Watch This The life of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson has been made into a movie
“Just Mercy” opens with a man hard at work in a forest, chopping down a tree. This is Walter McMillian, portrayed by Jamie Foxx. It is among his last moments of freedom before he’s arrested for murder and enveloped in the nightmare of Alabama’s criminal justice system.
The film, which opens Friday, Jan. 10, is based on the memoir of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer fighting for legal equality. He had qualms about this story, which is built around the relationship between McMillian and the lawyer trying to save him from Death Row, being given the big-screen treatment. But any lingering doubts dissolved the first moments he watched “Just Mercy” and saw how forcefully Foxx captured the essence of McMillian, a man Stevenson got to know well while fighting to exonerate him.
“To a certain extent, I underestimated the power of it on the screen,” says Stevenson, who is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in the movie. “That first scene, Jamie, he looks so much like Walter McMillian that I actually couldn’t focus for a while, because I was trying to figure out how they got Walter in that space. It’s the optics that will sometimes get you to a place.
“I remember that first moment of going to Death Row, being so nervous and anxious. I remember the humiliation of being strip-searched when I went to a prison, that overwhelming emotion that Michael presents so brilliantly during that execution scene. It did bring back that reality, but more than anything, it just excited me, that people would get close enough to this reality that they would be able to see what I’ve seen. … To see the burden our unjust system can put on families and communities, to see what fear and anger unchallenged will do. That excites me, because that’s at the heart of what I’ve been trying to do my entire career.”
McMillian’s appeal of his conviction for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white woman in Monroeville, Ala., was among the first to cross the young Harvard Law School graduate’s desk when the Delaware native relocated to Montgomery to run the Alabama chapter of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.
Read Story on SF Chronicle
Say it Louder The scourge of police violence against Black women
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a lawyer, UCLA and Columbia Law professor, and the founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum.
It’s not hard to completely miss something that exists in plain sight. To see is itself a process of precognition—matching up an anticipated picture of reality to what you observe in real time. If there is no precognition, no placeholder mental picture that deems the matter significant, then perception can be delayed—and indeed, in many cases, entirely denied.
This is especially true as it pertains to social problems. For instance, when it comes to recognizing state violence against Black women and girls as a social problem, the sense is that “there is no there there,” even as evidence surrounds us in plain sight. It takes no great effort to unearth video proof and other firsthand accounts of incidents in which police officers attack and even kill Black women and girls. In one stream of footage, law enforcement officers are shown punching, handcuffing, or straddling Black girls in bikinis and school uniforms. Some are preteens; indeed, some are as young as seven. In other footage, there are montage-style shots of a highway patrolman pummeling a Black woman in the face with his fists as motorists speed by. You can also easily track down videos in which Black mothers sought police intervention in disputes with their neighbors, only to be thrown to the ground and handcuffed themselves, or in which a Black woman is placed in a choke hold for barbecuing on a sidewalk. Scores of other shots show police officers yanking Black women out of cars in routine traffic stops, or body-slamming or abusing them in response to a mental health crisis or after a woman demanded service in a restaurant. Then there are the ritual humiliations and abuses of Black women under police detention being paraded half-nude into booking offices, or hog-tied and dragged out of a police cruiser, or tased while handcuffed in a restraining chair. Most Black women who experience these painful and humiliating encounters with police survive. We know, unfortunately, that some, like Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, Natasha McKenna, and all too many others, do not.
To bring the stories of Black women killed by police into the center of public debate, I founded SayHerName, a campaign that celebrated its fifth anniversary in December. Throughout that time, SayHerName has insisted that we begin to treat state violence against Black women as a fully legible social problem; its mission is as acute today as it was on the day that the demand arose during the massive protests against the non-indictment of Eric Garner’s killer in New York. In my own experience moving through activist circles in the years since the SayHerName campaign began, the names of women like Anderson, Bland, and McKenna have growing resonance. In late November, Senator Elizabeth Warren referenced SayHerName’s impact in a tweet calling for criminal justice reform and acknowledging Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson, and Bland. It’s still regrettably the norm, however, for the media to overlook the root causes of this kind of violence. As a result, the debates we now conduct over race and police accountability still tend to crowd out the experience of Black women—and most dangerously, we also have contributed to the marginalization of the risks Black women confront within the very communities and families tasked, unfairly, with facing up to such risks. This crushing conspiracy of silence is itself a condition of Black women’s intersectional erasure and subordination.
