It has been about one year since film director Ava DuVernay released the documentary “13th.” This documentary is widely available on Netflix. Today, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to unfold and national politics have veered towards a criminal justice system that yet again relies heavily on mass incarceration, 13th continues to provide useful context for conversations about race and criminal justice. At Carolina Justice Policy Center, our intern Molly Riesenberger recently watched 13th to share what she learned with our readers:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” – Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution
According to University of Connecticut professor Jelani Cobb, the drafters of the Constitution left “a loophole that was immediately exploited” in the 13th Amendment. Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, connects this ambiguous clause to mass incarceration in America. The amendment abolished slavery, but the clause turned incarceration into the modern-day slavery. Here are ten things I learned from DuVernay’s film:
- When slavery was abolished, the millions of people responsible for the economic productivity in the south were freed. The south was left with the question: how do we rebuild? The answer was in the 13th African-Americans were arrested and imprisoned for minor crimes, then forced to provide the labor needed to rebuild the economy.
- In the land of the free, it’s ironic that we have the highest incarceration rates in the world. The documentary starts off with some striking statistics – the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prisoners.
- Let’s look at the numbers. In 1970, the prison population was 357,292. In 2014, the prison population was 2,306,200. Clearly, incarceration is not just a trend – it’s become a part of American culture.
- To break it down even further, African-American men have a significantly higher percentage of lifetime likelihood of imprisonment – one in 17 white males will do prison time, compared to only one in three African-American males.
- Following the civil war and the turn of the twentieth century, the film, ‘Birth of a Nation’ portrayed the African-American male as violent, animal-like, and evil. The film is widely known for being a catalyst to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
- The film examines the effect of the various presidencies on criminalization. It starts with Nixon’s southern strategy – he recruits southern, poor, working-class whites into the Republican fold and criminalizes Blacks. The strategy can be summarized by this quote by Lee Atwater, “…you’re talking about cutting taxes and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the by-product of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
- Nixon was the first to coin the term “war on drugs,” but Reagan was the first to turn the term into a literal war. In the Reagan era, the war on drugs became a part of our modern culture, andBblack people became overrepresented in the news as criminals. The Nixon and Reagan administrations are responsible for the cycle of criminalizing African-Americans suffering from drug addictions, rather than increasing resources for treatment or rehabilitation.
- The 1994 Federal Crime Bill, created under Bill Clinton, deployed the latest technology and tactics to make communities safer. It basically led to the massive expansion of the prison system – it increased state funding for prisons, put 100,000 police officers on the street, and contributed to the exploding prison population. Clinton now realizes that this bill led to hyper-incarceration and was a mistake.
- One of the things that the documentary explains is ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. This private club is made up of people who are both politicians and members of corporations. The council writes laws for the Republican Party, including Florida’s “Stand your Ground” law. They also are responsible for SB 1070, which gave the police the right to stop anyone they thought to be an immigrant. This kept CCA prisons overflowing with immigrant detainees. Oh, and – CCA is one of the corporations that helped ALEC write the immigration law.
- Not everyone goes to trial. If every single person had a trial, the entire system would shut down. It often comes down to: you can take this plea deal and go to jail for three years, or you can go to trial and go to jail for 30 years if you lose. As a result, 97% of people do not go to trial and instead take a plea bargain.
This film made me feel like we have regressed as a society: why are we accepting a modern form of slavery? How do we break the cycle of mass incarceration?
In a display of courage and commitment to justice, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens halted the execution of Marcellus Williams mere hours before he was scheduled to be executed on Tuesday. DNA testing raised questions about whether he had committed a murder during a 1998 burglary.
North Carolina has not carried out an execution in 11 years, but still will not take the next logical step to abolition. As activist, social media is a powerful tool to use in the fight to abolish the death penalty once and for all. North Carolina legislators need to know that our state no longer wants or supports the death penalty.
No timeline has been set for this inquiry. Learn more about this case here.
At the time this piece was published, four people had been arrested in Durham for allegedly taking down a Confederate statue. They allegedly broke the law. Now let’s talk about justice.
History has painfully provided us with countless examples of how law and justice, though they are two related concepts, can be different. Far too often, they are. It is easier to denounce lawful injustice when we can hide behind decades of separation, so perhaps it can be useful to start with examples of individuals who fought for justice generations before us.
