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← How jails extort the poor

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Showing Revision 9 created 02/16/2017 by Brian Greene.

  1. One summer afternoon in 2013,
  2. DC police detained, questioned
    and searched a man
  3. who appeared suspicious
    and potentially dangerous.
  4. This wasn't what I was wearing
    the day of the detention, to be fair,
  5. but I have a picture of that as well.
  6. I know it's very frightening --
    try to remain calm.
  7. (Laughter)

  8. At this time, I was interning

  9. at the Public Defender Service
    in Washington DC,
  10. and I was visiting
    a police station for work.
  11. I was on my way out,
  12. and before I could make it to my car,
  13. two police cars pulled up
    to block my exit,
  14. and an officer approached me from behind.
  15. He told me to stop, take my backpack off
  16. and put my hands on the police car
    parked next to us.
  17. About a dozen officers
    then gathered near us.
  18. All of them had handguns,
  19. some had assault rifles.
  20. They rifled through my backpack.
  21. They patted me down.
  22. They took pictures of me
    spread on the police car,
  23. and they laughed.
  24. And as all this was happening --

  25. as I was on the police car trying
    to ignore the shaking in my legs,
  26. trying to think clearly
    about what I should do --
  27. something stuck out to me as odd.
  28. When I look at myself in this photo,
  29. if I were to describe myself,
  30. I think I'd say something like,
  31. "19-year-old Indian male,
    bright T-shirt, wearing glasses."
  32. But they weren't including
    any of these details.
  33. Into their police radios
    as they described me,
  34. they kept saying, "Middle Eastern
    male with a backpack.
  35. Middle Eastern male with a backpack."
  36. And this description carried on
    into their police reports.
  37. I never expected to be described
    by my own government in these terms:
  38. "lurking,"
  39. "nefarious,"
  40. "terrorist."
  41. And the detention dragged on like this.
  42. They sent dogs trained to smell explosives
    to sweep the area I'd been in.

  43. They called the federal government
    to see if I was on any watch lists.
  44. They sent a couple of detectives
    to cross-examine me on why,
  45. if I claimed I had nothing to hide,
  46. I wouldn't consent to a search of my car.
  47. And I could see
    they weren't happy with me,
  48. but I felt I had no way of knowing
    what they'd want to do next.
  49. At one point, the officer
    who patted me down
  50. scanned the side of the police station
    to see where the security camera was
  51. to see how much of this
    was being recorded.
  52. And when he did that,
  53. it really sank in how completely
    I was at their mercy.
  54. I think we're all normalized
    from a young age

  55. to the idea of police officers
    and arrests and handcuffs,
  56. so it's easy to forget how demeaning
    and coercive a thing it is
  57. to seize control over
    another person's body.
  58. I know it sounds like
    the point of my story
  59. is how badly treated I was
    because of my race --
  60. and yes, I don't think I would've been
    detained if I were white.
  61. But actually, what I have in mind
    today is something else.
  62. What I have in mind is how
    much worse things might've been
  63. if I weren't affluent.
  64. I mean, they thought I might be trying
    to plant an explosive,
  65. and they investigated that possibility
    for an hour and a half,
  66. but I was never put in handcuffs,
  67. I was never taken to a jail cell.
  68. I think if I were from one of Washington
    DC's poor communities of color,
  69. and they thought I was
    endangering officers' lives,
  70. things might've ended differently.
  71. And in fact, in our system, I think
    it's better to be an affluent person
  72. suspected of trying
    to blow up a police station
  73. than it is to be a poor person
  74. who's suspected of much,
    much less than this.
  75. I want to give you an example
    from my current work.

  76. Right now, I'm working
    at a civil rights organization in DC,
  77. called Equal Justice Under Law.
  78. Let me start by asking you all a question.
  79. How many of you have ever gotten
    a parking ticket in your life?
  80. Raise your hand.
  81. Yeah. So have I.
  82. And when I had to pay it,
  83. it felt annoying and it felt bad,
  84. but I paid it and I moved on.
  85. I'm guessing most of you
    have paid your tickets as well.
  86. But what would happen if you
    couldn't afford the amount on the ticket
  87. and your family doesn't have
    the money either, what happens then?
  88. Well, one thing that's not supposed
    to happen under the law is,

  89. you're not supposed to be
    arrested and jailed
  90. simply because you can't afford to pay.
  91. That's illegal under federal law.
  92. But that's what local governments
    across the country are doing
  93. to people who are poor.
  94. And so many of our lawsuits
    at Equal Justice Under Law
  95. target these modern-day debtors' prisons.
  96. One of our cases is against
    Ferguson, Missouri.

