I don’t really know where to start with this one.
I guess with Kalief Browder who spent three years on Rikers Island, an infamous New York City prison, for nothing. I mean, really, for nothing. Kalief was accused at the age of sixteen of stealing a man’s backpack. He said he was not guilty and he was sent to Rikers to wait for trail. After two and a half years in prison the judge pressed Kalief to plead guilty. She said they would put the time that he had already spent waiting towards his prison sentence and that he would be able to go home soon. But Kalief said he wasn’t guilty; he would keep waiting. Eventually the complainant left the country, charges were dropped, and the case dismissed. Kalief went home in 2013 after spending three years in prison. Once free Kalief completed his GED and became an advocate for reform in the prison system. Yet, he was obviously traumatized by the time he spent on Rikers. He committed suicide in June 2015.
Or Raymond Santana who, as a minor, pled not guilty to rape and assault. A jury convicted him and he completed a five year prison sentence. Once out of prison he struggled to find a job because of his criminal history record and turned to drug dealing for money. He was arrested for drug offenses and sent back to prison. It was when he was in prison the second time that DNA evidence came out proving his innocence in the first case.
There’s Sharanda Jones, who is serving life in prison without parole for committing a non-violent felony: conspiracy to distribute cocaine. It was her first and only crime, non-violent, and yet, she has been condemned by our country to die in prison.
There’s the fact that 97% of cases end with a plea bargain—a bribe of sorts—instead of going to trial. There’s the fact that private companies have created a prison industrial complex where businesses are rewarded when more people end up in jail. There’s the fact that while our politicians—from Nixon to Reagan to (Bill) Clinton to Trump—cry “law and order,” Brock Turner, a rich white boy who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman, gets off with six months because the judge thought anything more would have had a “severe impact” on him. So I guess it’s “law and order” for everyone except rich white boys?
Law professor Michelle Alexander explains in her book The New Jim Crow how the justice system has become a way of making people of color into second class citizens. How: turn them into criminals and then vilify them. It happens during sentencing: for example, possession of one ounce of crack cocaine (common in poor black communities) can get the same punishment as possession of one hundred ounces of powder cocaine (common in white suburbs). It happens in states that deny ex-felons of their right to vote. How is it that was can deem someone fit to return to society, to live among us, and yet deny them their right to vote? It is, as Alexander points out, eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow.
The criminal justice system provides not only an example of systemic racism but also interpersonal racism. By condemning a class of people to prison—innocent, guilty, or confession coerced—we give ourselves a reason to treat them as less than human.
In 1990 five minors, known as The Central Park Five, were charged with rape and assault. A jury convicted them and they all served full sentences before DNA evidence came out to prove their innocence. Trump says that he does not believe these men are innocent. This refusal to admit their innocence shows that Trump does not understand systemic racism (no surprise there). It also shows that he either lacks logical reasoning (um, it’s called evidence…) or refuses to fully inform himself on issues. But worst of all, it shows his lack of humanity. I think that Trump refuses to acknowledge these men’s innocence because as long as they are guilty in his eyes it gives Trump a reason to treat them as subhuman. (Which is still messed up, because even if they had been guilty they are still humans deserving of respect and fair treatment.)
This criminality bias affects all of us. Is it because Eric Garner was illegally selling cigarettes on the street or because Sandra Bland died in jail that their deaths do not stir us the way that they should?
The Central Park Five (available on Amazon)
The 13th (available on Netflix)