“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” – Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy)
This summer I read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a Harvard-educated lawyer who has dedicated himself to fighting inequality in the criminal justice system, especially mass incarceration, with his non-profit organization the Equal Justice Initiative. As someone who has won relief for 115 people on death row and successfully argued numerous cases in front of the Supreme Court, Stevenson is an inspiring role model.
His book details the racism and other flaws endemic to the American justice system and legal process, especially in the South, and deals with issues ranging from the lack of qualified public defenders, to overcrowding in prisons, to rampant racial discrimination in Southern states, to the death penalty. No matter your political views on any of these issues, the fact that one in four African-American males will be incarcerated at some point in their lives is shocking.
For someone unfamiliar or unassociated with America’s prison system, namely the wealthy and socially advantaged, it is easy to ignore the plight of those languishing in prison. For many years, I did as well. Prison was something that you never really talked about. That you didn’t see except in cartoons or satire. It is too easy to think, “I have comfortable life, I will never go to prison nor will anyone in my immediate friend or family circle.”
It’s an understandable point-of-view, but it’s unacceptable. Mass incarceration of individuals — including youth, the elderly, and the infirm — has become a part of American society, something that sets us apart from other developed, democratic nations worldwide. As such, if you identify as an American, the tragedy of mass incarceration is a part of you, and for this reason you have a responsibility to care.
I am highly engaged by the topics of prisons, local policing, and other persistent justice-related problems, and how they can be addressed. I am not sure what prompted this interest, probably the fact that I have always been outraged by injustice, willing to fight and speak up when I perceive that something is wrong. Maybe it comes from the compelling stories of the people and families touched by this injustice. Although far too few Americans are aware of these shortcomings in our criminal justice system, I’m glad that there are many individuals and organizations who do care.
Let me give you some alarming facts. There are states in which 14-year-olds can be sentenced to life in prison. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, jailing 700 people per 100,000, ahead of such countries as Russia, China, and Iran, not exactly a list on which you want to be #1. Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons has quadrupled. It costs U.S. taxpayers $33,000 a year to house the average “maximum security” inmate in federal prison. Hundreds of death row inmates in the U.S. have been exonerated, proving that they were sentenced to death for crimes that they did not commit. There aren’t enough public defenders — only 21% of public defender offices across the country have adequate funding to represent their clients. This means that the people who need legal counsel most are going without it. And, the racial divide is criminal (pun intended) — the incarceration rate for African-American men is more than six times higher than it is for white men.
So why care? If those facts alone aren’t enough, the reason to care dates back to our nation’s founding — “Land of the free, Home of the brave?” “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men (note, no mention of women) are created equal.” Equal? Yeah right. When we are locking up more people than we know what to do with, putting people in concrete boxes, giving in to racial injustice, potentially killing innocent people, and accepting 70% recidivism rates, something needs to change. My message to my peers is that it is our responsibility to become leaders and bring about change on this issue.
While there have always been fundamental problems with the U.S. prison system, stemming from institutionalized racism born out of the era of slavery and the post-Reconstruction period, prison in the U.S. used to be focused more on rehabilitation. Prisoners were put in cells with decent food to eat, a bed to sleep in, and a bible to read. Sentences were short. Prisoners were confined but not marginalized, encouraged to change their ways and then reemerge into society as healthy, productive members. Now, with 2.4 million inmates warehoused, we clearly have a system more focused on punishment and suffering than positive rehabilitation.
Although I understand that given the size and scope of America’s mass incarceration problem change will be slow, I yearn for a movement towards an incarceration system like that in Norway, a system that focuses on restorative justice over punitive retaliation. Restorative justice means viewing crime as more than just breaking the law. It means understanding that crime causes harm to people, relationships and community and focuses on ways to heal the harms that have been done. It can do that via a variety of forms including victim-offender meditation, ex-offender assistance, and community service.
Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” is full of stories of injustice — injustice for the innocent and for the guilty. Yet, some of the stories that struck me most were the stories of the children who had been sucked into the vortex of America’s system of mass incarceration, never to be released. For example, Stevenson talks about Trina Garnett. Garnett grew up the youngest of 12 children in an impoverished family with an abusive, alcoholic father who sexually assaulted her and her sisters. Her mother died before Trina turned 14. On top of this, Trina began to develop intellectual disabilities, making school and social relationships near impossible. One night, when she was 14 years old, she snuck out of her house to go hang out with some boys. When she got to their house, it was dark, so she lit a match to see where she was going. She dropped the match, the house caught on fire, and the boys were killed. Trina was immediately arrested, but she was so traumatized by the incident that she shut down emotionally. Given the circumstances, the judge was inclined to be lenient, but state law required a mandatory life sentence without parole. At age 16, Trina was sent to an adult prison, where her mental health deteriorated, she was raped by guard, and gave birth to his child while in prison. Trina is now 54, and has spent 40 years incarcerated. Unless state mandatory minimum laws are overturned, she may never be released.
This story is tragic. It is indicative of the need for all of us to care — for us to recognize that society’s children, our children, are being sent to die in prison. And, that the elderly are being kept in prison long after they have atoned for their crimes. In 2014, Trina Garnett appeared in a powerful music video with other women serving life sentences. The song’s title was “This is not my home.”
There are many elderly individuals currently in prison who are kept behind bars years after their minimum sentences are done, well beyond a time when they pose any threat to public safety. The permanent punishment of incarcerated individuals damages our social standards and values as a whole. If we continue to keep the elderly incarcerated, we will never decrease the total number of people in our prisons. As younger incarcerated people age but don’t get parole, or are serving life without parole sentences — sentences known by some as the “the other death penalty” – the number of older prisoners continues to rise. Currently, Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP (RAPPCampaign.com) is the only organization dedicated to advocating for the release of the elderly from prison.
Recently, when I was doing some interviews for a photo essay about the human side of mass incarceration in the United States, I had the opportunity to sit in on a program that gave me hope for the future of our justice system. The program was called “peer court.” It was a place where young offenders could appear in front of an assembly of their peers to receive intervention and support before being thrust into the adult justice system. Although the program I saw was only for my local community, it holds the promise of more far-reaching change.
The basic argument behind locking people up is two-fold — for protection and for punishment. This basic justification is problematic within itself. I agree that it is important to keep dangerous criminals off of the streets, yet the system we now have is flawed. It no longer provides true justice, due process, and consideration of all the relevant circumstances. It no longer looks at individuals as humans worthy of redemption. Society as a whole has been conditioned to accept turning the other way, and throwing away the key. Yet, this approach only breeds more anger — anger that leads to more violence, anger that drives wedges between races, anger that leads to radicalization.
From a young age we are taught to say “sorry,” to ask forgiveness, to atone for our wrongs, and to be forgiven. As such, we need to do the same with those imprisoned, guilty or not. We need to open our hearts and forgive. While in some cases forgiveness may seem beyond the realm of possibility, in the vast majority it is.
I see a special responsibility for young people in this fight — this fight to care, this fight empathize and try to understand. Our generation, Gen Z, needs to be aware of this problem. We need to help our country live up to the ideals on which it was founded. We need to ensure that we can live in a world that is safer and more equitable. Our generation needs to stand for togetherness and innovation, for change. More importantly, our generation can’t stand for ignorance. So learn about this issue. Read an article about the topic or the book “Just Mercy.” Write your Governor/Senators/Council people about the prison situation in your state. Consider attending a rally or protest. Write to President Obama himself, asking him to make meaningful change in his last four months in office. Become a pen pal with an incarcerated individual, learn their stories, show empathy, tell the world — you could even throw a letter writing party! Put on a holiday or birthday celebration for the children of someone who is incarcerated. Watch a documentary like “Inside Angola” to familiarize yourself with the persistent problems of America’s system of incarceration. Take part in a divestment campaigns, similar to the one organized by the University of Maryland, to eliminate the use of furniture made by prisoners paid unfair wages. Host an open community dialogue. Or, simply take a visit to a prison. No matter how you decide to be involved, it is important that you do something, that you begin to do your part to show you care. So, let us all take a minute to show a little mercy.