“Our message is simple, scientifically verifiable, and obtainable in California’s political climate: Juveniles and young adults, just as any human being, can change.”
These are the words of Tobias Tubbs, a writer and Leimert Park native who said he believes life sentences without the possibility of parole should be abolished in the United States. In 1991, following two murder convictions, Tubbs received this sentence and had been condemned to die behind bars. Instead of dying in prison, Tubbs developed a love for writing as a participant in Words Uncaged, a rehabilitation program working to bring art and writing therapy to the state correctional system in California.
Words Uncaged was founded at Lancaster Maximum Security Prison in 2015 by Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, an English professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Roy first entered the prison while working with Paws for Life, a separate prison outreach program that provides inmates an opportunity to care for dogs that may otherwise be put down.
During that time, Roy taught writing classes to the inmates and discovered the practice provided a much needed outlet for prisoners to express their emotions. Following this discovery Words Uncaged was born, giving men serving life sentences a space to reflect on their experiences, or even a way to come to terms with often painful realities.
“I got less involved with the dogs and more involved with the men, [and] Words Uncaged started out of that experience,” Roy said. “The act of writing itself is tremendously healing for most of the guys in our program because it's a kind of sustained engagement with reflecting upon their lives.”
Tubbs was one of the first inmates involved with Words Uncaged and since 2016, he has worked alongside Roy as the chief ambassador for the program. For Tubbs, writing provided him with an escape from the negativity and violence found within the prison.
“Most men [in the prison] had a knife in their hand or a stick of marijuana, but I found my humanity and my sanity through the preciousness of a pen,” said Tubbs, who has since become a published author through Words Uncaged.
Due in part to his work with Words Uncaged and other prison outreach programs, Tubbs was one of the 19 convicted criminals who had their sentences lessened by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. This meant that Tubbs became eligible for parole in October 2018. He was released from prison after serving 26 years.
One of the pieces of criteria that Brown used to decide who deserved to have their sentence reduced was self-improvement. According to Roy, of the 19 total men who received sentence reductions, nearly a third of them had participated in Words Uncaged. Another testament to the program's success is the rate of reoffense by those who have participated in it. Roy also says that Words Uncaged participants have a 0% rate of reoffense once released, far below the 65% for California as a whole.
Not all Words Uncaged participants are as fortunate as Tubbs. Like Tubbs, many have been sentenced to life in prison and are still eligible for parole. This means that for them, prison is — and will continue to be — their reality. Words Uncaged aims to provide such prisoners with the opportunity to reimagine their realities and make the best of their circumstances through the use of narrative.
The current circumstances of those serving life sentences, Roy said, may not be entirely of their own making. He said that many of the participating men were exposed to things at a young age such as exposure to drug abuse or gang violence, that lessened the control they had over their own destinies. Writing, he said, is a way for those men to take back some of the control they never had.
“They can kind of rewrite the ending of their story, even though the early bit was written for them,” Roy said. “They can take that story back and write it in a different direction.”
Words Uncaged has grown since its start, amassing an estimated 1,500 participants statewide. Like Tubbs, the organization provides these participants with a form of guidance and direction, helping them move forward from their sentencing.
“Words Uncaged has given me a direction in my life and has given me this platform where I can help others,” California State Prison inmate Jerimichael Cooley said. “To me [it] is hope, freedom, liberation and power.”
In his capacity as the chief ambassador for Words Uncaged, Tubbs presents as a keynote speaker at events, teaches students at Cal State L.A. and even works as part of the Theater of the Oppressed program at the University of Southern California.
Success stories like his are what drive Roy to continue the program he began almost five years ago. Words Uncaged continues to grow throughout the California prison system, bringing with it the goal of adding a spark of positivity and a chance for reformation to the lives of the state’s prisoners.
“To take, you know, kind of these really dark situations and do something positive in there ...it’s the best kind of thing that human beings can do,” Roy said.