(continuation of my previous post I Feel Like a Bird)
I started reading this book to learn more about the justice system in the USA. And I’ve learned that it’s broken and unfair. The U.S. confines a greater percentage of its population than any other country in the world. Statistics demonstrate that 1 in every 20 Americans will spend time behind bars (or under correctional supervision or probation or parole). It especially concerns minorities. People of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos are unfairly targeted by the police and face harsher prison sentences than their white counterpart. And, honestly, I can’t believe that this is the reality of a country that is so diverse and so “free”. Coming back to the concept of “freedom” in America it really makes you think about how for some people the country is not free at all, they don’t feel safe, they don’t have the promised equality of opportunity and competition simply because the system wasn’t built to favor them. “I believe that there are four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but remain poorly understood. The first, of course, is slavery. This was followed by the reign of terror that shaped the lives of people of color following the collapse of Reconstruction until World War II. Older people of color in the South would occasionally come up to me after speeches to complain about how antagonized they feel when they hear news commentators talking about how we were dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. An older African American man once said to me, “You make them stop saying that! We grew up with terrorism all the time. The police, the Klan, anybody who was white could terrorize you. We had to worry about bombings and lynchings, racial violence of all kinds.”
People of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population, making up more than 60 percent of the people behind bars. Moreover, despite the fact that black people constitute only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population, 40 percent of those who are incarcerated are black. That is truly unbelievable, this should not be this way. The authorities use minorities as their punching bags, sometimes purposefully overlooking the obvious facts that are right on the surface. A striking instance of it is in Just Mercy: Walter McMillan who was libeled(!) to be guilty of murder just because the police desperately needed an arrest. And yes, mistakes happen and everything but not only is it not a one-time thing, it’s something that is looked at as something normal and acceptable.
But to think about how such “mistakes” literally ruin families is devastating: most people who are incarcerated are parents. Ten million children in the U.S. have a parent who is currently or was recently under some form of criminal justice supervision (incarcerated, or on probation, or parole). And more than a half of them is imprisoned in State prisons that are situated over 100 miles away from their home making it impossible for them to receive visits from their children. “High rates of incarceration serve to further weaken the financial and social infrastructure of poor and low-income families of color.” (BJS Report, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children. August 2003).
Not having a parent present in their life obviously affects children and, together with poor living conditions, makes them more liable to committing a crime. Mind you, they are not safe from being treated like adults. Thus, each year thousands of youth are held in adult correctional facilities. Youth held in adult facilities are 8 times more likely to commit suicide, 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and 50 times (!) more likely to be attacked with a weapon than youth in juvenile facilities (those are truly egregious (!) numbers).
Another point is that the system targets the poor that in most cases cannot afford a lawyer to defend them. Instead, they are assigned to a state counsel that usually doesn’t lift a finger in order to help them nor do they ever trawl through (!) the case. They barely look at the documents and never show up in prison because they couldn’t care less, it’s astonishing how such individuals are allowed to defend other people whose lives basically depend on their knowledge of law and abilities to wrangle(!) their way out of someone’s conviction. In the book Bryan gives a lot of examples of state public lawyers getting disbarred for misconduct, it’s as if they were never really lawyers. “We’re supposed to sentence people fairly after fully considering their life circumstances, but instead we exploit the inability of the poor to get the legal assistance they need — all so we can kill them with less resistance.”
I actually laud (!) Mr. Stevenson for being such a brilliant lawyer, I have the deepest reverence for him. The way he acts with prisoners is spectacular: he’s their friend who’s genuinely avid (!) in their life and is ready to help and answer all the questions but at the same time he’s a professional who’s doing his job. Following Bryan’s experience as an attorney really got me thinking about the qualities and values that you are required to have to be a good fit for this profession. I won’t be naming things like being responsible and blah blah blah, that goes without saying. Lawyers are among those who recognize the weaknesses and flaws of the system and who are willing to give their 110% to change it. Thanks to Bryan and his organization, Walter became one of the first sentenced to death prisoners in Alabama who got exonerated. Starting 2012, they had 18 months with no executions in the state. In 2013, Alabama recorded the lowest-number of new death sentences since the resumption of capital punishment in the mid-1970s. And generally, the work they are doing is spectacular and literally life-changing, as I’ve stated in my previous post. Also, lawyers are stone catchers. In the book, Bryan remembers the time when he met an old woman in the court building. She talked about how her grandson had been killed and how his death had destroyed her. She thought that seeing his killers being sent away to prison forever would make her feel better, when in reality it only made her feel worse. After the trial, the woman sat in the courtroom and just cried until some lady came up to her and gave her a hug and let her lean on her. They sat together in silence for almost two hours. The suffering lady never forgot her supporter even though she didn’t know who she was, that other woman still made a difference. She was so touched that she later decided to come to court and be the person that somebody hurting could lean on. “All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.” In her speech she called Bryan a stone catcher as that day he was the only person standing between the defendants and jail. That’s why to be a good attorney you have to be ready to do just that: protect people from the ‘stones’ the cruel world throws at them. You don’t do it because you have to do it (like some of those disbarred public attorneys) but because you care about other people’s lives. You can’t save everyone, that’s sadly certain but you can save some of them and that’s already enough. I also think that in order to be able to understand incarcerated people and injustices they face (obviously, I’m not talking about the actual criminals, only those who have been either wrongfully or unfairly convicted), you have to go through some of the unfairness, too. It doesn’t have to be anything extremely tragic but I believe that’s one of the reasons people become lawyers: they can relate and don’t want other people to experience the same things that they have. Just got to add that it takes a lot of courage to do that. And one last thing here: It’s never too late for justice, it’s just we live in a world where we have to fight for it.
