LSJ Honors student and thesis author: Kaitlyn Laibe
Second Reader: Ann Frost
As a result of mandatory minimums, three-strike laws, and a host of other harsh legislation and practices in the 1980s and 1990s, the American carceral state has aggressively grown. Since then, federal court cases have challenged the constitutionality of life and lengthy sentences, especially for individuals sentenced as juveniles. In the wake of these federal decisions, Washington State enacted a variety of legal pathways towards post-conviction sentence review and early release, should a sentence meet certain criteria. This study explores how learning of the possibility of early release affected incarcerated individuals who previously did not expect to be released from prison. Qualitative interview and survey data from 12 individuals who secured early release from Washington State prisons resulted in three key findings. First, for every participant, learning of early release either created or expanded already- existing hope. Second, the hope that early release generates is tempered by institutional factors outside of the individual’s control, such as correctional staff intentionally administering infractions to disqualify individuals from early release process(es). Thirdly, although tempered hope generally results in a “hope for the best, expect the worst” mentality, hope still plays a positive role, often influencing an individual’s trajectory, engagement, and behavior in prison. This research illuminates the importance of creating realistic early release mechanisms as well as legislative and DOC policies that do not temper hope but instead, give it reason to flourish.