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← The human stories behind mass incarceration

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Showing Revision 8 created 03/22/2018 by Brian Greene.

  1. I have never been arrested,
  2. never spent a night in jail,
  3. never had a loved one
    thrown into the back of a squad car
  4. or behind bars,
  5. or be at the mercy of a scary,
    confusing system
  6. that at best sees them with indifference,
  7. and at worst as monstrous.
  8. The United States of America locks up
    more people than any other nation
  9. on the planet,
  10. and Louisiana is our biggest incarcerator.
  11. Most of you are probably like me --
  12. lucky.
  13. The closest we get to crime and punishment
    is likely what we see on TV.
  14. While making "Unprisoned,"
  15. I met a woman who used to be like us --
  16. Sheila Phipps.
  17. (Recording) Sheila Phipps:
    Before my son went to jail,

  18. I used to see people be on television,
  19. fighting, saying, "Oh, this person
    didn't do it and this person is innocent."
  20. And you know, you snub them
    or you dismiss them,
  21. and like, "Yeah, whatever."
  22. Don't get me wrong,
  23. there's a lot of people
    who deserve to be in prison.
  24. There's a lot of criminals out here.
  25. But there are a lot of innocent
    people that's in jail.
  26. EA: Sheila's son, McKinley,
    is one of those innocent people.

  27. He served 17 years of a 30-year sentence
    on a manslaughter charge.
  28. He had no previous convictions,
  29. there was no forensic
    evidence in the case.
  30. He was convicted solely
    on the basis of eyewitness testimony,
  31. and decades of research have shown
  32. that eyewitness testimony
    isn't as reliable
  33. as we once believed it to be.
  34. Scientists say that memory isn't precise.
  35. It's less like playing back a video,
  36. and more like putting together a puzzle.
  37. Since 1989, when DNA testing
    was first used to free innocent people,
  38. over 70 percent of overturned convictions
    were based on eyewitness testimony.
  39. Last year,
  40. the district attorney whose office
    prosecuted McKinley's case
  41. was convicted of unrelated
    corruption charges.
  42. When this district attorney
    of 30 years stepped down,
  43. the eyewitnesses
    from McKinley's case came forward
  44. and said that they had been pressured
    into testifying by the district attorneys,
  45. pressure which included
    the threat of jail time.
  46. Despite this, McKinley is still in prison.
  47. (Recording) SP: Before this happened,

  48. I never would've thought it.
  49. And well, I guess it's hard
    for me to imagine
  50. that these things is going on, you know,
  51. until this happened to my son.
  52. It really opened my eyes.
  53. It really, really opened my eyes.
  54. I ain't gonna lie to you.
  55. EA: Estimates of how many innocent
    people are locked up

  56. range between one and four percent,
  57. which maybe doesn't sound like a lot,
  58. except that it amounts
    to around 87,000 people:
  59. mothers, fathers, sons locked up,
  60. often for decades,
  61. for crimes they did not commit.
  62. And that's not even counting
    the roughly half a million people
  63. who have been convicted of nothing --
  64. those presumed innocent,
  65. but who are too poor to bail out of jail
  66. and therefore sit behind bars
    for weeks upon months,
  67. waiting for their case to come to trial --
  68. or much more likely,
  69. waiting to take a plea just to get out.
  70. All of those people
    have family on the outside.
  71. (Recording) Kortney Williams: My brother
    missed my high school graduation

  72. because the night before,
  73. he went to jail.
  74. My brother missed my birthday dinner
  75. because that day, actually,
    he went to jail.
  76. My brother missed his own birthday dinner
  77. because he was in the wrong place
    at the wrong time.
  78. (Recording) EA: So all these times
    when he ended up going to jail,

  79. were charges pressed
    or did he just get taken to jail?
  80. KW: The charges would be pressed

  81. and it would have a bond posted,
  82. then the charges will get dropped ...
  83. because there was no evidence.
  84. EA: I met Kortney Williams
    when I went to her college classroom

  85. to talk about "Unprisoned."
  86. She ended up interviewing her aunt,
    Troylynn Robertson,
  87. for an episode.
  88. (Recording) KW: With everything
    that you went through

  89. with your children,
  90. what is any advice that you would give me
  91. if I had any kids?
  92. (Recording) Troylynn Roberston:
    I would tell you when you have them,

