Since 1973 there have been 167 death row inmates who were exonerated, mainly through the efforts of the ACLU and the work of the Innocence Project. It begs the question of how many others there have been or exist who are innocent and not aggressively defended. The renewed interest is due to the case of Ledell Lee who was actually executed in Arkansas in 2017. Arkansas was about to run out of one of the drugs used to execute prisoners and executed 8 people in11 days, Ledell Lee being one. Now evidence exists and is mounting that he was innocent. In Texas, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham became famous after his 2004 execution and subsequent evidence that he had been innocent. Executing an innocent man has to be one of the ugliest truth about our criminal justice system and the fact there can no longer be certainty that a convicted man on death row is guilty puts our criminal justice system on trial. Those who were or are innocent were convicted in a court of law where investigators, police, attorneys, juries and judges all agreed they were guilty. And further someone like Ledell Lee was failed by appeals, pleas for clemency, or whatever means someone may have tried to help him. Since these institutions acted out in the name of the public, therefore indirectly in our name, shouldn’t we ask if we are complicit no matter how oblique or opaque that complicity may be? And if that’s so then we each must also ask ourselves, what are we going to do about it?
A friend began corresponding with a death row inmate in Alabama and shared the he belonged to an organization called Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. I was intrigued by the organization’s title and was not familiar with it, so I googled them. They are a group began in 1989 founded and run by death row inmates. They even publish Wings of Hope, which circulates among death row, the prison and links them also with the outside world. Given the restrictions in any penal institution and particularly on death row, running an organization and publishing a bulletin is nothing short of impressive.
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty is linked to the Equal Justice Initiative, a group led by activist Bryan Stevenson, and to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty which inspires the creation of similar organizations in other states such as Texas, New Mexico, North Carolina.
These men, and women, on death row whom we think of as the worst of the worst, whether or not one believes in the death penalty and I am strongly opposed, are fallible like all of us, but they are also capable of not only hope despite their seemingly hopeless circumstances but also of fighting to do something worthwhile. Their spirit soars beyond prison bars reminding us that they—as all of us—are certainly more that their worst deed.
As a follow up to a recent post about abolishing prisons, this BBC News story on prisons in Norway makes an important point. Prisons there are beyond what many criminal justice reformers dare to hope for here. The setting is rustic, there are no barbed wires around and the guards who are called Prison Officer Assistants function like teachers, counselors, mentors. The whole idea behind the Norway prison system is that those who are in prison will one day be neighbors and so rehabilitation is opted over retribution, so that when they come out prisoners are better people than when they went in. Since in Norway the maximum sentence is 21 years all prisoners are eventually released. Each inmate has his own cell with TV, a bath and a view of the woods outside. They study trades, pursue degrees, take yoga classes, go into retreats when they need to. And what is striking especially when compared with US prisons is that there is no violence. Once in a while an inmate may act violently but the facility has none of the incidents of violence that are routinely expected in contemporary US prisons. Each guard who has had at least 3 years of training, is assigned about 3 inmates, so the ratio is far different than in the US and surely also makes a difference. After 2 years of this approach the recidivism rate in Norway has gone down to 20%. Prior to that, it had been 60 to 70%. In the UK it’s about 50% and in the US it is 68% within 3 years and 76% within 5 years.
Of course this approach is expensive and that argument may be used by critics as a drawback. It costs the equivalent of about 98,000 British pounds per person. In the US the average is usually $30,000 but can be double that in some states. Economics tell us however, that there are social costs, and opportunity costs, and I suspect when all these are added together (not even factoring in the social good and humanity of the issue) the Norway type of prison may in the long run turn out to be cheaper.
Something about profiting from the vulnerable is unconscionable which is why I wanted to bring attention to one of the ways our society practices it. For a host of reasons people caught in the criminal justice system are being asked to wear ankle bracelets. Often these keep them from being in jail while awaiting trial. Of course sometimes people are innocent but need a trial to prove it. There is a catch. In St Louis, the city ProPublica investigated, EMASS (Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services) the company that operates these ankle bracelets is a private company which charges $10 a day and the bill must be paid in full before the ankle bracelet is removed. As can be imagined this can be tough for many. And while being in jail is technically the alternative, aside from the hardship of life in prison, for some that would mean a loss of a job. As we know young Black men are disproportionately caught in this system and that bill or debt can make it even harder for them to bring some kind of normalcy to their lives.
Like private prisons, these companies work to sustain and enlarge their bottom line. Profit ought not to be part of the justice system. And while that may not be the current trend, it remains what is necessary.
Please note, we will be on hiatus for the month of August. See you back in September.