I’m Fulton Leroy Washington and in 2016, I received clemency from President Barack Obama after serving 21 years in prison for a non-violent drug crime after being wrongfully convicted. When I was sentenced to life in prison without parole, I knew that the relationships I had prior to my arrest would suffer the most.
I have eight children and I knew receiving a mandatory minimum life sentence would not only impact my life, but theirs as well. My children suffered from the consequences of incarceration and were forced to live most of their lives without a father present. For over a decade I was transported to prisons outside of California and spent time in facilities all throughout the country, so visitation was difficult, expensive, and my children and I were separated for long periods of time.
While incarcerated, my health was deteriorating and by the time I was released, I suffered from night blindness, knee problems, and overall health complications. The health difficulties I faced were nothing compared to the memories I missed out on with my children. Lost time is hard to make up for. Post-release, my family and I are still finding ways to spend time together and re-build our relationships.
When I was imprisoned I witnessed a lot of fathers like myself who had to leave their families behind. Throughout my incarceration, I also became a self-taught artist and focused on conveying human emotion. Since I’ve been released, I’ve rebuilt my life through my art, freedom and finding ways to advocate for criminal justice reform.
My children were young when I was incarcerated so growing up, my daughters would wait for my phone calls and struggle with the uncertainty of when we’d see each other again.
My daughters have expressed to me that when they entered adulthood, it felt like they didn’t have a parent figure because I was away from them for so long. The idea of a father was a foreign concept to the people I loved the most.
For over 20 years my daughter Bayon would visit me in prison no matter where I was located and she would bring my grandson. I was the only male role model he would know because incarceration has plagued my entire family. The criminal justice system has impacted my children at all levels and being torn apart from my family has had a lasting impact on their lives. I missed out on memories, celebrations, birthdays and important milestones because of a wrongful drug conviction that almost cost me a lifetime in prison.
Throughout my journey, I’ve witnessed the importance of family which is why I’m supporting California SB 394, the Primary Caregiver Pretrial Diversion Act, a bill that can change the lives of families like mine and help keep kids and their parents or caregivers together.
This new legislation would set up a diversion court that would give parents the ability to remain involved in their children’s lives because families deserve to be together, while also providing resources for parents to learn and grow from their mistakes.
Today, my children and I have come together to find ways to rebuild our relationships and make up for lost time. In California we need our families restored and children need their fathers.
California SB394 would have given me the opportunity for a second chance and to prove to myself and my children that our relationship was worth more than a crime that I did not commit. You can help by advocating for this crucial bill to keep families together instead of tearing them apart with incarceration.