, with a BB gun in the trunk, and a gun clip in the vehicle. No gun was ever found. Nobody was hurt, although we know the victims faced fear and trauma from the robbery. Cass was sentenced to 28 years in prison. The robbery carried a 3-year base term. She was given an additional 25 years in enhancements. 10 years in gang enhancements,10 years for the BB gun, 5 years for a prison prior. Gang enhancement laws spell out the law as if the enhancements stick if the crime is committed to “further advance the street gang.” A crime of poverty, survival crime, is not committed to further advance a street gang. You are not trying to be Bonnie and Clyde by trying to pay your rent in a desperate moment. 

When I paroled in March of 2015, I left with all of Cassandra’s paperwork. Cassandra was one of those cases I wanted everyone to know about. I kept thinking that if the world knew about cases like hers, we would expose the complexities of the criminal injustice system. Unfortunately, there are many cases just like Cassandra’s that no one is talking about.

Fighting for Cass from Home
Within my first year home, I tapped into one of our allies that is an attorney and asked if she could review Cassandra’s case. Appeals had been unsuccessful so far, and we were trying to figure out what we would write up for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. There were so many issues. Initially, the DA had put an offer on the table of 18 years — 3 years on the robbery, 5 years on the prison prior, 10 years on the gun enhancement. They said if she pled, they would not attach a gang enhancement. It was mostly a verbal conversation between attorney and client, but there was documentation of that offer in her file. When Cassandra walked into the courtroom and pled as agreed, the judge gave her 28 years and chose to apply the gang enhancement, although she had been assured that wouldn’t happen. I read her case file in disbelief. I know the system is broken but this is just sneaky as hell. What do you do when the court players are just flat out playing you? It was just trickery, and so wrong. And I’ve come to find out, what happened with Cass is so damn common that our folks are just played in those courtrooms, and pushed through this busted system. Point of all that is that I have held Cass’ case close to my heart for a long time, because I believe that cases like hers are what we need to figure out. We can’t come home and leave our folks inside without pushing the line one way or another.

So, I shared her case with as many folks as would listen to me, hoping to find a remedy somewhere out there. And then this miracle happened. I got the call from Cass that her sentence had been recommended by CDCR to be reviewed and resentenced under PC 1170d.  Though that penal code had been on the books forever, 1170d was expanded in 2012 after AB1812 was passed by the legislature which gave additional funds to the CDCR to investigate potential cases to refer for recall of sentence. 1170(d)(1) now specifically states that courts have authority to recall sentences imposed after plea agreements, as well as sentences imposed after trials “in the interest of justice.” Since the law change was fairly new, Cass would be the first woman in the state of California considered for a recall of her sentence. After 11 years into her 28 year sentence, she had a shot at freedom. We just had no idea what it would look like. 

I reached out to her public defender out of Riverside County. The first conversation we had didn’t sound too hopeful. No one had really dealt with 1170d’s. This was the public defender’s first 1170d, and the judge definitely was unfamiliar with what discretion he had in resentencing. We spent a good amount of time talking through Cass’ case, and most importantly, Cass’ life. The defender began to take a real interest in her after hearing about her history, her background, and how she got to where she was now. Another thing he took a real interest in was the impact that being a transmasculine female had on Cassandra’s whole life. At some point, I remember that he said to me that when Cass was sentenced in 2008,  the courts would have had no understanding of gender-specific issues, and he said, “Today, we’re much more open to discussing these issues.” It struck me as strange that in 10 years time, a societal evolution of exposure to different gender identities, and issues specific to the LGTBQ community, would have a direct impact on how someone was sentenced. But the players involved seemed to think that gender identity issues were central to the discussion with the judge on where Cass “went wrong.” So, with Cass’ consent, I told her attorney everything I knew, all the deep dark secrets from the past, and that was it. He was hooked on her story and engaged in a whole different way on her case from that point on. Although Cass never had the language to describe her experience, she now considers herself to be transmasculine and uses she/her pronouns. 

