Aspirations of Justice

I have worked in a law office for almost two years now.  I have no preconceived notions of glory that will happen when I am a lawyer.  I know that clients will be needy and rarely ever grateful.  I know that clients will sometimes be their own worst enemy.  I know that even when they aren’t, there are plenty of other enemies out there wanting to pounce.  I know that you will go from being busy to having fifteen things that need to get done in the next fifteen minutes.

I know that you will never feel like you are caught up on your work, and you will always feel like you are forgetting to do something important.  I know that this work is exhausting, it is emotional draining, it is mental taxing, and some days it will break you.  But I also know that this work is important, because at its foundations is justice and fairness for all.  It is work that is worth aspiring to.

We as Americans tend to have an idealized idea of how our justice system works.  We like to think that we have the great leveler of justice right at our finger tips.  A place where the truth will also prevail and good will always win.  This is the courtroom of America that we put on a pedestal.  But I see a different courtroom.  I see a place where the innocent go to prison and the guilty go free.  I see a place where the victims are often victimized a second time by the justice system.

I see a broken justice system.

You may wonder why if I have lost so much faith in our justice system, why oh why am I so eager to jump in with the throws of attorneys and join it.  I will tell you why.  Because it breaks my heart to watch it happen, and I am sick of sitting on the sidelines.  I am sick of being the girl that complains about our justice system instead of being part of the solution.

I know that I can’t fix an entire broken system, but maybe if I can just fix it for one person, maybe that will be enough.  I know that truth and justice are unattainable aspirations, but that does not mean that we should aspire for them any less.  

My boss once told me that visibility brings change.   Meaning that if the common person in America knew what really went on behind closed doors, there is no way they would not demand change.

We fool ourselves into believing that we don’t have a voice, or that our voice doesn’t matter.  We don’t believe that we have any power to change anything at all.  Change will not come by us playing small.  Stop playing small.  Stop playing scared.  Stop pretending you voice doesn’t matter.  Stop sitting there telling yourself that this is just how life is, and stand up and demand change.  Get angry.  Get vocal.  Not in a way that we are fighting with against each other, but in a way that we are fighting with each other.  Demand visibility.  Demand change.  Because until we demand change, change will not come.   

Philly

Photo Credit: Lori Rensink

 

 

A Call for a Little Bit of Perspective and a Whole Lot of Grace

First let me start out by saying that my purpose for this blog is not to start an argument.  The truth is that I haven’t spent hours pouring over the details to be able to promise that I have ever fact straight.  I have however read enough.  I could get all of my facts down to a science and start throwing them at you, but let’s be honest, it wouldn’t actually sway you in any direction other than the one you are currently at.  Instead you would just throw more facts back at me.  We would get angrier and angrier at each other, all the while not making any sort of progress.  I am asking that agree to skip that part so can begin to have an open conversation about these issues.

This is not me trying to defend either side by saying one side was justified is their actions.  A young man was killed.  I think we can all agree that is a tragedy.  Just as I am not trying to justify either side, I am also not trying to deem the tragedy of Freddie Gray’s death.

I am trying to bring some perspective, and hopefully act as a mediator.  Because I do understand both sides of the story.  I do want to stand up for the rights of the little guy, the rights of those who have been silenced under the foot of powerful.  Please believe me when I saw that I know that police brutality and racial profiling are real issues that also need to be addressed.  But I am also a criminal justice major who understands the the type dangerous situations that police officers have to face.  I also know all too well how easily the media can make our perspective of right and wrong all of a sudden seem very fuzzy.

