‘If we don’t speak up for ourselves, then who will:’ Formerly incarcerated activist Clemente Arciga finds his voice at the legislature

Clemente Arciga (Photo by Sarah Mosquera)

During Hispanic/Latinx/e Heritage Month, the Montana Innocence Project is highlighting the story of criminal legal reform activist Clemente Arciga. Clemente entered the activism space through his involvement with Welcome Back, a returning citizen mentorship and advocacy organization based in Missoula, during his personal re-entry journey. Through the years, Clemente has supported MTIP’s work and become an important voice for formerly incarcerated people at the legislature. 

Clemente was born in Mexico. When he was 11, his mom moved him and his brother to the Bay Area of California. Because his mom worked all of the time, Clemente and his brother were often left unsupervised and “kind of ran wild”. Clemente said the lack of structure affected him.

They moved to a new city before his freshman year of high school. Still affected by instability, Clemente fell in with the “wrong crowd”. He first became justice-involved at 14. 

“At that time, I started getting in trouble little by little,” Clemente said. “Got kicked out of school. Went to juvy. Came back out. I feel like that’s where I started making bad decisions.”

When Clemente turned 18, he met a woman and had his first child. They moved to Montana, where his former partner’s family lived, a few months after their daughter was born. He has lived in Montana since 1999 and has been in and out of the criminal legal system.

“As time went by, I kept getting in trouble here and there,” Clemente said. “This last time, I went to prison. That’s what brings me to where I am now. And the thing about being in prison here, one of the biggest things I’ve said about the prison system is the thought that I’ve never seen so much corruption until or since.” 

When Clemente left prison, he entered a pre-release center in Missoula. There, he met re-entry advocate Zeke Campfield, who invited him to attend a Welcome Back meeting. Welcome Back is part of the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative. They offer mentorship and advocate for returning citizens. 

“When Clemente first started participating in Welcome Back he was, understandably, wrestling with issues around his place and value in our community,” said Zeke, who is now the Director of the Housing Advocacy Network at the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative. “His willingness to engage, learn and lean into both personal and professional growth has contributed significantly to his leadership around justice issues in Missoula but also across Montana. Often those who have the richest stories to share – those who have actually experienced the realities of our systems – are dampened by the real-life consequences of trauma and marginalization. Clemente, however, has been steadfast in his willingness to lean into that part of himself and to leverage his experiences with the justice system to benefit all those who walk before and behind him.”

Clemente began leaning into that part of himself after being involved with Welcome Back for a few years. In 2020, he took on a leadership role and attended a five-day retreat in San Antonio to learn about community organizing. At first, he did not want to go. But when he attended, something changed in Clemente.

“The biggest thing that happened was I realized that most people who are in prison or come back from prison…they always talk about how they don’t have any power,” Clemente said. “The State takes their power. The pre-release takes their power. Probation and parole takes their power. So we feel powerless. But at that meeting, something within me…I finally understood. The lightbulb went on, and I realized that they didn’t take my power. I gave my power up. I decided when I came back that it was going to be different.”

When he returned from the retreat, Clemente started advocating for himself more. He told his parole officer he wanted to work towards amending his judgment and that he wanted to travel to California more to visit family. Before the retreat, Clemente kept his head down, scared of what might happen if he spoke up for himself. When he made these requests, his parole officer assumed something bad happened. 

“He asked me what was wrong,” Clemente said. “Like he was concerned about me. And then I felt that guilt trip again…he was making me feel like I was guilty of something again. I said, ‘Well, something did happen.’ He got all excited like I was going to tell him something. But I told him that I went to this retreat, and this is what happened. I told him that I wanted things in life.”

That was a pivotal moment for Clemente. Although he is still subject to parole rules and his requests are not always granted, his confidence grew when he began speaking up for himself, and it inspired him to speak up for others as well–to lead by example for formerly incarcerated people who are understandably nervous about going up against those who took away their liberty.

The main way Clemente achieves this is by regularly testifying at the legislature. He first went to the legislature with his friend and fellow Missoula-based activist Zuri Moreno. The two were attending a Law and Justice Interim Committee meeting, and Clemente felt compelled to take action after watching the Director of the Department of Corrections mischaracterized healthcare and education services in Montana prisons. 

“I told Zuri, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t just sit here,’” Clemente said. “Zuri said, ‘What are you doing to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to speak!’ I testified that everything they said was really good, but it’s all far from the truth. And if they only have the DOC talking about all the good things they’re doing, then they’re not getting the whole truth. I was nervous and angry, and I almost cried.” 

Click the link to watch Clemente’s testimony beginning at the 10:34 minute mark: https://sg001-harmony.sliq.net/00309/Harmony/en/PowerBrowser/PowerBrowserV2/20190909/-1/37143#handoutFile_

Zuri said they were nervous when Clemente walked up to the microphone.

“Not because of what Clemente would say, but because how the legislators would react to some directly communicated harsh truths, as well as how they might treat Clemente because he is formerly incarcerated individual, as well as being a person of color,” Zuri said. “And I enjoyed every bit of Clemente’s willingness to communicate without shame about who he is, the lived experience he has, and why that makes him an expert in these conversations. I have consistently found Clemente to be an unrelenting self-advocate and advocate for others who have faced the injustice of our criminal legal system processes and institutions. Decorum of the legislature being what it is, I couldn’t cheer at the end of his testimony, as much as I wanted to.”

Zuri and Clemente met in late 2018 and worked on criminal legal reform issues together. Namely, they raised awareness about the conditions of jails and prisons during Covid-19 with the #LetThemComeHome campaign. 

“I have seen Clemente evolve in, feel more confident in, the truth that he is an expert in what he is talking about and demanding that people listen to him and other formerly incarcerated folks,” Zuri said. “… He has taken on more and more outspoken leadership, which is exactly what is needed in the fight for prisoners’ rights, decarceration, access to services (both preventative and re-entry), and all the other pieces to the work we are doing in criminal legal reform.”

Clemente owns a construction business, maintains his parole obligations, and is active with Welcome Back. Yet, he still devotes a significant amount of time testifying at the legislature on issues affecting incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people and organizing and mentoring in his community.

“A lot of people say, ‘Nothing’s going to happen,’” Clemente said. “It’s like, yeah, maybe it won’t happen where it’s good for me…like I reap the benefits. But I feel if other people can reap the benefits, then that’s good. There are other people who have been before me, and whether I realize it or not, I have gained from that.”

One of Clemente’s biggest motivations is to provide a voice for justice-involved people who fear retribution and, importantly, to inspire them to speak up as well. 

Clemente Arciga (Photo by Sarah Mosquera)

“There are so many people on probation or parole, and they don’t speak up because they’re scared,” Clemente said. “All of that stuff is real. If we don’t speak up for ourselves, then who will? … Some people don’t know what to say or don’t know what to do. I tell them, the Department of Corrections…they’re there. At every meeting, they’re there talking about all the wonderful things they’re doing for you. So if you don’t say anything, or you don’t do anything, that means it’s true what they’re saying. Since I feel it’s not true, I speak up.” 

Among other things, Clemente is currently following the Economic Affairs Interim Committee’s draft bills about using facial recognition technologies in criminal investigations and the Criminal Justice Oversight Council’s draft bills that largely repeal 2017 sentencing reforms. Those also interested in making public comments can sign up for email notifications about the respective committees they are interested in following at leg.mt.gov. Under the “committees” tab, select a committee, and click “sign up for email notifications” on the righthand side.