WALLA WALLA — The Buick heads over the hill and the Washington State Penitentiary appears on the left of the highway, in a nest of chain link and barbed wire.
For most of the 300-mile drive from Bremerton, Teri Thompson had been like she usually is, pleasant and smiling, laughing with her mom, Tina Pappas, who is behind the wheel.
Now, the prison in sight, the two women are quiet.
“This is the hardest part of being in Walla Walla,” Teri says, on her third trip to the prison, a trip she might regularly make the rest of her life. “My kid is so close to me, but I can’t even see him.”
She watches the prison through the windshield: “I think that hits me every time I come over that hill.”
Inside the prison’s West Complex, known for housing the state’s most violent gang-affiliated offenders, is Teri’s son, Sean Allen Thompson, 30. He sets aside a brand new white T-shirt for the visit.
A newfound sense of discipline and purpose has taken root in Sean, something he attributes to prison. Diagnosed with a mood disorder, he takes his medication dutifully. He sets the alarm on the television set he has in his cell for 6:30 a.m.
“First time in my life I ever got up that early.”
In February, a Kitsap Superior Court jury convicted Sean of second-degree assault. Under sentencing guidelines, Sean would been sentenced to 3 1/2 years, tops.
However, the last conviction counted as Sean’s third strike under the state’s persistent offender law. He received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of early release.
He never killed anybody, never raped anybody, and he had never been to prison. The longest sentence he served was seven months in the Kitsap County Jail.
Teri’s worrying won’t ease until she lays eyes on Sean. “Until he walks through that door.”
Checking into a hotel after the all-day trip through the June heat, the desk clerk tries to make polite conversation and asks Teri the reason for her visit.
“The great tourist attraction up on the hill,” she says with a laugh. The clerk laughs along, maybe not understanding.
At the penitentiary, Sean is enrolled in a graphic design class. He works, and he takes an anti-violence class where inmates are encouraged to confront their feelings and learn to express them with words, rather than violence. Despite his terror at being sent to prison, he feels he is finally making progress.
“I wish I would have gone to prison on my first strike,” he said.
He cannot grasp the size of this sentence. He will be dead when he gets out.
“People make a plan, five years, 10 years, something they are shooting for,” Sean said. “I’m without a timeline, really. I have no future.”
Teri has spent the last 30 years worrying about her son.
He was born when she was 17, the first son of she and her husband, Scott. They had their second, Joseph, not long after. The family lives between Tracyton and Silverdale.
“At 6 months he was banging his head against the floor,” she said. “At first, we didn’t think anything of it, or we thought it was funny.”
Sean would grow up charming but insecure, easy with people but paranoid he was being watched or controlled. He would be medicated, hospitalized and arrested repeatedly. Alcohol and drugs made it worse, but mostly it was alcohol. He would become both a giver and receiver of terrifying violence.
Teri wonders how he has survived this long and what she could have done differently. It’s hard for her not to blame herself. At the same time, Sean’s sentence has given her purpose. She has begun campaigning for a change in the law, to allow for the possibility of early release, to allow for hope. She and Sean have started a website, www.ichangelaw.com, which intends to give blogs to inmates serving life sentences.
“This is a long journey,” Teri said. “This isn’t going to end.”
It’s morning the next day, and visitors to the prison — mostly women, some children — wait on benches in the hallway. They have been waiting longer than usual.
In front of them is a locked steel door with a window, the first door that separates the outside world from the inside. Beyond this door and two more is Sean. To pass the time before seeing his family, he watched Donald Trump on CNN announce his candidacy for the Republican nomination.
“’I’m rich, I’ll save the U.S.,’ is basically what he said,” Sean said. “It was hard not to believe him.”
The topic of prison reform has been in the news recently. Some presidential candidates are talking about it, and President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison this month. Although Teri has found herself passionate about the issue, that’s not what is on her mind right now. It’s seeing Sean.
The visitors have passed through a metal detector, their outfits have been scrutinized; they have been patted down, their wallets and cellphones secured in tiny lockers.
Now they wait some more.
