Unless something changes, youth minister, self-help facilitator, violent offender, Fanon Figgers will never go home.
Fanon grew up in Los Angeles, in a home with two older brothers and a single mother. At some point Fanon came to the conclusion that fast money was his pathway to fix the problems in his life and gain status among his peers. To go from being the little brother to being the big homie.
In 1991, Fanon committed an armed robbery of a jewelry store. He was caught and served three years, eight months for his crime. Six months later he and a friend robbed a McDonald’s and were caught soon afterwards. This time there was no mercy. It was the height of the tough on crime era, so Fanon was sentenced to 210 years to life under California’s Three Strike Law.
The first several years of Fanon’s sentence were rough. Fanon stayed in trouble more often and not, and it wasn’t until a visiting from his mother while he was in the hole, that Fanon decided to try to turn his life around. Basically, she called him on the way his actions were destroying his life. “You’ve got all this time. But you also have a daughter that needs you, and you’re still making the same mistakes…” It was that wake-up call that motivated Fanon. He started going to church, surrendered his life to God, and began healing.
In the process of healing, Fanon took note of the younger generation entering prison behind him. He saw many of them struggling with the same thinking patterns that had led to so much pain in his life, and he increasingly got involved in mentoring them through the church. Today, he’s an integral part of a very successful youth ministry that has given countless youngsters the knowledge and support to make better decisions.
In the last ten years Fanon has not received any relief from the various sentencing reform laws that passed. That’s because his crime, a robbery, is classified as a violent crime, therefore he’s categorized as a violent offender. And the vast majority of recent reforms has excluded violent offenders and people accused of sex crimes.
To his church he’s a passionate mentor for the young men who are arriving at this prison daily, to the larger SQ community, he’s a patient source of emotional intelligence in programs he facilitates weekly, helping people process and develop coping skills for the trauma in their lives. But to the CDCR he will remain a violent offender for the remainder of his life.
His story is an important example of the ways our criminal justice system’s reliance upon labels leads to poor policy. Until recently, our system has lacked legal means to acknowledge the change in Fanon and resentence him appropriately. Today, there are pathways for a judge to reduce his sentence, or the Governor can commit an act of mercy and commute his sentence. In fact, Governor Brown was taking steps to shorten his sentence when his second term ended. Those who know Fanon are extremely hopeful that Governor Newsom will seriously consider issuing a commutation on his behalf so that larger society can benefit form the change that’s happened in his life.
Still, if his sentence is commuted, I hope we don’t just stop at changing one person’s circumstances. It’s time to rethink the way our criminal justice system creates permanent labels that don’t accurately reflect the way people grow, as they leave behind coping skills that failed them, and adapt a sense of self and community that makes them important assets in the healing our larger society needs. The truth is, the stages to healing are the same for a person who commits a non-violent crime, or a violent crime, or a sex crime. The question on the table when considering release should not be the type of crime committed, but the level of healing experienced.
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.