In addition to being a criminal justice major, I also worked in a prison.  Admittedly it wasn’t a very dangerous prison, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t people in there who wouldn’t stop to hurt me if they had the chance.  You never know what is going to happen and who is really dangerous.  It is unfortunate but true that many of the best criminals are masterminds at deception.  The horrifying truth is that most of the time you only have a split second to decide if this person is truly innocent or just good at acting like it.  In the hindsight it is easy to see one action as an overreaction.  When we have time to process all of the facts, it becomes obvious which party was in the wrong.  Time is a luxury that many of our police officers do not have.  They have to react in the time given with the facts they are given.  And sometimes that will mean they make mistakes.  I wish with all of my heart that those mistakes didn’t cost Freddie his life, but the reality is that a mistake in the opposite direction could just as easily cost a young police officer their life.  It is unfortunate reality, but it is the reality that we live in.

I have read about a lot of angry people who want the police department to step up and punish those in their force who did wrong.  And I can agree with that, to a certain extent.  There are a lot of things that should have been done better in that situation, things that might have potentially saved his life.  Someone needs to take responsibility for those mistakes.  However I also understand the horrible position it puts the police department in.  As soon as you start throwing officers under the bus for defending themselves, you have officers who hesitate to defend themselves when they should, and soon you have officers who end up dead because of that hesitation.

We could argue until we are blue in the face about who deserves what punishment, but that isn’t going to bring  Freddie back to life.

Being human is hard, it is so very hard.  Being a human in a minority group is even harder, just as it is harder to be a human who goes to work every day with the risk that they could die.  So instead of judgment and pointed fingers, I am asking for a a little bit of perspective and a whole lot of grace.  Despite how many facts we think we know about the situation, we can never completely understand that circumstances that caused each party to react the way that they did.

But I mean what do I really know?  Not a whole lot if I am being honest.  I realize that admitting this does not do much for my argument.  Which is just my point, because I am not trying to win an argument.  I am trying to create an open discussion in which we can understand each other so we can decide what needs to be done to help this not happen again in the future.  You can hate me for it if you want.  If hate makes you feel better.  My guess is that it won’t.  But if you feel that you need to, I am not going to stop you. Before you chose how to react, think about these words from my pal Ghandi,  “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Catching the Disease

The amount of germs and diseases at the pen is rampant enough to cause germaphobes everywhere to have nightmares.  I use hand sanitizer like it is my job.  But the worst diseases at the pen cannot be prevented with any hand sanitizer, nor can it be cured with any medications.  Alarming right?  I think so, and what is just as alarming is how quickly the inmates catch this disease, and even more so how long this disease stays with them.  Institutionalization is like a slow poison that seeps into their blood, changing the way inmate’s think.

There are inmates that do not want to get out, because they have nothing to get out for.  They don’t have a job, they don’t have a home, some don’t have an education, most don’t have a family that would care for them, and their friends are normally the reason they ended up in prison in the first place.  So why would they want to leave?  The pen has become their home.  Here they have people who care for them, a warm place to sleep, food, medical care, and the friends that they have made.  If you have seen Shawshank Redemption, think of the old man Brooks after he got released. Many inmates find themselves in Brook’s shoes.

Today I had the chance to listen to an inmate talk about his view of prison.  He has been in prison since he was 18, and he often takes it upon himself to take the younger inmates under his wing and mentor them.  He started telling me about some of the things he had learned about the pen after mentoring younger inmates.  Here is what he had to say, “People think when they come in, that institutionalization happens a long period like 20 years.  The truth is that it happens much faster than that, it can happen in a year.  Before you know it, you become use to the idea of prison, you start thinking that it isn’t so bad.  Then once you get out, you start thinking that what does it matter if you get caught again.  You have survived prison once, you can survive it again.  It is like a diseases you catch that keeps you coming back inside the walls to do more time.  Sometimes the disease runs in the family.  Young men will see their fathers, older brothers, and uncles spend time behind the walls and think they have to do the same.  The family thinking then becomes that you are not a man until you have served your time.”