Teri wonders if something has gone wrong. Was there a fight? Has the wing of the prison been placed on lockdown? She knows that is a possibility.
Teri’s smile is gone, so is Tina’s. They sit together, straining to see if the noise heard, the voice, the rustle of cloth, is an officer coming to unlock the door and lead the group to the visitation room. Or, conversely, to tell the visitors they will have to come back another time. All the miles, money and coordination each visit takes, wasted.
“I just sit quietly and put my halo on,” Teri said. She doesn’t complain. Tina doesn’t either. They sit with their hands folded, each wearing matching black T-shirts and bluejeans, outfits they were sure would pass inspection. During the first visit Teri was surprised when she was told the neckline on her blouse was too low. She had to put on a shirt provided by the prison.
There are about 20 adults sitting on benches, waiting, almost all of them women. Nobody talks. Children, wearing shorts and T-shirts and on summer vacation, giggle as a toddler cousin climbs over them.
Finally, a corrections officer approaches.
“Hey, you take bribes?” one woman asks him. “I’ll give you five dollars if you would walk a little faster.”
She’s almost climbing the wall, but mouthing off is not Teri’s style. She is polite and friendly. “We might as well be friends,” she said of her approach. “Because I’ll be coming back.”
Teri wants to visit at least every month.
“Every day I cry,” she said. “Then I say, ‘Get off your pity pot. You have got this to change for your kid.’”
Weeks before the visit, Teri and Tina have cut each other’s hair. It’s one way to save money. The visits to Walla Walla are expensive, as much as $400 each time depending on how many family members make the trip — Sean’s father goes when he can take time off work. So are the boxes of food they send to supplement what the prison provides.
Tina said her family sticks together.
“Our motto has been, never shut the door, no matter what,” Tina said.
She has been organizing with groups pushing to change the three-strikes law. Sean’s case is being appealed, and there is the chance of a clemency from the governor. Beyond that, it would take an act of the Legislature. Teri wants the law repealed, but right now she is trying to meet as many people as she can and learn as much as she can. She is not opposed to prisons, nor is she advocating that the doors be opened for Sean. What she wants is hope.
Last month she and Scott went to a rally for Washington Coalition for Parole in South Seattle. The group wants lawmakers to bring back a parole system, abolished for most inmates in the early 1980s, so that after 15 years, life-sentence prisoners can have appeals for early release reviews.
“I never imagined I would go be a part of trying to change something,” she said. “Typically I used to be very shy. I’m not usually out there.”
The officer unlocks the door. It appears as though the family and friends will get to see their loved ones. Teri and Tina are at the front of the line.
Sean’s behavior strained the family, in many ways.
In August 2004, at 20, Sean set up a deal to buy 2 ounces of pot from his brother, Joseph. With the help of another man, he robbed him. When Joseph spoke with a Kitsap County Sheriff’s deputy, he had multiple injuries to his head and face and had contusions around his neck “as if somebody had attempted to strangle him,” the deputy wrote.
Joseph said he met Sean at Central Kitsap High School and got into Sean’s Chevrolet Blazer, all according to the arrangement. Then a man jumped from the back and put a knife to his throat. The two punched him while searching his pockets. Joseph was able to fight his way free and run away when the vehicle was stopped.
Sean denied he had robbed his brother and blamed the other man. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a charge of accomplice to second-degree robbery and was sentenced to seven months in jail. Strike one.
“I haven’t been staying at home,” Joseph wrote to the late Superior Court Judge Theodore Spearman. “The defendant had my house key and I haven’t trusted my parents because all they do is try and protect Sean Thompson from everything he has done wrong.”
Joseph’s feelings of betrayal were part of a family being consumed by the needs of a mentally ill family member, said Teri, who has apologized to him over the years,
“Your whole life revolves around that.” she said, adding that with Sean’s troubles it has taken work and understanding to keep the family together. “You tend to not take care of the other kids as well as you should.”
In July 2007, at age 22, Sean was hanging out with friends in Silverdale and had been drinking beer. The disagreement started with words, ratcheted up to shoving. A witness tried to intervene.
