I have never been arrested, never spent a night in jail, never had a loved one thrown into the back of a squad car or behind bars, or be at the mercy of a scary, confusing system that at best sees them with indifference, and at worst as monstrous. The United States of America locks up more people than any other nation on the planet, and Louisiana is our biggest incarcerator. Most of you are probably like me—lucky. The closest we get to crime and punishment is likely what we see on TV. While making "Unprisoned," I met a woman who used to be like us—Sheila Phipps.
Before my son went to jail, I used to see people be on television, fighting, saying, "Oh, this person didn't do it and this person is innocent." And you know, you snub them or you dismiss them, and like, "Yeah, whatever." Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of people who deserve to be in prison. There's a lot of criminals out here. But there are a lot of innocent people that's in jail.
Sheila's son, McKinley, is one of those innocent people. He served 17 years of a 30-year sentence on a manslaughter charge. He had no previous convictions, there was no forensic evidence in the case. He was convicted solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, and decades of research have shown that eyewitness testimony isn't as reliable as we once believed it to be. Scientists say that memory isn't precise. It's less like playing back a video, and more like putting together a puzzle. Since 1989, when DNA testing was first used to free innocent people, over 70 percent of overturned convictions were based on eyewitness testimony. Last year, the district attorney whose office prosecuted McKinley's case was convicted of unrelated corruption charges. When this district attorney of 30 years stepped down, the eyewitnesses from McKinley's case came forward and said that they had been pressured into testifying by the district attorneys, pressure which included the threat of jail time. Despite this, McKinley is still in prison.
Before this happened, I never would've thought it. And well, I guess it's hard for me to imagine that these things is going on, you know, until this happened to my son. It really opened my eyes. It really, really opened my eyes. I ain't gonna lie to you.
Estimates of how many innocent people are locked up range between one and four percent, which maybe doesn't sound like a lot, except that it amounts to around 87,000 people: mothers, fathers, sons locked up, often for decades, for crimes they did not commit. And that's not even counting the roughly half a million people who have been convicted of nothing—those presumed innocent, but who are too poor to bail out of jail and therefore sit behind bars for weeks upon months, waiting for their case to come to trial—or much more likely, waiting to take a plea just to get out. All of those people have family on the outside.
My brother missed my high school graduation because the night before, he went to jail. My brother missed my birthday dinner because that day, actually, he went to jail. My brother missed his own birthday dinner because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So all these times when he ended up going to jail, were charges pressed or did he just get taken to jail?
The charges would be pressed and it would have a bond posted, then the charges will get dropped...because there was no evidence.
I met Kortney Williams when I went to her college classroom to talk about "Unprisoned." She ended up interviewing her aunt, Troylynn Robertson, for an episode.
With everything that you went through with your children, what is any advice that you would give me if I had any kids?
I would tell you when you have them, you know the first thing that will initially come to mind is love and protection, but I would tell you, even much with the protection to raise them with knowledge of the judicial system—you know, we always tell our kids about the boogeyman, the bad people, who to watch out for, but we don't teach them how to watch out for the judicial system.
Because of the way our criminal legal system disproportionately targets people of color, it's not uncommon for young people like Kortney to know about it. When I started going into high schools to talk to students about "Unprisoned," I found that roughly one-third of the young people I spoke with had a loved one behind bars.
The hardest part is like finding out where he's at, or like, when his court date is.
Yeah, he went to jail on my first birthday.
My dad works as a guard. He saw my uncle in jail. He's in there for life.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the number of young people with a father incarcerated rose 500 percent between 1980 and 2000. Over five million of today's children will see a parent incarcerated at some point in their childhoods. But this number disproportionately affects African American children. By the time they reach the age of 14, one in four black children will see their dad go off to prison. That's compared to a rate of one in 30 for white children. One key factor determining the future success of both inmates and their children is whether they can maintain ties during the parent's incarceration, but prisoners' phone calls home can cost 20 to 30 times more than regular phone calls, so many families keep in touch through letters.
Dear big brother, I'm making that big 16 this year, LOL. Guess I'm not a baby anymore. You still taking me to prom? I really miss you. You're the only guy that kept it real with me. I wish you were here so I can vent to you. So much has happened since the last time I seen you. I have some good news. I won first place in the science fair. I'm a geek. We're going to regionals, can't you believe it? High school is going by super fast. In less than two years, I hope you'll be able to see me walk across the stage. I thought to write to you because I know it's boring in there. I want to put a smile on your face.