To me, this seems like a very big problem without a cure.  To be honest I do not really know what can be done about this.  Once again I am not expert on this, I am just going off of my experience so far, but I think the problem with rehabilitating criminals, is the notion that every inmates will respond to the rehabilitation the same.  One inmate is as different from another inmate in the same way that one person is different from another person.  There is a very diverse array of personalities and ambitions among inmates.  Some of them are dead set against change, some of them have plain given up all hope for change, and some of them so desperately want a fresh start but never get the chance for one.  So if the inmate’s are so diverse, then why do we give them a one size fits all rehabilitation plan.  Is it in the name of “fairness” so that each inmate gets an equal chance?  But is it fair that the inmates who will try to change do not always get the opportunity to do so?    The national recidivism rate is 43%.  This means that almost half of the inmates released from prison will end up back in prison.  Like I said, this diseases is running rampant in our prisons.

I do not want you to get the impression that nothing is being done about this.  There are people far more experienced than I who are trying to find a solution to our nation’s recidivism rate.  However, this people have never been in prison, and they have never had to be rehabilitated.  I think that if we truly want to help inmates get to where they need to be to, then we first have to understand where they are and where they have come from.   We cannot help someone if we first do not understand them.  But where does that leave us?  How do we come to understand what they have been through?  I by no means have the answer for this, but if institutionalization happens not long after an inmate steps behind the walls, then maybe it is time we find a cure.

 

Jean Valjean in 21st Century America

I recently just watched Les Miserables, and I was so moved by  John Valjean, a criminal whose crime was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece.  Stealing is wrong, but so is children starving.  We can punish a thief, but we have no one but ourselves to blame for the staring child. After being released, John Valjean is ready for a clean start, but no one will hire him because of his criminal history.  So what does a starving and cold John Valjean do?  In a moment of desperation, he robs a priest.  It was only when he felt that he had no other options that he chooses to turn back to crime. It was not until someone showed him mercy and helped him that he began to turn his life around.  Jump ahead six years, and we see John Valjean as a completely changed man, a successful factory owner who helps those that no one else would care for. Yet the town’s police inspector Javert refuses to see John Valjean as anything but the criminal that he use to be.

I wish that I could have passed this off thinking well that was back in France almost 200 years ago, that would not happen here in America. However, a year of working around inmates has shown me that John Valjean is just as real today as he was in the mind of author Victor Hugo in 1862.  Before I go on, I want to say that I am not trying to justify their crimes.  What some of these inmates have done horrible things, things that make me wish I could shut my eyes and forget.  But Jesus loved everyone, even criminals.  In fact it was the lowly and the criminals that Jesus tried to love the most.  Jesus also told us to love as he has loved.  So that leads me to believe that the criminals are the type of people that we should be working the hardest to love.

I am no expert on psychology, sociology, or criminology.  But it does not take an expert to talk at an inmate and see how horribly wrong their life went.  Drugs, abuse, and a life on the street with no one to care for them at age 7 is commonplace among many of the inmates I work with.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to look in their eyes and know that no one ever loved them.  And if we take one moment to look past their crime, we will see a child that learned at too young of an age how cruel this world can be.  Who are we to judge what we do not understand?  If we were in their shoes, who is to say that we would not have ended up where they did?

Please do not think of me as naïve.  I have been lied to, whistled at, sworn at, and yes even barked at by many inmates.  If I can be barked at by someone and still believe in their humanity, then I think that you can too.  Inmates are often stigmatized by society, holding the view that they deserve the punishment they received and more.  It is easy to stigmatize inmates when they are just a collective group, but that view changes once you have not met the inmates and know their stories.  Knowing the life situations that the inmates come from makes it harder to believe they are getting what they deserved.

I am not writing this to just vent about the generalization of criminals and inmates.  Rather, I hope you read this and think before you assume the worst about criminals.  I hope that instead of judging them you will stop to show them that someone does care.  Never take for granted the power of an act of kindness.  If Jesus can feed 5000 with two fish and five loaves, then I think he can change someone’s life with an act of compassion.

“Take responsibility for nurturing the precious lives of the abandoned, abused, and wounded children who, by no fault of their own, become lost in the system, fill up the juvenile centers, and eventually overflow into the most hardened prisons.  These are the people most likely to end up on death row.” – Jarvis Masters