  93. you know the first thing
    that will initially come to mind is love
  94. and protection,
  95. but I would tell you,
  96. even much with the protection
    to raise them
  97. with knowledge of the judicial system --
  98. you know, we always tell our kids
    about the boogeyman,
  99. the bad people, who to watch out for,
  100. but we don't teach them
    how to watch out for the judicial system.
  101. EA: Because of the way
    our criminal legal system

  102. disproportionately targets
    people of color,
  103. it's not uncommon for young people
    like Kortney to know about it.
  104. When I started going into high schools
    to talk to students about "Unprisoned,"
  105. I found that roughly one-third
    of the young people I spoke with
  106. had a loved one behind bars.
  107. (Recording) Girl: The hardest part
    is like finding out where he's at,

  108. or like, when his court date is.
  109. Girl: Yeah, he went to jail
    on my first birthday.

  110. Girl: My dad works as a guard.

  111. He saw my uncle in jail.
  112. He's in there for life.
  113. EA: According to the Annie E.
    Casey Foundation,

  114. the number of young people with a father
    incarcerated rose 500 percent
  115. between 1980 and 2000.
  116. Over five million of today's children
    will see a parent incarcerated
  117. at some point in their childhoods.
  118. But this number disproportionately
    affects African American children.
  119. By the time they reach the age of 14,
  120. one in four black children
    will see their dad go off to prison.
  121. That's compared to a rate
    of one in 30 for white children.
  122. One key factor determining the future
    success of both inmates and their children
  123. is whether they can maintain ties
    during the parent's incarceration,
  124. but prisoners' phone calls home
    can cost 20 to 30 times more
  125. than regular phone calls,
  126. so many families
    keep in touch through letters.
  127. (Recording: Letter being unfolded)

  128. Anissa Christmas: Dear big brother,

  129. I'm making that big 16 this year, LOL.
  130. Guess I'm not a baby anymore.
  131. You still taking me to prom?
  132. I really miss you.
  133. You're the only guy
    that kept it real with me.
  134. I wish you were here so I can vent to you.
  135. So much has happened since
    the last time I seen you.
  136. (Voice breaking up) I have some good news.
  137. I won first place in the science fair.
  138. I'm a geek.
  139. We're going to regionals,
    can't you believe it?
  140. High school is going by super fast.
  141. In less than two years,
  142. I hope you'll be able to see me
    walk across the stage.
  143. I thought to write to you
    because I know it's boring in there.
  144. I want to put a smile on your face.
  145. Anissa wrote these letters to her brother

  146. when she was a sophomore in high school.
  147. She keeps the letters he writes to her
    tucked into the frame
  148. of her bedroom mirror,
  149. and reads them over and over again.
  150. I'd like to think
    that there's a good reason
  151. why Anissa's brother is locked up.
  152. We all want the wheels of justice
    to properly turn,
  153. but we're coming to understand
  154. that the lofty ideals we learned
    in school look really different
  155. in our nation's prisons
    and jails and courtrooms.
  156. (Recording) Danny Engelberg: You walk
    into that courtroom and you're just --

  157. I've been doing this for a quite a while,
    and it still catches your breath.
  158. You're like, "There are so many
    people of color here,"
  159. and yet I know that the city is not
    made up of 90 percent African Americans,
  160. so why is it that 90 percent
    of the people who are in orange
  161. are African American?
  162. (Recording) EA: Public defender Danny
    Engelberg isn't the only one noticing

  163. how many black people
    are in municipal court --
  164. or in any court.
  165. It's hard to miss.
  166. Who's sitting in court
    waiting to see the judge?

  167. What do they look like?
  168. (Recording) Man: Mostly
    African-Americans, like me.

  169. Man: It's mostly, I could say,
    85 percent black.

  170. That's all you see in the orange,
    in the box back there, who locked up.
  171. Man: Who's waiting? Mostly black.
  172. I mean, there was a couple
    of white people in there.
  173. Woman: I think it was about
    85 percent African-American

  174. that was sitting there.
  175. EA: How does a young black person
    growing up in America today

  176. come to understand justice?
  177. Another "Unprisoned" story
    was about a troupe of dancers
  178. who choreographed a piece
    called "Hoods Up,"
  179. which they performed
    in front of city council.
  180. Dawonta White was in the seventh grade
    for that performance.
  181. (Recording) Dawonta White: We was wearing
    black with hoodies because Trayvon Martin,

  182. when he was wearing his hoodie,
    he was killed.
  183. So we looked upon that,
  184. and we said we're going to wear
    hoodies like Trayvon Martin.
  185. (Recording) EA: Who came up
    with that idea?

