There was a time when I did not know of America’s standing as the undisputed world
leader in imprisoning people, and I was easily pacified by misleading language describing
prisons as institutions of rehabilitation, correction and reform. Now, not so much. But because my own complicit past regarding the incarceration crisis rested comfortably in not seeing or knowing, this first blog is dedicated to telling those who still don’t know, pretend not to know or have chosen not to know who—exactly—are among the incarcerated.
Many are imprisoned because they’re guilty of the crimes for which they were accused,
tried by the prosecution and appropriately convicted. Sometimes sitting in the cell next to them are individuals who have been accused of a crime and tried by the prosecution but wrongly convicted. This happens for an assortment of reasons such as confirmation bias (or cherry-picking information that supports a persecutor’s belief even in the face of evidence to the contrary), the withholding or destruction of evidence by police or prosecuting attorneys, untrue ‘evidence’, false accusations or perjury by witnesses who may be vengeful or have something to gain by lying, false confessions made by the accused under duress or to protect someone else, unintentional misidentification by witnesses or victims, court of justice misconduct, or conspiracies between court of appeal judges and prosecutors to uphold the conviction of an innocent person—believe it or not.
A typical wrongful conviction functions much like the case of Herbert Alford of Michigan
who, despite his pleas of innocence, was convicted in 2016 of second-degree murder. In 2015, Mr. Alford and his attorney requested the Hertz car-rental company to provide a copy of a rental receipt which would have proven Mr. Alford’s innocence. Hertz, however, did not comply with the request until 2018, though they claim the receipt was “…promptly provided…”. The charges against Mr. Alford were finally dropped in 2020, but only after he spent 5 years in jails and prison while waiting for Hertz’s response. Many other wrongful convictions result from plea bargaining, often called the innocent prisoner’s dilemma. Plea bargaining is when an innocent person pleads guilty to a crime they didn’t commit (or to one offense out of the many he or she is charged with) in return for receiving a lesser punishment from the prosecutor, with the consent of the presiding judge. If one is actually guilty this sounds like a good deal, but if a person is innocent it means possible prison time for a crime they didn’t commit. Furthermore, an admission of guilt by an innocent person can become an impediment later on if an investigation is initiated to prove their innocence. Given this predicament and these options, how do you think you would choose?
Other convictions stem from harsh mandatory sentencing laws drafted by law-makers
rather than the judicial system. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, some inmates are serving life sentences for conduct such as acting as a go-between during the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover detective, attempting to cash a stolen check, shoplifting two jerseys/shirts from an athletic store, and making a drunken threat to a police officer while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car.
Now consider this: A few years ago, I had an opportunity to speak with a 16-year-old
young man who had been convicted of selling drugs and was incarcerated at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the first questions I asked was, “Why did you do it?” The young man answered, “I did it, but I didn’t spend the money on myself.
I had 4 younger brothers and sisters at home who needed to be taken care of, and I was just
trying to make sure they went to school in clean clothes and had enough to eat so that social
service wouldn’t separate us.” I asked where his parents were. “Drug addicts on the street,” he said.
One more case in point.
Also while in Nashville during that same time period, I had the opportunity to meet and
talk with a young woman named Cyntoia Brown-Long (you may want to google her) and the
attorney who prosecuted her. Mrs. Brown-Long, sentenced and convicted as a teenager, was
released in August of 2019 after serving 15 years of a life sentence for murdering a man in self- defense. Several years into her prison stay, the prosecuting attorney turned the tables and became a public defender because of his misgivings about the role he had played in her
Crime is real, but what’s also real is that America’s prisons are filled with innocent
people and people who routinely live in circumstances and socioeconomic conditions that make criminal activity likely or inevitable. Those with stable families and homes to go home to on release are the fortunate ones, and those who don’t need all the assistance and support they can muster—which is where THOR—and you—come in.
‘Justice’ is whatever the law compels be done, but redemption is the process by which
the incarcerated get to go back to the drawing board and begin again to establish their rightful place in the world. THOR believes a balanced and just society will allow for both.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next month!