Five weeks. That’s how long I’ve been reading this book. This is definitely the most powerful book I’ve read in 2016 so far, and I doubt anything else is going to come along in the next 7 months to topple that.
“Sad” is not an adequate adjective to describe this book. Horrifying, frustrating, demoralizing…take your pick. Stevenson isn’t sugar-coating his chosen subject of discussion. How could he? THere isn’t any sugar-coating to be done here. Every story in here served as a reminder of my incredible privilege in this world, of how because of the combination of certain variables I will not be in the circumstances such as those of the people Stevenson works with every single day at the Equal Justice Initiative.
Interspersing the overarching storyline of the case of Walter McMillian, who was put on death row after wrongfully convicted for the murder of a young woman, with stories of wrongful convictions of harsh sentences beginning from his early days as a lawyer, Stevenson exposes his reader to a lot of parts of the judicial system- and what a broken system it is. It is one that is set up against black people, against people of colour, against people with disabilities, against the poor, against people with mental illnesses, against everyone that is not a white person that is middle class or above. If the stories of incompetent lawyers, biased cops, and brutality towards people that have been incarcerated don’t horrify you, the stories about the incarcerated children will haunt you- tried as adults, with broken systems and incompetent lawyers and a lifetime of either abuse or isolation. Botched electrocutions. Blatantly biased judges and juries. Witness coercion. Threats of lynching. Angered communities. Desperate families. There is no holding back. His writing draws you in and you are unable to read the stories objectively. You are also unable to reconcile your view of what the justice system should be and how it is not that way. He also shows us how the fault does not lie with one person, but rather an institution that has created circumstances under which internal biases and other factors have an effect on each person that is part of a case. This is just not a functional system.
Another powerful thing that Stevenson does is humanizing these imprisoned people that he represented. He tells us their backgrounds, the sequence of events leading to them being imprisoned, the events that played a role in their incarceration, and the steps he takes to acquire some sort of justice for them. He talks about the times in which he’s successful, and the times he’s unable to reverse a wrong decision. His resilience, fighting these battles every day for so many years, and devoting his entire life and career to this initiative, is very humbling.
Some things from the book that stuck with me (and it was very hard to pick a few, my copy of the books is a huge, underlined mess):
“[W]e would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape, or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity the way that raping or abusing someone would. I couldn’t stop thinking that we don’t spend much time contemplating the details of what killing someone actually involves.”
“But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
“We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
“We’re supposed to sentence people fairly after fully considering their life circumstances, but instead we exploit the inability of the poor to get the legal assistance we need—all so we can kill them with less resistance.”
There are points in the book where Stevenson offers some hope to the readers, primarily via the work that the Equal Justice Foundation is doing- a big one that stuck with me was the banning of life imprisonment without parole for children convicted of both homicide and non-homicide crimes . There is not yet one simple solution to fix all the parts of the machine, but they are out there, relentlessly fighting the good fight.
This is a book you must read, wherever you are from, but especially if you live in the United States. An insightful and deeply intimate look into the existing prison and judicial system, with a powerful takeaway:
“Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.”
Thanks a lot Kerry, for starting the Social Justice Book Club, and bringing this into my radar. If any of you are looking for an online book club for social justice reads that has very few rules, this is your jam. Next one starts in June, we will be reading The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City by Laura Tillman.
You can check out the Equal Justice Initiative for more details on their work, and follow them on twitter at @eji_org