  97. And I know when I say Ferguson,
  98. many of you will think of police violence.
  99. But today I want to talk
    about a different aspect
  100. of the relationship between
    their police force and their citizens.
  101. Ferguson was issuing an average
    of over two arrest warrants,
  102. per person, per year,
  103. mostly for unpaid debt to the courts.
  104. When I imagine what that would feel like
    if, every time I left my house,
  105. there was a chance a police officer
    would run my license plate,
  106. see a warrant for unpaid debt,
  107. seize my body they way the did in DC
  108. and then take me to a jail cell,
  109. I feel a little sick.
  110. I've met many of the people in Ferguson
    who have experienced this,

  111. and I've heard some of their stories.
  112. In Ferguson's jail,
  113. in each small cell,
    there's a bunk bed and a toilet,
  114. but they'd pack four people
    into each cell.
  115. So there'd be two people on the bunks
    and two people on the floor,
  116. one with nowhere to go except
    right next to the filthy toilet,
  117. which was never cleaned.
  118. In fact, the whole cell was never cleaned,
  119. so the floor and the walls were lined
    with blood and mucus.
  120. No water to drink,
  121. except coming out of a spigot
    connected to the toilet.
  122. The water looked and tasted dirty,
  123. there was never enough food,
  124. never any showers,
  125. women menstruating
    without any hygiene products,
  126. no medical attention whatsoever.
  127. When I asked a woman
    about medical attention,
  128. she laughed, and she said, "Oh, no, no.
  129. The only attention you get
    from the guards in there is sexual."
  130. So, they'd take the debtors
    to this place and they'd say,

  131. "We're not letting you leave
    until you make a payment on your debt."
  132. And if you could -- if you
    could call a family member
  133. who could somehow come up with some money,
  134. then maybe you were out.
  135. If it was enough money, you were out.
  136. But if it wasn't, you'd stay there
    for days or weeks,
  137. and every day the guards
    would come down to the cells
  138. and haggle with the debtors
    about the price of release that day.
  139. You'd stay until, at some point,
    the jail would be booked to capacity,
  140. and they'd want to book someone new in.
  141. And at that point, they'd think,
  142. "OK, it's unlikely this person
    can come up with the money,
  143. it's more likely this new person will."
  144. You're out, they're in,
    and the machine kept moving like that.
  145. I met a man who,

  146. nine years ago, was arrested
    for panhandling in a Walgreens.
  147. He couldn't afford his fines
    and his court fees from that case.
  148. When he was young
    he survived a house fire,
  149. only because he jumped out
    of the third-story window to escape.
  150. But that fall left him
    with damage to his brain
  151. and several parts of this body,
    including his leg.
  152. So he can't work,
  153. and he relies on social security
    payments to survive.
  154. When I met him in his apartment,
  155. he had nothing of value there --
    not even food in his fridge.
  156. He's chronically hungry.
  157. He had nothing of value in his apartment
    except a small piece of cardboard
  158. on which he'd written
    the names of his children.
  159. He cherished this a lot.
    He was happy to show it to me.
  160. But he can't pay his fines and fees
    because he has nothing to give.
  161. In the last nine years,
    he's been arrested 13 times,
  162. and jailed for a total of 130 days
    on that panhandling case.
  163. One of those stretches lasted 45 days.
  164. Just imagine spending from right now
    until sometime in June
  165. in the place that I described to you
    a few moments ago.
  166. He told me about all the suicide attempts
    he's seen in Ferguson's jail;

  167. about the time a man found
    a way to hang himself
  168. out of reach of the other inmates,
  169. so all they could do
    was yell and yell and yell,
  170. trying to get the guards' attention
  171. so they could come down and cut him down.
  172. And he told me that it took the guards
    over five minutes to respond,
  173. and when they came,
    the man was unconscious.
  174. So they called the paramedics
    and the paramedics went to the cell.
  175. They said, "He'll be OK,"
  176. so they just left him there on the floor.
  177. I heard many stories like this
    and they shouldn't have surprised me,
  178. because suicide is the single leading
    cause of death in our local jails.
  179. This is related to the lack
    of mental health care in our jails.
  180. I met a woman, single mother of three,
    making seven dollars an hour.