I was a little bit shocked when Cass was recommended by CDCR for a resentencing. I had always heard that it was impossible for folks with write-ups and disciplinary issues inside, to get recommended. Cass had her share of write-ups and incidents that are totally normal for someone that has spent 11 years in prison, but these write-ups become a target of the courts and DA’s to show that someone may not be able to “follow rules” or rehabilitate successfully. Regardless of how much good you are doing, it sometimes seems like the disciplinary record overshadows all of the positive. We have since heard that as long as write ups do not include “violence,” that folks are being recommended with write ups (though the rules are changing all the time.) Cass’ hard work inside was truly acknowledged and lifted up by the public defender and even the judge.

Cass has made good use of her 11 years inside. She has gone to every program that you could possibly do inside, all sorts of self-help courses, workgroups, and classes. She got two AAs in there. She saw gaps in the programming that the prison provided, so she created curriculums and programs to fill those gaps. She wrote and facilitated curriculum called Girls in Gangs, she mentored youth on the yard, she ran a really good program in general. She did all of these things without any “incentive” to do so, because, at the time, Cass definitely didn’t think she would be coming home anytime soon. But she was faithfully striving to get on a good path, motivated by just that, knowing that she wanted better things for herself, and trying to figure out her life and purpose. And doing all of these things in the violent, hostile and oppressive environment that prison is, is more difficult than I can even begin to describe. You have to choose to resist the constant pressures that you are surrounded by, and you gotta get some folks onboard that want to support you in that. 

Cass’ family has always been a supportive pillar in her life, and they were her fiercest advocates. When the 1170d came into play, it was go mode for the family. They finally had a shot to tell the court who Cassandra really was, and could do something to support bringing their girl home. So the family compiled an extensive social biography packet — letters from family, friends, pictures, reentry support plans. We gathered letters from organizations from LA to the Bay Area. Folks were lined up to support Cassandra when she came home. And we worked closely with the public defender in making sure that this support and network was highlighted during her hearing. 

Cass was kind of a mess, calling me often, stressed out the game. She felt like her life was literally in the court’s hands. It was such a shock to her that there was actually something on the table that could bring her home sooner. The emotions that come along with being locked up and at the mercy of the courts to decide your fate are intense and overwhelming, and she was definitely going through it. She also was blown away by the amount of support that was being rallied up on her behalf, and she knew we were out here fighting hard for her.

The hearing was rescheduled twice. The public defender decided that he would like Cassandra’s brother and myself to address the court, so he made sure to schedule the hearing based on whether or not I could be present. He would literally be in judges chambers with me on the phone, to pick a date for the hearing that I could be there. It was amazing. And what was more amazing, is that he did not want me to address the court as the Prison Reentry Director from the Young Women’s Freedom Center, (that is always the role I thought I would play, as someone that has reentry expertise or as community support) but he wanted me to address the court as someone who knew Cassandra personally, was locked up with her, and who had watched the progression of her healing, growth, and transformation. So my role quickly got more personal. I had always fought for Cass, because I loved her and I know that she represents more than just her own case. She represents so many of our sisters that we have left behind, that are exhausted, have been in prison too long on sentences that just don’t match the crime they committed. But now my role was to speak for the women that did what Cass did, that have put in the hard work and transformative healing while incarcerated, that are leaders and powerhouses that are advocating for themselves and their sisters and siblings while they are inside, and the ones that come home, but are always reaching back inside to get their folks free.

Sister Warriors Go to Court
I flew into Riverside with Baby G (my baby who was 9 months old at the time) the night before Cass’ hearing. We still hadn’t figured out childcare, but we knew we’d work it out. The Sister Warriors LA Chapter, which is a coalition of formerly incarcerated women that advocate for and fight for the freedom of their sisters and siblings, drove out and got to the hotel at 3 am. We had known that two of us that were on the yard with Cass would be present, but now there were four of us. We’d all been locked up together in Chowchilla with Cass, and we’d all made it to the other side. Me, Rojas, Jaki, Jayde, and Baby G. It was really beautiful and so emotional for all of us. Team no sleep. When we got into the courtroom and could see Cass, we all got so happy. We all squeezed into one bench together, the family, and me, Rojas and Jaki. Jayde was down to watch Baby G, so she stayed outside with her. 