“She tried to break the two apart,” a deputy wrote. “Next thing she knew, (the victim) was on the ground bleeding.” When questioned, Sean denied stabbing the man in the chest, saying the victim and the witness were arguing, and that the witness is who stabbed the man. The man was flown to Harborview Medical Center. He survived; the knife missed his heart.
“He said he did not stab anyone,” the deputy wrote after interviewing Sean. “He didn’t even own a knife.”
Sean pleaded guilty to a count of second-degree assault. He would have faced 12 to 14 months in prison, but former Judge Leonard Costello found that because the fight “was one of mutual combat,” in that both men were willing participants until the stabbing, Sean deserved a lower sentence and received 12 months in county. Sean served seven, he said. Strike two.
In the meantime, Sean racked up a considerable number of non-felony offenses. He had 21 gross misdemeanor and misdemeanor convictions by the time he got his third strike in February, ranging from simple assaults to vandalism to possession of pot.
The prison visiting room looks like an elementary school classroom. There are shelves with kids’ books and board games, round tables and chairs and wildlife murals on the wall.
When the visitors are allowed inside, there is a rush to the vending machines, to the microwave to cook the frozen pizzas — those go quickly — and then back to their tables. Teri and Tina pick a table.
Soon inmates will walk into the room to a little feast in their honor. Convicted of some of the worst crimes imaginable, the men are smiling and hugging their mothers and wives. For up to four hours, they will sit, hold hands, talk and eat junk food.
Teri and Tina get Sean a pizza, chips, red licorice and a Coke.
They talk about family. Sean tells them about his jobs, one of which was cutting out patterns to make teddy bears. He talks about his classes. Teri makes a move to clear the paper plates from in front of Sean.
“Can I clutter?” he asks.
She laughs, yes, go ahead.
“I like to clutter,” Sean says, waving his hands over the plates and the remains of his pizza. “Makes it feel like a party.”
Sean tells his mom and grandma about a class where inmates are asked to finish the sentence, “If you really knew me you would know …” It’s a question that unnerves inmates, something they don’t like to answer.
Sean finishes it a couple different ways.
“I’m really an emotional person. I tried to hide all that, with alcohol, or drugs.”
At about 5, Sean realized he was different, he said, and laughs. “A lot of people who knew me think I was different, too.”
Later on he got a tattoo on his wrist showing a razor blade cutting into the flesh. Out comes green blood, because he is different.
“At school I kept getting in trouble,” he said. “I thought trouble was following me in a sense, like a bubble over my head.”
Growing up, when Sean got into a fight, Teri would make him go back the person and apologize. More often than not, Sean would make friends.
Sean inflicted violence on others, and he also had violence inflicted upon him.
He had fallen asleep in a bedroom at a party, and a group of people came in, planning to put makeup on him. He sprang up and tried to fight his way out of the room. Instead he got hit in the face with a chair, breaking his jaw.
“I overreacted, it was my fault,” he said.
The scar on his neck came from getting stabbed with a meth pipe. Sean had been selling meth in the Westpark housing project for a dealer, and they got into an argument. It turned physical and the dealer stabbed him and ran away. Sean was more upset that, carrying meth and a gun, the dealer would get in trouble if the police found him. Sean called him on his cell and persuaded him to return to the house. They made peace. The glass pipe missed his jugular vein, but an ugly scar runs nearly the length of his neck. He blamed himself.
On the table in front of Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Chad Enright is a file, thick as a textbook. It is one of two files the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office has on Sean. Over the years, the office received 34 referrals from law enforcement for criminal charges.
“That is high, yes,” Enright said.
The third strike came, then missed Sean, in April 2013. He had gone off his medications — he said they were putting him in a fog, and increasing his paranoia. A pet spider had died, and he took to walking around the neighborhood, holding the dead spider in a box. A friend came over to visit him, and Sean pointed a replica air gun at her. He was originally booked into jail for investigation of second-degree assault, a strike, but was charged with felony harassment. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in jail.
As he was being arrested, he told the deputy that he had two strikes already and that this would be his third. He said something similar to the deputy who arrested him on Aug. 29, 2014, for what would be his third strike.