  181. She relies on food stamps
    to feed herself and her children.
  182. About a decade ago,
  183. she got a couple of traffic tickets
    and a minor theft charge,
  184. and she can't afford her fines
    and fees on those cases.
  185. Since then, she's been jailed
    about 10 times on those cases,
  186. but she has schizophrenia
    and bipolar disorder,
  187. and she needs medication every day.
  188. She doesn't have access
    to those medications in Ferguson's jail,
  189. because no one has access
    to their medications.
  190. She told me about what it was like
    to spend two weeks in a cage,
  191. hallucinating people and shadows
    and hearing voices,
  192. begging for the medication
    that would make it all stop,
  193. only to be ignored.
  194. And this isn't anomalous, either:
  195. thirty percent of women in our local jails
    have serious mental health needs
  196. just like hers,
  197. but only one in six receives
    any mental health care while in jail.
  198. And so, I heard all these stories
    about this grotesque dungeon

  199. that Ferguson was operating
    for its debtors,
  200. and when it came time
    for me to actually see it
  201. and to go visit Ferguson's jail,
  202. I'm not sure what I was expecting to see,
  203. but I wasn't expecting this.
  204. It's an ordinary government building.
  205. It could be a post office or a school.
  206. It reminded me that these illegal
    extortion schemes
  207. aren't being run somewhere in the shadows,
  208. they're being run out in the open
    by our public officials.
  209. They're a matter of public policy.
  210. And this reminded me
    that poverty jailing in general,
  211. even outside the debtors' prison context,
  212. plays a very visible and central role
    in our justice system.
  213. What I have in mind is our policy of bail.

  214. In our system, whether
    you're detained or free,
  215. pending trial is not a matter
    of how dangerous you are
  216. or how much of a flight risk you pose.
  217. It's a matter of whether you can afford
    to post your bail amount.
  218. So Bill Cosby, whose bail
    was set at a million dollars,
  219. immediately writes the check,
    and doesn't spend a second in a jail cell.
  220. But Sandra Bland, who died in jail,
  221. was only there because her family
    was unable to come up with 500 dollars.
  222. In fact, there are half a million
    Sandra Blands across the country --
  223. 500,000 people who are in jail right now,
  224. only because they can't afford
    their bail amount.
  225. We're told that our jails
    are places for criminals,

  226. but statistically that's not the case:
  227. three out of every five people
    in jail right now are there pretrial.
  228. They haven't been convicted of any crime;
  229. they haven't pled guilty to any offense.
  230. Right here in San Francisco,
  231. 85 percent of the inmates
    in our jail in San Francisco
  232. are pretrial detainees.
  233. This means San Francisco is spending
    something like 80 million dollars
  234. every year
  235. to fund pretrial detention.
  236. Many of these people who are in jail
    only because they can't post bail

  237. are facing allegations so minor
  238. that the amount of time it would take
    for them to sit waiting for trial
  239. is longer than the sentence
    they would receive if convicted,
  240. which means they're guaranteed
    to get out faster
  241. if they just plead guilty.
  242. So now the choice is:
  243. Should I stay here in this horrible place,
  244. away from my family and my dependents,
  245. almost guaranteed to lose my job,
  246. and then fight the charges?
  247. Or should I just plead guilty to whatever
    the prosecutor wants and get out?
  248. And at this point, they're pretrial
    detainees, not criminals.
  249. But once they take that plea deal,
    we'll call them criminals,
  250. even though an affluent person
    would never have been in this situation,
  251. because an affluent person
    would have simply been bailed out.
  252. At this point you might be wondering,

  253. "This guy's in the inspiration section,
    what is he doing --
  254. (Laughter)

  255. "This is extremely depressing.
    I want my money back."

  256. (Laughter)

  257. But in actuality,

  258. I find talking about jailing much less
    depressing than the alternative,
  259. because I think if we don't talk
    about these issues
  260. and collectively change
    how we think about jailing,
  261. at the end of all of our lives,
  262. we'll still have jails full of poor people
    who don't belong there.
  263. That really is depressing to me.
  264. But what's exciting to me is the thought
    that these stories can move us
  265. to think about jailing in different terms.
  266. Not in sterile policy terms
    like "mass incarceration,"
  267. or "sentencing of nonviolent offenders,"
  268. but in human terms.
  269. When we put a human being in a cage
    for days or weeks or months

  270. or even years,
  271. what are we doing
    to that person's mind and body?
  272. Under what conditions
    are we really willing to do that?
  273. And so if starting with a few
    hundred of us in this room,
  274. we can commit to thinking about
    jailing in this different light,
  275. then we can undo that normalization
    I was referring to earlier.
  276. If I leave you with anything today,
    I hope it's with the thought

  277. that if we want anything
    to fundamentally change --
  278. not just to reform our policies
    on bail and fines and fees --
  279. but also to make sure that whatever
    new policies replace those
  280. don't punish the poor and the marginalized
    in their own new way.
  281. If we want that kind of change,
  282. then this shift in thinking
    is required of each of us.
  283. Thank you.

  284. (Applause)