Read the story on The New Republic
More of This Jail inmates are suing a $16 Billion company for making them work without pay
The last time Bert Davis was booked into Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, he was assigned to Housing Unit 31, the pod for inmate workers, and promptly sent to work in the facility’s industrial kitchen.
This was routine for Davis, who had cycled in and out of Alameda County’s main jail over the years, either awaiting trial or serving sentences for minor charges like drug possession and joyriding. He had a reputation as a hard worker who was willing to volunteer for extra shifts or stay overtime.
He never had an opportunity to say no to the kitchen assignments, Davis says, but in any case, he didn’t want to. Working gave him a little freedom of movement and a chance to spend days outside the cramped cell where he bunked with about 30 other men. He got to walk in the sun on his way to work, and swipe whatever extra food he could grab—maybe an orange or a packet of Kool-Aid with ice. “Ice is a big thing in there,” Davis, now 49, tells me. “A piece of ice and you’re living like a king.” These minor perks made it “better to be slave than it is not a slave,” he says.
When he was arrested in October 2018 and couldn’t afford bail, Davis was sent back to Santa Rita. He spent the next four months working eight hours a day in the kitchen. Monday through Friday, he prepared trays of food that were wheeled on robotic carts to the housing units or shipped to jails in nearby counties. The work was overseen by employees of Aramark, a $16.2 billion multinational food and facility services conglomerate. Since at least 2006, Aramark has held contracts worth more than $94.5 million to feed Alameda County’s inmates. Neither Aramark nor Alameda County paid Davis for his labor.
Now, Davis and seven other current and former Santa Rita inmates are suing Aramark, Alameda County, and Sheriff Gregory Ahern in federal court, arguing that the company “receives an economic windfall as a result of the uncompensated labor of prisoners confined in Santa Rita Jail.” The plaintiffs claim that their unpaid kitchen jobs were forced labor, a violation of the Constitution, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and a 1990 California law that requires private companies to pay prisoners fair wages. They’re suing on behalf of all Santa Rita inmates who have worked for Aramark, including people awaiting immigration proceedings.
“Santa Rita and therefore the county are stealing the wages that have been earned as a result of the work of the prisoners,” says Dan Siegel, one of the lawyers representing the kitchen workers in their class-action suit. “We speculate that it’s at least millions.” Siegel and the plaintiffs argue that they should have received wages on par with Aramark’s non-incarcerated employees and could be eligible for overtime pay under California’s labor code.
Read Story on Mother Jones
Less of This More mothers are going to prison
Every month, Lila Edwards wakes up early for a two-hour road trip with a group of girls that ends with them walking single file through a metal detector. Inside an empty classroom, Lila eagerly and anxiously awaits Inmate 01740964.
When the inmate, a woman serving a 40-year sentence for murder, walked in during a recent visit, Lila collapsed into her arms and didn’t let go for more than a minute.
These monthly visits at a minimum security prison are the only times that Lila, who is 10 years old and in the fifth grade, touches her mother.
“Sometimes I ask, ‘Mom, when are you going to come home?’” Lila said. “She says soon and tells me to pray more to God about it. I pray for my mom every night.”
A toddler when her mother was convicted of stabbing to death a woman who was also dating Lila’s father, Lila will be an adult when her mother, Lena Acosta, is eligible for parole in 2030.
Ms. Acosta says she regrets that her own actions from nearly a decade ago have left her daughter in this position today. “The person I was was horrible,” she said, adding that her faith has helped her change.
As the prison population in the United States skyrocketed since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has grown by more than 750 percent, at a rate twice that of men. The increase, according to criminologists, has been driven by a rise in the imprisonment of white women for property and drug-related crimes. And as the population has risen, so, too, has the number of children growing up with a mother or father behind bars.
At least 5 million children — or about 7 percent of American youth — have had an incarcerated parent, with black, poor and rural minors disproportionately affected, according to a 2015 report that examined federal data.
The consequences are exacting, from unstable homes to lasting effects on well-being. Studies show that children in many ways share the sentences with their parents: They face increased risks of psychological and behavioral problems, insufficient sleep and poor nutrition, and higher odds of entering the criminal justice system themselves.
The toll it takes on children is often far more severe when the inmate is their mother. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons, and nearly 80 percent of those in jail, have minor children, and most are their primary caretaker.