Okay, I’m officially announcing that this book is my favorite out of those I have read for university Individual Reading. Ironically enough, it is the only one that depicts real life events. Moreover, it’s about the justice system, something that’s always been with me (something that I’ve always been interested in is a better way to put it). I’m so glad to have chosen this book; I truly don’t think I’ll ever move on from it because it touched me so deeply in ways I had never expected it to. I wouldn’t say it’s the best book I’ve read, it’s simply not true but it definitely holds a very special place in my heart.
Before I write my conclusion for this book, I’d like to give an honorable mention to some of the things I liked about it. First of all, it’s how vulnerable the author allowed himself to be. He was deeply touched by every case he took and took many of the cases close to heart. In his descriptions the reader could clearly tell how important this work was for him. There was a breaking point for him though, I guess just like in any profession. “When I hung up the phone that night, I had a wet face and a broken heart. The lack of compassion I witnessed every day had finally exhausted me. I looked around my crowded office, at the stacks of records and papers, each pile filled with tragic stories, and I suddenly didn’t want to be surrounded by all this anguish and misery… I worked in a broken system of justice.” However, he sorted all that inundating(!) work out and went ot because that was something that he believed in, he believed that these people deserved to be treated better than how they were being treated. That’s precisely why he described the story of each and every convict whose case made a difference. I just kept highlighting lines in the book that had affected me and honestly, the whole book is just one big highlight. Stevenson even put a poem written by a teenage convict he’d worked with as the beginning of Chapter Eight which is called All God’s Children. I was on a bus when I read it and it made me cry (ironically enough, the poem is called Uncried Tears), and poetry almost never makes me cry. Of course, I’ll share it with you.
Imagine teardrops left uncried
From pain trapped inside
Waiting to escape
Through the windows of your eyes
“Why won’t you let us out?”
The tears question the conscience
“Relinquish your fears and doubts
And heal yourself in the process.”
The conscience told the tears
“I know you really want me to cry
But if I release you from bondage
In gaining your freedom you die,”
The tears gave it some thought
Before giving the conscience an answer
“If crying brings you to triumph
Then dying’s not such a disaster.”
IAN E. MANUEL, Union Correctional Institution
Now, for the brief conclusion. I feel like this book could’ve been longer but at the same time it’s exactly the right size. It gives you everything you need to know about the justice system and by the end of it you have somewhat of a clear image of it. Bryan Stevenson is not only a wonderful lawyer he’s also a great writer that makes you feel and think. Moreover, though it is written in plain language, the vocabulary was especially delicious to me since I came running to this book seeking to learn more about law in America which I’d say I successfully did. A lot of new words were legal terms that I’ll be keeping in my mind like an oath and, hopefully, will get to use one day. This leads us to new (and not really) lexical units that I’ve encountered:
To smother — to kill someone by covering their face with something so that they cannot breathe.
To be inundated with/by something — to receive so much of something that you cannot deal with it
To forswear — agree to give up or do without
Valiant — very brave
A luminary — a famous person who is respected for their skills or knowledge
To wrangle — to argue with someone for a long time
To laud — to praise (a person or their achievements) highly
To fret — to be anxious or worried
To expedite — to make an action or process happen more quickly
Avid — very interested and enthusiastic
Libel — writing that contains bad information about someone which is not true
Rationale — a group of reasons for a decision of belief
To adduce — to cite as evidence
Terse — said or written in a few words, often showing that you are annoyed
A landmark court decision — a U.S. Supreme Court decision that substantially changes the interpretation of existing law
To grapple with something — to try to deal with or understand something difficult
To trawl through something — to look through a lot of things in order to find something
On the off-chance — hoping that something may be possible, although it is not likely
To recant — to say that one no longer holds an opinion or belief
Egregious — extremely bad or shocking in an obvious way
Bryan Stevenson finished his book with Walter and I’d like to do the same. “Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is: do we deserve to kill? … I told those gathered in the church that Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.”
So, goodbye, Walter. Thank you for being valiant(!) enough to forgive those who unfairly accused you and had judged you unworthy of mercy, thank you for staying true to yourself even when it seemed like you couldn’t do it anymore. I’m so proud of you and wish I hadn’t been that young to learn about your story when you were alive. Goodbye.
By the way, I have already chosen a book for the second semester and can’t wait to write a post about it because, just like I had planned, I did enjoy writing these two posts, it was refreshing.
I thank you for reading them.
SPOTTED! count: 7