Brock Nye and Sean had been friends for about half their lives. They grew up together, and on that day in August they were hanging out with a woman at a house in Silverdale. They had been drinking. An argument started, and escalated, and Nye ended up severely injured and Sean under arrest.
“He had many opportunities to plea bargain, he had many opportunities to work with other attorneys, but he didn’t do it,” Nye told the Kitsap Sun. “He had all the options he could have had, he just chose to go that way.”
At the scene, a bloodied Nye told the deputy they had started fighting, but he relented and Sean did not stop. According to his statement, Sean grabbed a fireplace shovel and began beating him. Nye held up his hand and said “It’s over,” according to documents, but Sean kept swinging.
After that, Nye’s memory of the incident slipped away from him.
“I remember one hit, then nothing,” Nye said of his memory now. “He hit me, I went down, I don’t remember anything after that.”
As he waited for trial, facing his final strike offense, he was distrustful of his court-appointed attorney and had essentially been representing himself, his life on the line. Sean had not been taking medication, though he was later found competent to stand trial. The last grade Sean completed was 10th, and he had been in special education classes.
“I didn’t want to go pro se,” Sean said, the legal term for representing oneself. “I still don’t know the law.”
In October 2013 a Western State Hospital psychologist diagnosed Sean with “mood disorder not otherwise specified,” which is to say, Sean has a mood disorder — like bipolar disorder — that doesn’t fit the description of a specific disorder. He was involuntarily hospitalized at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for three days in November 2003 with a diagnosis of an unknown psychotic disorder and alcohol dependence, according to court documents. He was a patient at Kitsap Mental Health for four years after that, then again in 2013. He had been hospitalized at Harrison Medical Center numerous times.
Teri said he had received many diagnoses over the years, but the two that apply best are bipolar and schizophrenia. The schizophrenia symptoms didn’t appear until he was in his early 20s.
In exchange for a guilty plea, Sean said a sentence of 15 to 20 years had been mentioned to him. Enright said there was no offer, but prosecutors “kept the door open,” aware of what the sentence would be if Sean was convicted.
First, though, to plead guilty, a defendant has to admit he did it.
“People who take responsibility for their actions are open to rehabilitation, they are open to working on not committing more crimes,” Enright said. “People who do not take responsibility are more dangerous to the community.”
Sean had originally been charged with first-degree assault, but because of Nye’s memory loss, the charges were reduced to second-degree assault. It didn’t matter. Second-degree assault counts as a strike, too.
Nye sustained a deep cut on the back of his head. Prosecutors said it was from Sean. Sean claimed self-defense, and said during the brawl, when Nye fell, he struck the hearth, splitting his scalp open. The jury voted unanimously to convict. Strike three.
Deputy Prosecutor Robert Davy, the attorney at trial, said aside from the sentence the case was not remarkable.
“It was two friends who admittedly drank a lot together and got into a fight,” Davy said. “And the jury found one criminally culpable.”
Sean pleaded guilty to his previous two strikes because he knew it was his fault. Nye had bruises shaped like the handle on his back — but Sean maintains he did not hit him in the head.
“I’m guilty of having a part in it, but I’m not guilty of what I was accused of,” Sean said.
Teri didn’t react immediately after hearing the verdict Dec. 12. It was like she was in a fog. She was sitting in the car, waiting to go home, and she started screaming.
“It was like somebody walking up on a car wreck, and they saw their son dead, that’s what it felt like,” she said. “I felt like my child died that day.”
Twenty-four states have some kind of mandatory sentencing laws for repeat offenders. Washington’s I-593 was the first, approved in 1993 by almost 76 percent of voters, and came on the heels of the violent crime rate peak in the early ’90s. It created a mandatory life without early release sentence for people convicted of three serious crimes during separate trips through the court system. The crimes are collected in a list, called “most serious offenses.”
As of June 2014, there were 261 inmates serving three-strikes sentences in state prison, according to state Department of Corrections figures.
Including Sean, four people have received three-strikes sentences from Kitsap County.