Anissa wrote these letters to her brother when she was a sophomore in high school. She keeps the letters he writes to her tucked into the frame of her bedroom mirror, and reads them over and over again. I'd like to think that there's a good reason why Anissa's brother is locked up. We all want the wheels of justice to properly turn, but we're coming to understand that the lofty ideals we learned in school look really different in our nation's prisons and jails and courtrooms.
You walk into that courtroom and you're just—I've been doing this for a quite a while, and it still catches your breath. You're like, "There are so many people of color here," and yet I know that the city is not made up of 90 percent African Americans, so why is it that 90 percent of the people who are in orange are African American?
Public defender Danny Engelberg isn't the only one noticing how many black people are in municipal court—or in any court. It's hard to miss.
Who's sitting in court waiting to see the judge? What do they look like?
Mostly African-Americans, like me.
It's mostly, I could say, 85 percent black. That's all you see in the orange, in the box back there, who locked up.
Who's waiting? Mostly black. I mean, there was a couple of white people in there.
I think it was about 85 percent African-American that was sitting there.
How does a young black person growing up in America today come to understand justice? Another "Unprisoned" story was about a troupe of dancers who choreographed a piece called "Hoods Up," which they performed in front of city council. Dawonta White was in the seventh grade for that performance.
We was wearing black with hoodies because Trayvon Martin, when he was wearing his hoodie, he was killed. So we looked upon that, and we said we're going to wear hoodies like Trayvon Martin.
Who came up with that idea?
The group. We all agreed on it. I was a little nervous, but I had stick through it though, but I felt like it was a good thing so they could notice what we do.
Shraivell Brown was another choreographer and dancer in "Hoods Up." He says the police criticize people who look like him. He feels judged based on things other black people may have done. How would you want the police to look at you, and what would you want them to think?
That I'm not no threat.
Why would they think you're threatening? What did you say, you're 14?
Yes, I'm 14, but because he said a lot of black males are thugs or gangsters and all that, but I don't want them thinking that about me.
For folks who look like me, the easiest and most comfortable thing to do is to not pay attention—to assume our criminal legal system is working. But if it's not our responsibility to question those assumptions, whose responsibility is it? There's a synagogue here that's taken on learning about mass incarceration, and many congregants have concluded that because mass incarceration throws so many lives into chaos, it actually creates more crime—makes people less safe. Congregant Teri Hunter says the first step towards action has to be understanding. She says it's crucial for all of us to understand our connection to this issue even if it's not immediately obvious.
It's on our shoulders to make sure that we're not just closing that door and saying, "Well, it's not us." And I think as Jews, you know, we've lived that history: "It's not us." And so if a society closes their back on one section, we've seen what happens. And so it is our responsibility as Jews and as members of this community to educate our community—at least our congregation—to the extent that we're able.
I've been using the pronouns "us" and "we" because this is our criminal legal system and our children. We elect the district attorneys, the judges and the legislators who operate these systems for we the people. As a society, we are more willing to risk locking up innocent people than we are to let guilty people go free. We elect politicians who fear being labeled "soft on crime," encouraging them to pass harsh legislation and allocate enormous resources toward locking people up. When a crime is committed, our hunger for swift retribution has fed a police culture bent on finding culprits fast, often without adequate resources to conduct thorough investigations or strict scrutiny of those investigations.
We don't put checks on prosecutors. Across the country, over the last couple of decades, as property and violent crimes have both fell, the number of prosecutors employed and cases they have filed has risen. Prosecutors decide whether or not to take legal action against the people police arrest and they decide what charges to file, directly impacting how much time a defendant potentially faces behind bars. One check we do have on prosecutors is defense. Imagine Lady Liberty: the blindfolded woman holding the scale meant to symbolize the balance in our judicial system. Unfortunately, that scale is tipped. The majority of defendants in our country are represented by government-appointed attorneys. These public defenders receive around 30 percent less funding than district attorneys do, and they often have caseloads far outnumbering what the American Bar Association recommends.
As Sheila Phipps said, there are people who belong in prison, but it's hard to tell the guilty from the innocent when everyone's outcomes are so similar.
We all want justice. But with the process weighed so heavily against defendants, justice is hard to come by. Our criminal legal system operates for we the people. If we don't like what's going on, it is up to us to change it.
Thank you very much.