Smithsonian profiles Bryan Stevenson: ‘Mass Incarceration Defines Us’

Smithsonian profiles Bryan Stevenson: ‘Mass Incarceration Defines Us’ December 9, 2012

Chris Hedges writes a long, inspiring profile of Bryan Stevenson for Smithsonian magazine. Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, was awarded the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for social justice. (He’s also a graduate of my alma mater, Eastern University.)

Hedges’ article is a hefty piece, but it’s well worth your time. You will feel sadness, anger and hope, sometimes all at the same time. Hedges tells Stevenson’s remarkable story, and in doing so conveys Stevenson’s important message: “Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us as a Society.”

Here’s a taste:

It was here in this square — a square adorned with a historical marker celebrating the presence in Montgomery of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy — that men and women fell to their knees weeping and beseeched slave-holders not to separate them from their husbands, wives or children. It was here that girls and boys screamed as their fathers or mothers were taken from them.

“This whole street is rich with this history,” he says. “But nobody wants to talk about this slavery stuff. Nobody.” He wants to start a campaign to erect monuments to that history, on the sites of lynchings, slave auctions and slave depots. “When we start talking about it, people will be outraged. They will be provoked. They will be angry.”

Stevenson expects anger because he wants to discuss the explosive rise in inmate populations, the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of color and the use of life sentences against minors as part of a continuum running through the South’s ugly history of racial inequality, from slavery to Jim Crow to lynching.

Equating the enslavement of innocents with the imprisonment of convicted criminals is apt to be widely resisted, but he sees it as a natural progression of his work. Over the past quarter-century, Stevenson has become perhaps the most important advocate for death-row inmates in the United States.

… EJI’s office is in a building that once housed a school for whites seeking to defy integration. The building is in the same neighborhood as Montgomery’s slave depots. For Stevenson, that history matters.

Mass incarceration defines us as a society, Stevenson argues, the way slavery once did. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but imprisons a quarter of the world’s inmates. Most of those 2.3 million inmates are people of color. One out of every three black men in their 20s is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or bound in some other way to the criminal justice system. Once again families are broken apart. Once again huge numbers of black men are disenfranchised, because of their criminal records. Once again people are locked out of the political and economic system. Once again we harbor within our midst black outcasts, pariahs. As the poet Yusef Komunyakaa said: “The cell block has replaced the auction block.”

In opening a discussion of American justice and America’s racial history, Stevenson hopes to help create a common national narrative, one built finally around truth rather than on the cultivated myths of the past, that will allow blacks and whites finally to move forward.

… Stevenson turns frequently to the Bible. He quotes to me from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says of the woman who committed adultery: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He tells me an elderly black woman once called him a “stone catcher.”

“There is no such thing as being a Christian and not being a stone catcher,” he says. “But that is exhausting. You’re not going to catch them all. And it hurts. If it doesn’t make you sad to have to do that, then you don’t understand what it means to be engaged in an act of faith. … But if you have the right relationship to it, it is less of a burden, finally, than a blessing. It makes you feel stronger.”


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  • If it was as simple as “enslavement of innocents” versus “imprisonment of convicted criminals,” this would be a different conversation. A simple look at the racial statistics of arrest, the racial statistics of conviction, the racial statistics of incarceration or the racial statistics of execution will soon put the lie to the false dichotomy. What this really is about is that there are different standards of “innocent” & “criminal” in America, depending on the colour of your skin.

  • Mira

    I really can’t handle stuff like this over breakfast sometimes – I’m barely awake, easy to catch off guard and wind up in tears immediately at words like “stone catcher.” That might be the most beautiful and sad thing someone could ever call you.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    My brother-in-law is a prison guard.  He says that almost all of the black and Hispanic inmates in his prison are there on drug charges.  If this country put an end to its foolish War On Drugs, the arrest rate for minorities would plummet dramatically.

    The government should immediately pardon all non-violent drug offenders, and offer treatment instead of prison for drug addicts.

  • What’s a stone catcher? Better to catch the stone than get clonked by it.
    It’s hard to know how to react over a name when you don’t know what it means. 

  • I suspect it means to catch the stone rather than have someone else get hit once it is cast.

  • GDwarf

    I remember reading that 1% of people in the US are in jail/parole. That’s ludicrous, and truly obscene. Of course, the fact that it’s 33% of blacks is even moreso.

    What makes it really obscene isn’t even that this has happened, well-intentioned practices can lead to truly terrible outcomes after all, but that so few care. It’s either just how things are, or, increasingly, seen as not being enough. A country where so many people are behind bars is full of pundits who want to up those numbers and who cry about how the government is soft on crime.

    The US Prison Warden’s Union is, last I heard, the most powerful lobby in the country. Just think about that, about how incredibly, fundamentally, messed up things have gotten where that’s the case. Where record amounts of money are spent bribing politicians to open more jails and extend prison sentences. It’s about as far from justice as you can get.

    What’s more, it doesn’t keep people safe. You’d think that if 1% of the population was in trouble with the law then you’d have nothing left but fairly law-abiding citizens, but that’s clearly not the case. Indeed, countries that do everything they can to avoid jail time for criminals have far, far, far lower recidivism and crime rates. Turns out that circumstances create criminals, so training them so they can get jobs and don’t develop a deep hatred of society for abusing them means that they stop committing crimes.

    …And now Canada’s PM is trying his best to bring this culture up here. He’s creating privatized “superjails” and added and upped mandatory minimum sentences. The latter, at least, are being struck down by the courts, but how can one look at the US justice system and truly think it’s worth emulating?

  • AnonaMiss

    I have something in my eye.

  • I am amazed at how true this parallel is. I had never seen it before.

    Apparently, to be a racist is to rig the game so that your prejudices appear to be accurate.

  • stardreamer42

    This observation is not new; there’s already been a popular book written about it. 

  • Indeed I have seen books printed almost a decade ago that chronicle all the abuses, big and small, that seem purely designed to make a prisoner’s life as difficult as possible with no real reason except that it makes prison guards and wardens smile in satisfaction that in their petty realm of power, they hold all the cards and all the reins.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     foolish War On Drugs

    Some blog (I can’t remember whose, sadly) refers to it as The War On Some People Who Take Drugs.

    I think that’s even more accurate than Robert Anton Wilson’s older formulation (The War On Some Drugs), and plan to use it from now on.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Seems to me it’d be more accurate if phrased as ‘The War On Some Drugs And People Who Take Them’. Alcohol and tobacco are still drugs and still omitted from the illegal list because tobacco has a fuckton of money behind it and we learned it’s not bright to ban alcohol, but we haven’t applied the lessons of Prohibition to other drugs (though we are, in some places, working on marijuana) because we need them illegal in order to keep feeding brown men to Moloch–er–privatized prisons.