Bridging the Gap Between Community and Systems

Willard Jimerson, Jr. grew up in Seattle’s historically African American Central District neighborhood. Raised by a loving grandmother and grandfather, young Will could never have predicted that just six weeks after his 13th birthday he’d become a ward of the state and spend the rest of his childhood in America’s adult prison system.

One fatal and catastrophic moment on a late night in 1994 changed everything. The kid who once fancied himself a charming and mischievous prankster, who loved playing arcade games and pick-up football, was gone.

Will grew up in a time when many Black families and children were reeling from the impacts of redlining, concentrated poverty, strict drug laws, and unfair sentencing practices that overwhelmed inner-city communities. Meanwhile, academic and political leaders alike pushed racist rhetoric that painted children as domestic terrorists and unjustly justified America going to war against it’s self-imposed “Underclass” and their inhumane “Superpredator” offspring. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed in 1994, legalizing the inequitable and inhumane treatment of Black and Brown people in the judicial system.

It was in this social and political context that Will went before the King County Superior Court and was convicted of the murder of 14-year old Jamie Lynn Wilson. In 1994, at 13 years old, Will was one of the youngest people to be tried as an adult in Washington State history.

During sentencing, the judge agreed with the King County Prosecutors Office that he lacked remorse, was “devoid of humanity”, and on the path to becoming a violent career criminal. The judge and prosecutors decided the maximum 8-year juvenile sentence was not punishment enough. Even though a psychologist testified on Will’s behalf and described him as an emotionally fragile boy, abandoned by both parents, who should go into a juvenile system to help him, the court still sentenced him to 23 years in an adult prison.

Will spent three of his first five years in prison locked away in solitary confinement. In a 2006 interview with the Seattle P-I, he described the years locked in isolation saying, “That’s something you don’t prepare for, isolation and solitude like that. At the time, honestly, it felt overwhelming to me. It was unbearable.”

Though Will was given a 23-year sentence to “reform” his adolescent self, no mental health resources were ever offered to help process the early trauma and abandonment that had cost him his childhood.

Left to figure things out on his own, Will buried his head in books. In reading, he found black men whose stories he could relate to and learn from. A light turned on for him and in this process of growing and learning, he began to move from the mode of self-preservation that he had adopted to get through the adult system, to a place of self-awareness. This started the emotional process of going through and dealing with unchecked remnants of the abandoned and hurt child the system left behind.

In the same year he turned 18, Will was transferred to another facility for the 4th time. He was sent to Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. Finding himself again in isolation, under the most inhumane and unconventional circumstances, Will Jimerson made the finite steadfast decision to change his life. He decided his life and story, on the other side of the prison walls, would be used to free and teach others. In a 2006 interview, he said, “I feel like I have an obligation to live for two people now. A life was taken that shouldn’t have been, so I’m obligated to make sure the next person does get a chance to live. I don’t want to see nobody else go through this, I really don’t – on both sides.”

At 24 years old, though still in prison at minimum-security McNeil Island, Will became the first person in his family to graduate from college. He received his associate degree from Pierce College and was honored as the valedictorian of his class. Will continued reading and taking all available classes. He was preparing himself to return to his community as a man with something to contribute and change lives.

In 2014, at 33 years old, he was released from prison. Will arrived in Seattle with a vision to create opportunities that help black and brown boys succeed and grow into healthy productive young men. He understood the urgency to reach children early before someone else outside of their community comes along and prematurely make permanent decisions that forever alters their young lives.

Will made good on the promises to his community and himself. He continued his education, earning degrees in Sociology and Philosophy. He built and works with several community-based organizations focused on creating opportunities, restorative justice, and supporting young people.

Will also added freelance journalism to his list of accomplishments. In 2019 he received the Edward R. Murrow award for Excellence in Innovation. In his free time, Will still reads, focuses on his personal growth, enjoys physical fitness activities, and loves spending time with his family. He is a proud father. If Will is not at home, you can typically find him at the gym or out helping people in the community.

After making a name for himself through his work in the community, in March 2020, things came full circle for Will. He was hired by Public Health – Seattle & King County to serve as a Program Manager and Community Facilitator for the county’s Zero Youth Detention (ZYD) initiative. In this role, he has boots on the ground doing hands-on work building community.

He is actively helping to facilitate community engagement, reduce juvenile recidivism, increase access to culturally relevant resources, bring awareness to racial inequities, and advocate for and mentor youth. Will is also working with ZYD’s system and community partners, including the King County Prosecutors Office and Superior Court, to end secure detention and electronic home monitoring. He is particularly proud of these efforts and wants the young people he serves to know they can trust him to never compromise his values and always do the work with integrity.

ZYD Program Director, Derrick Wheeler-Smith, hope’s that others recognize the value of Will’s work in a way that does not falsely attribute his success to 20 years in the prison system. Research has shown that locking children in cages, withholding access to proper mental health resources, and physical isolation is not designed to reform or produce men like Will Jimerson. He said:

While I think Will’s story as a formerly incarcerated person is powerful, I hesitate to discuss or express that in public spaces. It’s not because I don’t value his story or resiliency, but because I won’t be a part of a criminal justice reform movement that makes someone like Will, or other credible messengers, think being formerly incarcerated is their biggest asset to this work. I don’t want them believing it and recounting it to poverty vultures who push and spin tales of trauma for power and profit. That messaging and mindset needs to be decoupled in the collective imaginations of all the folks who do the work of juvenile reform.

Wheeler-Smith recognizes the tireless passion, commitment, and authenticity Will brings to the work. ZYD appreciates Will’s hands-on, boots on the ground approach to bridging the gap between community and systems. He is not afraid to speak truth to power.

Will loves young people and holds space without judgment, allowing them to feel seen and heard in the places and spaces marginalized communities of color here in King County historically have not had their humanity recognized or been given a proper seat at the table. In a time when we are witnessing a historical uprising that calls for the reform of unjust and inequitable policies and practices, it is imperative to have extraordinary individuals like Will Jimerson, Jr. representing and doing the work of ZYD here at home.