It was the same judge that had sentenced Cass, and he remembered her. We were all so nervous, and praying and holding on to each other. Please judge, see past that law book, see past the paperwork, see past the tattoos and old life and all the things you could get hung up on. See her now, and see your power to acknowledge her. I remember from reading through all of Cass’ case previously, that the judge was really specific about Cass’ family history when he sentenced her. He had said during sentencing that he was going to be particularly harsh with Cass because he knew she “came from a good home.” That was such a blow to read, because we never know what is happening behind closed doors, and that part of Cass’ life was untold, unspoken. I prayed he didn’t return to that space of assuming he knew what was really happening in her life at the time.

The DA was typical, running through all of Cass’ failures in life, and painting her to be something she wasn’t. The worst was when he brought up the cell phone she had been written up for inside. We had to do everything we could to not be speaking out right then. The DA had the nerve to say that Cass was likely engaging in gang activities and sending orders to the streets, and that’s why she needed a phone. We all wanted to scream at you know why we have phones? We call our families, we call our people, we take pictures, we catch up with people through text. That’s why the phone DA.

Her team of public defenders did an amazing job. Cass said she had cried when she read the brief. They really touched on all of the work she did inside, who she was as a person, and the things in life that had led her into the choices of her past. One of the public defenders also brought up gender identity, and the impact that had played in the why’s, what it felt like to be a kid that was pushed out, by family, by society's “norms,” by her peers. There was a level of acceptance that existed amongst the homies that Cass had never felt before. These were the deep conversations that we had before the hearing, and the public defender did a great job uplifting and hearing all that we had discussed. He never dismissed the issues, and instead he heard us, and uplifted the depth of her life in that courtroom. It was beautiful and they pushed hard for Cass.

It was our turn to address the court. Cass’ brother spoke. He talked about family dynamics, the trauma that had rocked the home they grew up in, and what had happened when they felt like they began to lose Cass to the streets. He talked about her faith, her transformation, her reflections, and the journey they had been on with her since she was incarcerated. 

I spoke about my friendship with Cass, who I knew her to be, and about the radical work that she had done inside. I disclosed my criminal history and that I had been incarcerated with Cass. I was able to introduce the Sister Warriors crew in the courtroom, and let the Judge know we were all incarcerated with Cass, that we had made it to the other side, and that we were coming back for our girls inside. I told him that we recognized the leadership in Cass, that we knew she would be out here doing amazing work in the movement when she came home, and that we were all examples of what can be when we are swooped up by community, and given access and opportunity during reentry to allow our skill sets to develop and the leadership qualities we hold to shine. I cried more than I thought I would, we all did. It was so emotional to feel like we were begging him to give her a chance and SEE HER!

The judge was good. You could tell he had really taken his time to read through all the details of the case, and that he had really considered all that was said. He made a statement that stood out, “As a judge, we wish that we had a crystal ball, that we could see into the future and determine whether or not the person we are sentencing will turn things around or stay on a destructive path. All I had to base the prediction of what Cassandra would do, was what her history told me. That her crimes were getting worse, and more violent, with less regard for those around her, and that she was not capable of turning things around at the time I sentenced her. But the beauty of this 1170 hearing, is that I was handed a crystal ball. I get to see now, what has happened when Cassandra took ahold of her life, got accountable, and who she is truly capable of being.”

He chose not to strike the gun enhancement, which we were almost sure he wouldn’t, and did not strike the prison prior. He did choose to strike the gang enhancement. Cassandra got ten years back, and will be home in three years. A 28 year sentence that turned into an 18 year sentence, just like that. And when you are sitting inside trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel, this will do it. Three years left is doable. You can begin to plan your life outside and what it really looks like. Cass is currently in Folsom.

And we start planning too, on what it means to bring our sister home, swoop her up into this network of folks that love her, and care for her, and SEE her, for the beautiful, powerful, fierce whole being that she is.

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