Which country currently has locked 2.3m people in its prisons? Which country has jailed nearly 3,000 children for life with no possibility of parole? Can’t be North Korea (country isn’t big enough). Isn’t China. Stalin is dead so it’s not Russia either.
Welcome to the USA, home to between a quarter and a third of all the world’s jailed, the exceptional nation.
Bryan Stephenson is an African-American lawyer who set up a practice to offer legal support to death-row prisoners and to children who were jailed for life.
He worked in Monroe County, home of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. In a great irony, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is celebrated widely in Monroe County, but does not seem to have made much difference to the courts, where African-Americans, especially poor ones, face a fierce fight to get justice.
It’s an astonishing book – both for the stories it tells, and its glimpses of grace. I cut and pasted a few bits below.
No HIstorical parallel
‘When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole … one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.’ (pp 14-15)
‘Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.’ (p 15)
Further consequences of mass incarceration
We ban poor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and public housing if they have prior drug convictions … Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result in several Southern states disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. (p16)
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. (p 17-18)
Alabama’s racist constitution
‘The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.’ (Section 102 of the Alabama constitution.) This was only voted down in a statewide ballot in 2000AD; still, 41% of voters opposed it. (It had been unenforceable since a Supreme Court ruling in 1967)
Redemption and mercy
I have discovered, deep in the heart of many condemned and incarcerated prisoners, the scattered traces of hope and humanity–seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.’ (p17)
‘The true measure of [our society’s character] is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the the condemned.
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community … Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive … The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and–perhaps–we all need some measure of unmerited grace.’ (p18)