There are three other ways of getting a life sentence in Washington: a sentence for aggravated first-degree murder; “de facto” life sentences, where the imposed sentence adds up to a number of years that exceed a person’s life expectancy; and the state’s “two strike” law for certain sex offenses, added in 1996 by the Legislature.
A study from the University of Washington, released this month, found almost 1 in 5 Washington state prisoners are serving life sentences. The average cost of imprisoning a person through the end of their life, the study found, is $2.4 million.
Although the law was popular with voters and remains popular, according to its proponents, the Legislature has not shown much interest in it either way.
Before voters overwhelmingly approved the law at the polls, the Legislature was presented with a three-strikes law and declined to pass it, said Sentencing Guidelines Commission Chairman David Boerner, a retired Seattle University Law School professor. Over the years, lawmakers have balked at recommendations to remove some of the less-serious crimes on the list of “most serious crimes,” such as two of the more common third strikes, which include Sean’s strike offenses: second-degree assault and second-degree robbery. Boerner said second-degree assault covers a range of assaults that lack an intent to kill; second-robbery is essentially unarmed robbery, he said.
“Basically, the initiative as written is still in effect,” he said.
Deputy Prosecutor Enright said the office hears less criticism of the law from the public, and more questions about why a defendant hasn’t been sentenced to life under the law.
Critics of the law offer several arguments against: cost; lower-level offenses can stack up to a life sentence; there is no way for offenders to earn back their freedom; and the law has disproportionately locked up black people. Forty percent of three-strikers are black, a racial group that makes up 4 percent of the state population.
Boerner said the law is part of the criminal justice system, which disproportionately affects minorities. The Legislature has found that the mentally ill are also disproportionately imprisoned.
“Prisons are not a cross-section of society,” he said.
Some who want to alter the law, like former state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, question if it is humane.
“People change,” said Kline, quoted in a critical report from Columbia Legal Services. “Shouldn’t we recognize that change in the law? And shouldn’t we allow an opportunity on a case-by-case basis to look for the guys who really have changed?”
In fact, one theory on which most criminologists agree is that recidivism risk drops as a person ages.
Supporters of the law say it has worked and is part of the reason why the crime rate has plummeted from the 1990s.
“I’m sure that can’t all be attributed to one policy, it’s part of a bigger picture,” said Paul Guppy, vice president for research at the Washington Policy Center.
He said perspective has a lot to do with whether a person sees an assault as “minor.”
“If you are the victim of the crime, it doesn’t feel like it’s minor, “ he said.
His organization watches for measures to change the three-strikes law, and he said there has been no recent push to revisit it.
“We would have heard, by the way, and it never came up,” he said.
He said prosecutors have discretion on how to charge, and it takes three strikes to get a life sentence, and there are other checks on the law.
“If there was really an egregious injustice, ultimately a governor can correct that,” he said. Former Gov. Christine Gregoire granted clemency to several three-strikes inmates.
Sean offers another attempt at finishing the open-ended sentence.
“I’m struggling. I’m trying to be myself. I’m learning me, being OK with me, who I am.”
Right now the hope is a transfer. After four years, with good behavior, Sean could move to a less-restrictive prison, possibly closer to his family. He said he couldn’t do it without his mom.
“I’d probably just give up,” Sean said.
“It’s not that I want to be here, but I love what I’m learning. I’m learning to talk about my feelings, express emotions in the right way. I would always just go and drink.”
He admits, though, he can’t grasp his sentence of life without. He wonders if he will ever get an opportunity to use the things he is learning.
“There will be a moment in here when I’ve completed all the programs, there will be a moment when I know more about myself. Then I will realize, there is just no end.”
When the time comes, the visitors are led into a little glass room. The inmates stand on the far side, smiling, waving and shouting goodbyes. The family members wave back. They stand for a period. Then the doors open, the visitors walk back to the reception area. The inmates go back to their cells.
Teri doesn’t cry until she is outside.
Tina has noticed the change in Teri. She is no longer the person who went along with what she was told.
“We are proud of her,” Tina said.
The ride home isn’t as tense, but it is quieter.
“It’s like walking out of a funeral.”
It’s dark by the time they arrive back in Bremerton.