Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘mass incarceration’

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2017

by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau trade paperback 2015; copyright 2014)

Bryan Stevenson started working with prisoners on  death row  while he was still in law school. Later, he went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization which is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society” (from the EJI website).

In Just Mercy, Stevenson presents what he views as some of the worst abuses of our criminal justice system: the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole,  the witch hunt for “bad mothers”, the execution of innocent prisoners due to technicalities, the corruption that allows incompetent defense or prejudiced prosecution to condemn innocent people to life in prison or capital punishment, the incarceration and abuse of people with disabilities, the awful treatment within the prison system, and more.

Chapters about the case of Walter McMillian, an African-American man on death row for a crime that was committed while he was at home hosting a fish fry for about twenty people, are interspersed with chapters narrating other cases. Thus, Walter McMillian’s story begins on page 21, when Stevenson was not yet thirty and he received a call from the judge in the case, warning him not to proceed with it, and ends with the Epilogue and Walter’s death from dementia. This reflects the reality that a single case can drag on for many years without resolution, as it works its way through the levels of the justice system. (Many of Stevenson’s cases made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, such as Miller v. Alabama, which declared the sentencing of children to life in prison without parole to be unconstitutional.)  Meanwhile, the innocent prisoner’s life is running out. It was so evident that Walter McMillian had been wrongly accused, sentenced, and imprisoned (he was sent to death row even before he was sentenced to die), that the reader can hardly believe that this case actually happened. Forget “innocent until proven guilty”. The people that arrested, prosecuted, and condemned Walter McMillian had to have known that he was innocent, yet all they cared about was “solving” the crime (The true murderer was never found.). At one point, after years of trying to get McMillian out of prison, Stevenson was told by a lawyer from the Alabama Attorney General’s office, “Bryan, it’s all going to work out, but you’ll need to wait a few more months. He’s been on the row for years, so a few more months are not going to make that much of a difference.” Oh, really? Try it yourself, Mr. Hotshot Lawyer. You will find that every single day on death row is an eternity.

One chapter that affected me even more than Walter McMillian’s tragic story was “All God’s Children”, which focuses on three cases handled by EJI:  Trina Garnett, an intellectually disabled, neglected and abused child who when she was fourteen unintentionally set a house on fire, which resulted in the death of two other children; Ian Manuel, convicted of armed robbery and attempted homicide when he was thirteen; and Antonio Nuñez, charged with kidnapping and attempted murder at fourteen. In all three cases, older children involved in the same crimes received lighter sentences because they implicated the younger ones, while Trina, Ian, and Antonio were all found guilty and sentenced to life without parole (in other words, sentenced to die in prison).  Stevenson points out that adults convicted of similar crimes usually receive much lighter sentences and eventually serve only ten or twenty years before being released. Children who are sentenced and incarcerated in the juvenile justice system are usually released after spending some period of time in juvenile custody, perhaps when they turn eighteen or twenty-one. But these three minor children were all prosecuted as adults, and all received life without parole. Ian Manuel actually spent eighteen years in solitary confinement, supposedly for his own protection. Even when the victim in his case (who survived and went on to lead a normal life) requested that his sentence be reduced, the courts refused to budge. By the time the EJI took on their cases, Trina, Ian, and Antonio were “broken by years of hopeless confinement” (although Ian had somehow managed to educate himself while in solitary confinement). Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, the EJI was finally able to get their sentences reduced, but they had to serve more time added onto the long time they had already spent in prison.

Reading this book, I was constantly horrified and ashamed of what passes for “justice for all” in these United States. It’s not justice, and it’s definitely not for all.

See also The New Jim Crow.

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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Posted by nliakos on May 2, 2016

by Michelle Alexander (The New Press 2010; ISBN 978-1-59558-103-7)

This book is a shocking exposé of institutionalized racism in America. Alexander’s basic premise is that when slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy, it was replaced by Jim Crow (legal discrimination against people of color, primarily in the South); when Jim Crow was ended by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, it was replaced by the mass incarceration of African American and Latino people that we have today, due in large part to the War on Drugs begun under President Reagan but intensified by President Clinton and others–everyone wants to be seen as being “tough on crime”. As a result of mandatory sentencing laws, a very large proportion of African American adults (males in particular) are either in prison or are trying to reintegrate into a society that shuns them due to their status as felons. Their debt to society is eternal, as is their punishment. (White drug offenders typically manage to avoid incarceration.)

According to Alexander, all three cases–slavery, segregation, and incarceration–are instances of racial caste. She writes, “In this age of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination–employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service–are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” (p. 2)

Alexander makes a convincing case for her thesis (backed up by 30 pages of notes and citations). I felt that she could have made the case in fewer words; there is much repetition. In the six years since its publication, I have both heard and read about the scandal of mass incarceration in the U.S.; I wonder if this book played any role in that. In fact, just a few weeks ago there was a piece on 60 Minutes about German prisons, which are like a paradise compared to U.S. prisons. So we in America are beginning to rethink the system, because it doesn’t work to rehabilitate criminals. On the contrary, it works to cycle criminals in and out of prison, since once they are released they find themselves legally discriminated against in housing, employment, and education, and they often lose their right to serve on a jury or vote, yet we somehow expect them to function in society. When they turn to crime again (because it is often the only avenue open to them), we blame them, and re-incarcerate them.

What I never realized, however, is that our prison system, and the fact that so many poor African American men are in prison, is no accident, and it is not because black people use or sell more drugs than white people do but because the police and the courts deal with white crime differently. Following the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures) and the militarization of the police, police forces around the country target poor African American communities with drug busts, SWAT teams and arrests. And the fact that some whites are incarcerated and some blacks are wildly successful (think: Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleeza Rice…) only serves to maintain the fiction that those who are incarcerated deserve their fate because they have chosen to break the law–they are not incarcerated because of their race. The fact that 90 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes are African American seems unfortunate but does not raise a red flag in our “colorblind” era.

Alexander points out in her final chapter that reforming the American criminal justice system is a huge challenge which cannot be overcome unless we end the War on Drugs and cast off the “colorblindness” we have adopted in the post-Jim Crow era.

This book is a must-read by all Americans.



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