  186. DW: The group. We all agreed on it.

  187. I was a little nervous,
    but I had stick through it though,
  188. but I felt like it was a good thing
    so they could notice what we do.
  189. (Recording) EA: Shraivell Brown
    was another choreographer and dancer

  190. in "Hoods Up."
  191. He says the police criticize
    people who look like him.
  192. He feels judged based on things
    other black people may have done.
  193. How would you want
    the police to look at you,
  194. and what would you want them to think?
  195. SB: That I'm not no threat.

  196. EA: Why would they think
    you're threatening?

  197. What did you say, you're 14?
  198. SB: Yes, I'm 14, but because he said
    a lot of black males

  199. are thugs or gangsters and all that,
  200. but I don't want them thinking
    that about me.
  201. EA: For folks who look like me,

  202. the easiest and most comfortable
    thing to do is to not pay attention --
  203. to assume our criminal
    legal system is working.
  204. But if it's not our responsibility
    to question those assumptions,
  205. whose responsibility is it?
  206. There's a synagogue here that's taken on
    learning about mass incarceration,
  207. and many congregants have concluded
  208. that because mass incarceration
    throws so many lives into chaos,
  209. it actually creates more crime --
  210. makes people less safe.
  211. Congregant Teri Hunter says
  212. the first step towards action
    has to be understanding.
  213. She says it's crucial for all of us
    to understand our connection to this issue
  214. even if it's not immediately obvious.
  215. (Recording) Teri Hunter:
    It's on our shoulders

  216. to make sure that we're not
    just closing that door
  217. and saying, "Well, it's not us."
  218. And I think as Jews, you know,
    we've lived that history:
  219. "It's not us."
  220. And so if a society
    closes their back on one section,
  221. we've seen what happens.
  222. And so it is our responsibility as Jews
  223. and as members of this community
  224. to educate our community --
  225. at least our congregation --
  226. to the extent that we're able.
  227. EA: I've been using
    the pronouns "us" and "we"

  228. because this is our criminal legal system
  229. and our children.
  230. We elect the district attorneys,
  231. the judges and the legislators
    who operate these systems
  232. for we the people.
  233. As a society,
  234. we are more willing to risk
    locking up innocent people
  235. than we are to let guilty people go free.
  236. We elect politicians
    who fear being labeled "soft on crime,"
  237. encouraging them to pass harsh legislation
  238. and allocate enormous resources
    toward locking people up.
  239. When a crime is committed,
  240. our hunger for swift retribution
    has fed a police culture
  241. bent on finding culprits fast,
  242. often without adequate resources
    to conduct thorough investigations
  243. or strict scrutiny
    of those investigations.
  244. We don't put checks on prosecutors.

  245. Across the country,
    over the last couple of decades,
  246. as property and violent crimes
    have both fell,
  247. the number of prosecutors employed
    and cases they have filed has risen.
  248. Prosecutors decide
    whether or not to take legal action
  249. against the people police arrest
  250. and they decide what charges to file,
  251. directly impacting how much time
    a defendant potentially faces behind bars.
  252. One check we do have
    on prosecutors is defense.
  253. Imagine Lady Liberty:
  254. the blindfolded woman holding the scale
  255. meant to symbolize the balance
    in our judicial system.
  256. Unfortunately, that scale is tipped.
  257. The majority of defendants in our country
  258. are represented by
    government-appointed attorneys.
  259. These public defenders
    receive around 30 percent less funding
  260. than district attorneys do,
  261. and they often have caseloads
    far outnumbering
  262. what the American Bar
    Association recommends.
  263. As Sheila Phipps said,

  264. there are people who belong in prison,
  265. but it's hard to tell
    the guilty from the innocent
  266. when everyone's outcomes are so similar.
  267. We all want justice.

  268. But with the process weighed
    so heavily against defendants,
  269. justice is hard to come by.
  270. Our criminal legal system
    operates for we the people.
  271. If we don't like what's going on,
  272. it is up to us to change it.
  273. Thank you very much.

  274. (Applause)