For many people who know Kyle Hedquist, it’s no surprise that he’s doing big things in politics. The affable 46-year-old commands deep knowledge of the criminal justice system, especially the Oregon State Penitentiary, which is a mile from his new workplace at the state Capitol.
Hedquist works as a policy associate for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services to people in custody and lobbies lawmakers to make prison more humane and rehabilitative.
Hedquist deftly advances that mission in talks with politicians and their staffers. Yet he doesn’t fit the mold of the typical advocate roving the Legislature’s halls. Last year, Hedquist served the 28th year of a life sentence with no possibility of parole for the murder of Roseburg teenager Nikki Thrasher.
Hedquist was 18 at the time of his crime and pleaded guilty. He expressed remorse for his crime in his clemency application and in interviews with The Oregonian/OregonLive.
He has been free only since last April, when former Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, commuted his sentence in one of her many acts of clemency. Brown’s decision was divisive and made without the knowledge of Thrasher’s family, who opposed his release. A member of Thrasher’s family declined to comment for this story.
Hedquist’s family and friends gathered at the state penitentiary on the sunny day he walked free with his guitar and a plastic bag of possessions. He settled into the home of a former prison chaplain in South Salem. For a few months, Hedquist continued to work at a call center that employs people in custody.
Hedquist had a reputation in prison as a problem solver, lawmakers, advocates and prison volunteers told The Oregonian/OregonLive. Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Justice Resource Center, knew of him through mutual connections and, after an interview, created a position for him at the Capitol.
Singh also hired Kyle Black, who mentored other women while in prison, as a policy associate when she was released about six months ago.
Black, 58, spent 26 years in prison for the aggravated murder of her grandmother in Portland. She pleaded guilty and expresses horror at her actions. The Oregon parole board approved Black’s release and she walked free in October.
From the outset of this year’s legislative session, Hedquist and Black established themselves as fixtures in Hearing Room D. The hushed room houses both of the Legislature’s judiciary committees, which consider bills governing Oregon courts and the more than 12,000 people incarcerated in state prisons.
There, the pair have regularly testified in support of proposals such as Senate Bill 579, which would reinstate the voting rights of people incarcerated for felonies. They work closely with lawmakers, including Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who is sponsoring the voting rights bill and other consequential policy changes.
And despite some setbacks, several of the key bills they are championing to expand the rights of people in custody have notched notable committee wins.
Black and Hedquist seem to go everywhere in the Capitol together. To Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, a member of the House Committee on Judiciary, they’re simply “The Kyles.” On a recent Wednesday, they even wore the same shade of green by accident.
The duo strives to show that lifers — those sentenced to life in prison — can positively contribute to society when given a second chance.
“They are clearly committed to making up for what they did every day of their lives,” Dembrow told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “The two of them have become such a good team,” he added.
Like Dembrow, many legislators have received the pair with civility and respect. But not all lawmakers are receptive to their philosophies of redemption — or their political goals. Some Republican lawmakers continue to criticize Hedquist’s new freedom and question the quick transition to politics.
Hedquist and Black are learning to navigate their fast-paced careers as they adjust from decades each of tough living conditions and constant supervision. Both struggle with leaving their friends in prison behind.
‘WHO IS THAT GUY?’
Hedquist is tall and clean-shaven, having shed the thick goatee he cultivated at the state penitentiary. He’s gregarious and quick to laugh.
Black is thin and sported an array of colorful raincoats this spring. She speaks with a quiet intensity and often quotes Nelson Mandela, Benjamin Franklin and the Bible.
Black grew up in Portland. In an application for early release, she said a string of deaths in her family catapulted her into drug addiction and “violent” alcoholism. She fell into debt and embezzled almost $40,000 from her employer in 1995.
Seeking an inheritance, she killed her grandmother, Hazel Clemens, 80, with a hammer. Black was 31 years old. She was convicted of theft and murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Black spent most of that time at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.
“When I got to prison, I said I wouldn’t ever get high again,” Black said in an interview. “I wouldn’t drink again. And I would find out why I ended up in prison and why I ended up killing my grandma and leaving my daughter.”
According to the application, Black enrolled in a laundry list of substance abuse treatment and self-betterment courses. She took decades of Bible studies and was violation-free for more than 20 years.
As others served shorter sentences and walked free, Black became an official mentor for women in custody and new arrivals.
Karen Campbell met Black at Coffee Creek in 2005. Campbell spent six years there for causing a driving crash that killed her husband and another person.
New to custody and in need of guidance, Campbell sought out Black, who was housed in the same unit, on the recommendation of a prison chaplain. They struck up a friendship. Campbell came to admire Black’s introspection and integrity.
Source: Oregon Live