“One in every 15 people born in America is expected to go to prison. For black men this figure rises to one in 3.”
I’ve just completed Just Mercy, a memoir by defence lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who reflects on his career and experience with redemption and injustice towards marginalised groups in Alabama and beyond. The book tells many stories, but focuses particularly on Walter McMillan, who is a black man falsely accused and convicted of first degree murder and placed on death row. When I say falsely, I mean this was not an accident. Monroe Country law enforcement pinned this crime on McMillan, forced people to lie under oath and inevitably exposed the corruption and racism in the hysteric grieving community.
I remember reading To Kill A Mockingbird in High School and being deeply saddened that although this was a fictional story, it was most definitely a true reflection of the injustice and terror African Americans experienced daily. I also remember being oddly comforted that it was set in the 1930s, and that times had changed. But honestly, have they? Have they really changed?
This also leads into the current (well, I say current, but that has been occurring forever), crisis with police brutality. TOO MANY black people are dying at the hands of white police officers in the USA. It is too obvious to ignore the relationship between black communities and law enforcement. The abuse of power is shameful.
This book didn’t just make me angry, it made me sad. It made me feel helpless, guilty, and incredibly empathetic. It highlighted the very severe problems with the USA’s outlook on crime and punishment; and capital punishment in particular. As Paul Simon said, “As long as you have capital punishment there is no guarantee that innocent people won’t be put to death.” There were of course some moments too which brought me joy. Bryan and his team were responsible for the Supreme Courts ruling that sentencing a child to life without parole was unlawful. They were also responsible for over 100 men being taken off death row. This is a quote from the concluding chapter.
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”
I believe that people are more than the worse thing they have done. How can you call a prison a ‘correctional facility’ when children (and adults) are locked inside for life for something they may have done accidentally, unintentionally, or under the pressure of a person they look up too. How can you not give people a chance to do better, to be better. Locking up non-violent offenders for excessive periods of time ruins the lives of their loved ones, families and of course, themselves. America (and many parts of the world) needs to do better.
We must do better.
For more information:
http://www.eji.org (Equal Justice Initiative)