Keith Wattley, JD, Founder and Executive Director, UnCommon Law

Keith Wattley, a 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow, is photographed in Starved Rock, IL on Monday, May 14, 2018. Photographer: Christopher Dilts / The Obama Foundation

Q. Your organization, UnCommon Law, provides both legal counsel and mental health services for people serving life sentences in prison to prepare them for parole hearings. How have you seen your clients heal and recover as they go through this process and get ready for their hearings?

In order to achieve success in the parole hearing process, incarcerated people need to be able to show insight, responsibility, and remorse. Our work is designed to partner with people as they develop these attributes.

At the core of our clients’ healing and recovery process is a recognition that we are all survivors of our own childhood experiences. When those early life experiences involve abuse, neglect, and complicated attachments, those events and relationships can have a strong influence on later motivations and resulting decisions, including decisions to act in ways that harm others. Our work is to carefully, slowly unpack and hold to the light those key developmental moments and identify what is now needed to heal from them in the present. Once a person is able to deal with and process their own trauma survival, they are in a better position to show empathy for others and to truly comprehend the impact of their actions. In this way, self-awareness is inextricably linked with understanding victim impact and feeling remorse. Many people who go through this process—developing insight and responsibility, and coming to realize their impact and feel remorse—also experience “post-traumatic growth,” which may come in the form of a drive to support others through their own healing journeys. We have seen clients use their improved emotional intelligence and communication skills to transform their relationships with their families and their communities. This is one of the most impressive aspects of this work: to witness healing transformations that have the power to disrupt potential future cycles of violence and shame.

From left to right: An UnCommon Law client shaking hands with Keith Wattley, and UnCommon Law clients during reunification

From left to right: An UnCommon Law client shaking hands with Keith Wattley, and UnCommon Law clients during reunification

Q. Each of your clients has an individualized team of specialists supporting their parole hearing process, which may include people with lived experience of incarceration. How has including peers on a client’s team been particularly impactful?

A developing aspect of our work involves building a structure for formerly incarcerated people to act as mentors and counselors for those still seeking their release from prison. We have already seen firsthand the way in which the involvement of formerly incarcerated people in our work instantly communicates to our clients that we are committed to understanding their unique experiences and giving them the kind of support they need. People who have succeeded in their own transformation are best equipped to positively impact others seeking to change their lives while in prison. They provide a clear, relatable example of what’s possible for our clients—many of whom have lived without hope for many years. The impact of having a mentor who has been through similar experiences is significant. Such mentors exist in stark contrast to authority figures—or even other would-be counselors—who often have very different life stories and experiences than the people they seek to serve. There are few opportunities for incarcerated people to feel powerful in any real sense while they are inside prison. The ability to offer a rehabilitative curriculum led by someone who can speak directly to our clients’ hearts, minds, and life experience is priceless.

Q. Much of the current justice reform work carves out exceptions for people with violent charges or violent convictions. How can criminal justice stakeholders begin to look at this differently and shape behavioral health diversion programs to be more accessible to people charged or convicted of a violent offense?

The roots of both violent and nonviolent antisocial behavior can be traced to trauma. Criminal justice stakeholders should begin by acknowledging the prevalence of trauma among incarcerated populations—and start treating it. Specifically, they should advocate for screening people when they arrive in prison to better document histories of trauma, and develop healing-focused programs to then address that trauma. (Ideally, this screening and programming would also extend to people coming to work inside the prisons.)

There are approximately 2.3 million people currently detained across the United States of America and U.S. territories. While many recent conversations about criminal justice reform represent steps in the right direction, something crucial is missing from these discussions: an acknowledgment that most of the people incarcerated in our prisons are there for serious and violent crimes.[i] Therefore, when we talk about eliminating mass incarceration without addressing the majority of those populations, we’re not really talking about solving the problem.

At our core, UnCommon Law takes issue with the prevailing public notion that people who commit violent crimes are somehow beyond help or rehabilitation. In fact, experience has shown us two things: First, the factors contributing to crimes that end violently are virtually the same as those contributing to many drug and property-related crimes; second, people serving long sentences for violent crimes from their youth have been most directly responsible for building informal therapeutic communities inside prison, driving conversations in favor of healing and trauma-informed programming, and mentoring younger folks in the prison to help guide them along a healthier path.

Focusing on healing is the key. The majority of men and women in prison report having experienced high levels of childhood trauma across many elements, including physical abuse and neglect.[ii] [iii] While some rehabilitative services inside prisons do exist, they rarely involve therapeutic counseling that directly addresses that trauma. To compound this problem, existing programs often prioritize people serving shorter sentences over those serving life sentences for violent crimes. Thus, a huge majority of those serving long-term sentences in California—who may be struggling to process significant trauma and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder—have extremely limited access to the kinds of therapeutic programming they desperately need.

Recent changes in the law in California and elsewhere are providing the chance to be considered for parole for people who previously thought they would die in prison. In fact, more than half of the people in this state’s prisons will be considered for release by the parole board. However, their actual release is dependent on demonstrating significant gains in insight, remorse, and new thinking patterns and behaviors. This means there is a greater need than ever before to expand rehabilitative, healing-focused services to those in prison for violent offenses, both to address and alleviate violence in prison culture and to provide opportunities for healing and restoration to those who can and should be given a second chance to rejoin their communities.

Q. What is the most surprising thing you have learned about people, the justice system, or behavioral health issues since starting this work?

The prevalence of trauma among the prison population has been a huge surprise, surpassed only by the capacity these folks have to heal and to transform their own lives and communities when given the support they need—often, support that has been missing since their youth.

Q. What message do you hope your clients take away from working with you once their case is resolved and they are released?

We hope our clients know that they matter, that their journey is well understood, that they can triumph over the trauma they have both experienced and caused in the past, and that they have the ability to improve the lives of those in their communities.


[i] United States Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2017, by Jennifer Bronson and E. Ann Carson, NCJ 252156, (2019).

[ii] Survived and Punished, Research Across the Walls: A Guide to Participatory Research Projects & Partnerships to Free Criminalized Survivors, (2019).

[iii] Nancy Wolff and Jing Shi, Childhood and Adult Trauma Experiences of Incarcerated Persons and Their Relationship to Adult Behavioral Health Problems and Treatment. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 9, no. 5 (May 18, 2012): 1908-26.