I first met Clinton Washington at an organizational retreat in Los Angeles. He stood up in front of The Bail Project’s entire staff and, without hesitation, emphasized the need to acknowledge the humanity in the work that we do. It didn’t take long for me to realize what he meant: in Clinton’s eyes, we need to see each person in the pretrial system as their fullest self – not just as a potential missed court date or someone defined by their experiences with the criminal justice system. As I listened to Clinton speak, only weeks into my job at The Bail Project, I felt a greater sense of confidence that I had come to the right place.
In April 2020, after struggling with complications related to Covid-19, Clinton passed away. Covid-19 had a disproportionate impact on people of color in terms of both cases and deaths. It also led to serious illness and death among incarcerated populations – who are subjected to conditions such as overcrowding that function as a “petri dish” for the virus – and further entrenched racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Clinton was a Bronx-based father, husband, advocate, and theologian. He was also a dedicated staff member at The Bail Project. He was loved by and is missed by many. At The Bail Project, we are grateful to see his life memorialized through a new documentary film, Clinton’s Calling, which celebrates Clinton’s life and passions through the lens of his family and community.
Near the beginning of the documentary, Ramel Edwards, a Bail Project client turned Bail Disruptor, reflects on the particular model of leadership that Clinton embodied. “What I wanted to be, what I am still aiming to be in the community – that guy [Clinton] was,” Ramel says.
In fact, we would all do well to take a page from Clinton’s book.
Many of the qualities that Clinton showed when I first met him could be seen across his work. He was always the first to volunteer himself and the last out the door when it came to supporting clients. Above all, he had a magnetism that drew people to him, which reflects how he lived and worked with empathy and compassion, especially towards people who were often unjustly relegated to the margins.
This compassionate approach extended to our clients – people who are legally innocent but are incarcerated because they are unable to afford the high price put on their freedom.
At The Bail Project, Clinton championed client-centered leadership. He created a client advocacy handbook, which served as guiding principles for supporting clients and ensuring they have the resources they need to navigate the pretrial system. No task was too small for Clinton when it came to our clients. He knew that something as basic as helping someone put a resume together, or connecting them with an employment agency, could have a positive impact down the line.
Clinton was a justice-impacted person, who faced the reality of having to start his life all over again after being incarcerated. I know from my own life experience that this is no small task. But his direct experience with the criminal justice system – and his own exposure to the unaffordability of the cash bail system – brought an incredible depth of knowledge to our clients and the organization at-large. Current staff at The Bail Project also bring their experiences with the criminal justice system to their commitment to clients; impacted leadership is one of our core values.
Clinton has many legacies. But, knowing Clinton, I’m sure he would not want the people that he served to be forgotten in our celebration of his life. As we honor Clinton, let’s also honor the people that he fought for on a daily basis – some of the nearly half a million people held in pretrial detention on a given day.
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