“To have a mother in prison is like a primal wound,” said Brittany Barnett, founder of Girls Embracing Mothers, the organization that takes Lila for the monthly prison visits. The program, which started six years ago, has worked with 52 incarcerated women, all but two of them single mothers.
Read the story on NY Times
Less of This Too There are so many foster children, and some of them grow up in detention centers
Though he's never been convicted of a crime, Geard Mitchell spent part of his childhood in a juvenile detention center, at times sleeping on cement floors under harsh fluorescent lights left on through the night during lockdowns.
He attended high school by clicking through online courses and had “no one to talk to but the walls” because of restrictions on phone calls. He attended group therapy with teens accused of rape, when what he really needed was grief therapy to process his mother’s death.
Daily life became so torturous that Geard scratched up his face to look like a methamphetamine addict, hoping that “they would transfer me to somewhere more normal, like rehab.”
“I knew it was wrong to lie,” said Geard, 17, sitting in a courthouse in this town of shuttered coal fields and boarded-up shops. “But I was locked up with kids who were rapists and murderers. One kid even beat up a judge like it was nothing. That’s just not me.”
Geard’s only crime was being a foster child in an era when a surging number of biological parents are falling into the grips of drug addiction and child welfare systems are struggling with a shortage of foster parents. In hasty attempts to address the problem, case workers and courts have been funneling children into crowded emergency shelters, hotels, out-of-state institutions and youth prisons — cold, isolating and often dangerous facilities not built to house innocent children for years.
“We are just destroying these kids. They’re warehoused into emergency shelters, out-of-state institutions and juvenile detention centers, which can cause lifelong emotional trauma — their childhoods spent segregated from the outside world,” said Marcia Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood (ABC), a nonprofit child advocacy organization.
The nonprofit has filed lawsuits against 10 states alleging that agencies tasked with caring for children instead “infringe upon the rights of . . . foster children, jeopardizing their most basic needs.” The most recent lawsuit was filed against West Virginia in the fall.
Read the story on Washington Post
Perspective Releasing poor people from prison will actually make us safer
On Wednesday, New York joined a growing number of states that have restricted the money bail system to limit the number of people who are in jail solely because they can’t afford to pay their way out. While not as sweeping as some other states’ reforms, the new law automatically releases people charged with most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies without making them post cash bail.
Prior to the passage of the law, low-level defendants were routinely held in jail simply because they could not afford bail, not because their release posed a risk to society. This reflexive use of money bail tore families apart, ruined lives, wasted millions of taxpayer dollars, and ultimately made New Yorkers less safe.
But if you’ve been reading the news lately, you’d think New York is about to release thousands of dangerous offenders onto the streets. Prosecutors and police officials have launched a full media offensive to warn that bail reform goes too far. Bail bondsmen, who have a financial stake in the status quo, are telling reporters the new law is emboldening criminals. And in the week before the law kicked in, the New York Post ran a series of articles with provocative headlines like, “Bail Reform Is Setting Suspects Free After String of Anti-Semitic Attacks.” The articles showcased several people who were released without having to pay bail, one of whom was arrested again for punching someone the next day. The Post suggested this would be the new normal under bail reform—even though the law hadn’t yet gone into effect, the only person accused of a violent crime was jailed pretrial, and prosecutors did not request money bail in any of the other cases.
Any reform that means locking fewer people up inevitably inspires a punitive backlash and concerns about public safety. But the bail reform law may actually make New York safer.
Just look at New Jersey, which went further than New York and eliminated cash bail for all offenses in 2017. The state has seen a steep decrease in violent crime rates from 2014 to 2018. A study also found that, despite similar fears about lawlessness, the rate of alleged new criminal activity for individuals released pretrial under New Jersey’s law was virtually the same as the rate for defendants under the old cash bail system.
On the other hand, studies have shown that rather than advancing public safety, pretrial incarceration is more likely to cause crime. One study found that low-risk defendants held just two or three days pretrial were roughly 40 percent more likely to commit new crimes before trial than equivalent defendants held no more than 24 hours. The correlation grew the longer people were held: Those jailed for more than a month were 74 percent more likely to offend than those who were released within 24 hours.
Why does incarceration have this effect? People held in jail while awaiting trial start to lose ground even after just a few days of incarceration: They may lose their jobs, fail to make rent, or have their children taken away. Maintaining stability and community ties are crucial to keep people from falling back into the cycle of arrest and incarceration.
Read the story on Slate
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Liberation Series co-hosted by ChangeLawyers℠
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