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A man stands outside a prison, his shadow filled with flowers

Black Prisoners’ Caucus: How an incarcerated man works for restorative justice and racial equity

Though closed off from the outside, some prisons in the United States have become hubs for community activism. Michael J. Moore talks to Vincent “Tank” Sherrill, leader of Washington State’s longest-running groups, the Black Prisoner’s Caucus.

Vincent “Tank” Sherrill asserts that in order to understand who he is and what he does, it’s important to understand where he’s from. “Oakland, California,” he says from where he sits across a metal table in one of four dayrooms here in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) where even the guards refer to him as Tank, rather than Offender Sherrill.

 

“Oakland’s rich histories influenced me a lot, and helped me to get back on the right track, and out of the criminal world.”

Tank has been incarcerated 27 years, for three counts of first-degree aggravated murder. He’s serving three consecutive life-sentences. As he tells his story, however, I begin to understand the role he’s played in creating a culture in MCC unlike that found in any other Washington state prison. Here, self-help, educational, cultural, and religious programs abound.

One such program, the Black Prisoners’ Caucus (BPC), has gained a reputation both in the facility, and in the outside community for its work toward social justice and racial equity.

Operating with a model that recognizes its incarcerated members as equal to outside volunteers, the BPC utilizes its various projects to accomplish its mission to educate, and to liberate the minds and bodies of our incarcerated brothers and sisters. For more than a decade, Tank has been behind most of these projects.

Born in the Murder Capital of America

Born March 5th, 1971, he was relocated with his family to Tacoma, Washington’s Hilltop Neighborhood when he was three. “We came up on the Amtrak,” he recalls. “When I was young, we would take trips back home that way, and I can still smell the inside of the train when I think back.”

Though gentrified today, the Hilltop of Tank's youth had earned the city its ranking as the murder capital of America.

 Sharing his memories, he paints me a picture of a world strewn with poverty and struggle, in which crime, drugs, and gang-activity were a part of a lifestyle his neighbors embraced simply because no other resources existed where they lived. Sadly, this struggle led his stepfather—whom he considered a father—down some dark roads of addiction and domestic abuse. When Tank was six, his parents separated.

“He moved right down the street,” he says, “so I was able to go stay with him at times. His lifestyle influenced me at a young age. He would tell me not to ever do this as he injected heroin into his body, and nodded out. I saw him commit robberies and assaults as a young child, so I became normalized to that lifestyle.”

Fighting for Territory

In the nineteen-eighties, young African American  men living on Hilltop were forced to rally together in protection of their community as out-of-state gangs attempted to exploit it through drug-sales.

"In the crack era, you were only gonna be one of two things: the one using it, or the one selling it.

Tank continues, “so, we sold it, and what came with that was that we had to fight for territory. When California Crips tried to capitalize off us, we ended up forming a relationship with them because they were the ones bringing the dope. That was a big part of the inception of the gang culture on Hilltop. We adopted their title, and became the Hilltop Crips.”

In 1986, his dad was stabbed, and subsequently died in the hospital. Fifteen-year-old Tank and his brother had to clean dried, sticky blood from their father’s car—an experience Tank describes as traumatizing.

A man leans against a steering wheel, dead. In a second and third panel, a young man cleans blood from the carseat.
Illustration by Mohamed Anwar

As the years passed, and the day-to-day violence on Hilltop increased, Tank assumed a position of leadership among the Crips, who were constantly disputing over power within their ranks. He explains, “All the leaders were doing drugs by that time. We were sniffing cocaine and smoking PCP, and we were all irrational. I wasn’t in the right state of mind, and I was in a situation where I thought my life was on the line, and I took some life, childhood friends of mine from the same neighborhood. It wasn’t unheard of.”

Passing the Mantel

The trial—during which the state pursued the death-penalty—concluded in 1995, and Tank was sent to Clallam Bay Correction Center, a facility whose reputation for violence had earned it the nickname “Gladiator School.” His leadership from the streets carried into the penal system and he gained notoriety as a peace-leader in one of the most notoriously violent prisons in the Pacific Northwest. Then, in 2000, a member of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus was transferred from the Monroe Correctional Complex. Seeing Tank’s leadership skills, he befriended the Oakland Native, and pushed him to put them to good use.

