Updated: Apr 14, 2021
My own complicit past regarding the incarceration crisis rested in not seeing or knowing of America’s standing as the undisputed world leader in imprisoning people, and in being pacified by the misleading language that glamorizes prisons as institutions of rehabilitation, correction or reform. Mindful of my own blindness, it seemed advisable to use THOR’s 1st blog to tell those who still don’t know, pretend not to know, or have chosen not to know, what’s going on. This, dear reader, is how the majority of people end up in prison:
Despite his pleas of innocence, Herbert Alford of Michigan was convicted in 2016 of second-degree murder. In 2015, he and his attorney requested Hertz to provide a copy of a car-rental receipt which would have proven Mr. Alford’s innocence. The rental company did not comply with the request until 2018. According to Hertz, the receipt was “…promptly provided…”. The charges against Mr. Alford were finally dropped in 2020—after he spent 5 years in jails and prison while waiting for Hertz’s ‘prompt’ response.
Wrongful convictions are also the result of:
Plea bargains (often called the innocent prisoner’s dilemma because while an admission of guilt can lead to a sentence reduction or early parole, a false admission of guilt by an innocent person can impede a later investigation to prove their innocence
Confirmation bias (cherry-picking information that supports one’s belief even in the face of evidence to the contrary)
Withholding or destruction of evidence by police or prosecuting attorneys
Fabrication of evidence
False accusations or outright perjury by witnesses or others who want to exact revenge or have something to gain from lying
Misidentification by witnesses or victim
False confessions made by the accused under duress or to protect others
Conspiracies between court of appeal judges and prosecutors to uphold a conviction of an innocent person (Marvin Zalman’s, “Qualitatively Estimating the Incidence of Wrongful Convictions,” 2012)
Other prison sentences often result from mandatory sentencing (which are produced through legislation, not the judicial system). According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 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
Making a drunken threat to a police officer while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car
Being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm
While in Nashville, TN, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a 16-year-old being held at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center who had been incarcerated for selling drugs. I asked him why he did it. The young man said, “I didn’t spend the money on myself. I had 4 younger brothers and sisters at home who needed to be taken care of. 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 him where his parents were. “Drug addicts on the street,” he said. While in Nashville, I also had the opportunity to meet and talk with both Cyntoia Brown-Long and the district attorney who prosecuted her. Mrs. Brown-Long was released in August of 2019 after serving 15 years of a life sentence for killing a man when she was a teenager, and she more than deserved to be free (her story in available on the web). Several years into her prison stay, the attorney who prosecuted her became so affected by the role he had played in her imprisonment that he resigned and became a public defender.
And then there are the convicts, for whom prison is “home.” I remember engaging in a debate with a group of women confined at the Tennessee Prison for Women. They argued persuasively in support of the abolition of prison, while I presented the need for humane and secure facilities. After thinking about it for a while, one young woman said, “You know, I see your point. I’m in prison, and even I wouldn’t want a Jeffrey Dahmer living next to me!”
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 who are released and have stable families and homes to go home to are very fortunate, and those who don’t need all the assistance and support they can muster.
Justice is whatever the law compels be done. Redemption is the process by which the convicted get to go back to the drawing board and begin again to establish their rightful place in the world. A balanced and just society will allow for both.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next month!