Tank says, “He would talk about the BPC and everything they were doing, and he would tell me I should go to Monroe and get involved. Before long, I realized he was passing the mantel to me, so I started preparing my own mind. I pursued my education, and started the Cultural Unity Organization (CUO). We sponsored events the prison didn’t have yet, like the Martin Luther King event and the Juneteenth event. It created opportunities to interact with other cultural groups like the Hispanic Culture Group, so we formed good relationships with them, and in doing so, reduced the interracial violence.”

While working with the Cultural Unity Organization, Tank gleaned as much information as he could about the Black Prisoners’ Caucus from members who had transferred from MCC. He learned that the BPC was founded in 1969, in the wake of the Black Panther movement which had originated a year prior, and that it was initially called: The Black Culture Workshop (BCW).

“It started because Black people in prison weren’t getting the right skin and hair products,” he tells me, “but they were doing talent shows, going on furloughs to perform for people on the outside, and making people aware of their culture. Then, Panthers started coming to prison and joining, and the BCW got more politicized. It became the BPC in 1972.

He also learned about the BPC’s heavy involvement in education. In 2003, a group of incarcerated members and outside sponsors conceptualized, and put into practice, the Black Prisoners’ Caucus University (BPCU), a program offering college courses to prisoners. Before long, the BPCU became the award-winning nonprofit organization, University Beyond Bars (UBB). Today, UBB employs multiple staff—both incarcerated and non-incarcerated—contracting with two colleges to provide Associates of Arts and Bachelor’s degrees. The organization remains prisoner-led, utilizing an advisory-board consisting of incarcerated stakeholders.

In 2007, Tank finally requested—and was granted—a transfer to MCC. BPC members, anticipating his arrival, welcomed him immediately into a leadership role, and watched their independent, grassroots organization grow exponentially, not only in terms of membership and outside support, but also the scope and volume of their ongoing and new projects. 

Tank uses his charisma to attract prominent community leaders, which are priceless to any organization navigating around opposition in the trenches. Mimicking what he had done successfully at Clallam Bay, he networked with the other cultural groups in MCC, and developed relationships between them and the BPC, not only alleviating racial tension, but boosting productivity through collaborative projects.

Most notable, however, was the way those around him began to transform in regard to how they viewed, and interacted with the world around them. He tells me, “Younger guys from Hilltop kept coming in, and I knew I had to influence them by my own example.”

Extinguishing Hopelesness

Before COVID-lockdowns, the BPC facilitated fundraisers, hosted events in the community—including criminal justice summits and town hall meetings—raised money to help kids go to college, advocated for individuals incarcerated in juvenile facilities, continued to support released BPC members, and collaborated with various other organizations operating in and outside of MCC. They also have a branch in the free world called The Black Power Connection.

Tank hasn’t let the Pandemic stop him from remaining active, though. Over the past year, he’s continued to raise public awareness of the BPC and its bold work by attending telephone conferences and radio interviews—including one for NPR. He’s also published spoken-word pieces that address the same societal issues being tackled by the organization that’s become, to him, a second family.

It would be difficult to make a case that Vincent "Tank" Sherrill hasn't had a tremendous influence on prison-culture in Washington, as well as raised an entire generation of community organizers.

His name is circulated in just about every social-justice movement taking place in Washington state’s prison system, as well as those happening outside. However, work he’s done over the years hasn’t just changed the social climate in prison. It’s also changed Tank as a man, and given him a sense of purpose that’s extinguished the seeming hopelessness handed to him by the state. Today, he shares a strong bond with his biological father, and has managed to instill, in his family, a pride he never could have imagined.

I ask him if there’s anything else people should know about him or the BPC, and without hesitation, he says, “I just want people to understand that prisons are no good. They’re traumatizing, and they continue to harm, rather than fix anything. The BPC is fighting for their abolishment, and as long as I have breath, I’m gonna do the same.”

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