Many currently highly regarded activists of the past have broken the law in the name of justice, in the United States and elsewhere. History has been kind to the activists of the Boston Tea Party. Slave Rebellions were lead by currently widely celebrated heroes who not only fought for their freedom, but helped others escape slavery. Civil Rights activists of the 1960s who compromised their personal safety to participate in sit ins and marches parted ways with the law in the name of justice. And notably, they did not count on the law to be enforced in ways that would protect them. Many of us are far too familiar with images and stories of protesters being spat on, beaten, and killed with impunity.
And then there is the present. We cannot afford to lounge in complacency about what is happening in our country today. We cannot simply rely on hindsight when we discuss the distinction between law and justice. Hatred’s heroes have become much more visible, more powerful. How far will the law take us towards justice? Most importantly, what do we do when we feel that the law and true justice have parted ways? Who has the power to achieve justice?
The Carolina Justice Policy Center, in keeping with a commitment to true justice, wants to hear your thoughts. But more importantly, we want to hear what you are doing to enact your vision of justice. If you are concerned about justice in your community and are planning to do something about it, we want to help you share your plans and call others to action. Please consider writing for our blog by submitting your thoughts to email@example.com with the subject line “CJPC Justice Blog.” Let’s talk about justice. And then let’s make it happen.
B. Tessa Hale
Carolina Justice Policy Center
|By Amanda Witwer, UNC-Chapel Hill Public Policy Student|
|Apart from being an avid reader and a devoted Tarheel fan, my pen pal is an inmate who has spent the last nineteen years of his life on North Carolina’s death row. Out of respect for his privacy, I will refer to him with a pseudonym.
Tom* does his best to stay busy. In addition to attending weekly writing classes, he shoots hoops with his fellow inmates, leads Toastmasters club meetings and attends prayer services. But, try as he might, Tom cannot escape from the crushing uncertainty that rules his life and death. He could be executed in a week, or a month, or a decade. Neither he nor his family has any way of knowing.
The sad truth is that most prisoners executed in the U.S. spend over a decade on death row. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, individuals who were executed in 2013 sat on death row for an average of fifteen and a half years.
The men and women currently on North Carolina’s death row have spent an average of eighteen years and eleven months awaiting their own executions and that agonizing wait stretches on year by year. Next month, Wayne Laws – the longest serving death row inmate in North Carolina’s history – will have spent a total of thirty-two years behind bars. Death row prisoners in our state are spending so long on death row, that some are passing away while waiting to be executed. Since 2006, twelve death row prisoners have died of natural causes.
Prolonged waits on death row may not be unusual in the U.S., but they are widely regarded as cruel. International human rights bodies, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, held that the psychological distress and anxiety caused by protracted periods in isolating death row conditions amount to torture (See cases 11.765, 11.815, and 12.275).
High courts in Canada and the European Union have refused to extradite individuals charged with capital murder in the U.S., not just out of opposition to the death penalty, but also on the grounds that the long wait the individual would face on death row would constitute “inhumane and degrading” treatment.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the issue, several Justices have expressed doubt about the constitutionality of lengthy delays in capital punishment. In his dissent to Lackey v. Texas, former Justice John Stevens implied that a thirty-two year-long stay on death row – roughly the amount of time Wayne Laws has been on death row – was a violation of the Constitution. Dissenting to the 2015 case Glossip v. Gross, Justice Stephen Breyer asserted that, “excessive delays from sentencing to execution can themselves ‘constitute cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment’.”
That Tom spends every waking moment in the shadow of death is nothing short of cruel. Subjecting those sentenced to death in North Carolina to decades of agonizing uncertainty in the confines of death row is a violation of our state’s values and principles and constitutes yet another reason why we should close the book on capital punishment once and for all.
Now, I’m sitting across from him, and I have redacted his name to respect his privacy. There is a glass window between us that has to be more than 6 inches thick. And we talk. He tells me about his favorite NPR stations, delivers a few solid Trump jokes, discusses the most recent books he has read and tells me how eager he is for George Martin to finish Game of Thrones already! We sit for two and half hours. In this time, we have managed to cover everything from Led Zeppelin to Cesar Millan, and he has left me with a lot to think about.
He was convicted before I was even born as are many of the men on death row in North Carolina. He told me about his time in the military, and I think about how much respect is given to veterans in normal day to day life in my community. He asked me about iPods. As an inmate, he had never seen or used one. Our technological cultures are so different that it feels impossible to wrap my head around. There were aspects of our lives that overlapped in dramatic ways, and yet I left feeling that I had never met a man more isolated from modern life.
We, as a society, have a habit of treating people like they are disposable; this visit has solidified that to me. We imagine the men on death row as Jeffrey Dahlmers or Ted Bundys, but if you seek it out, you realize that is not who is there. The conversation I had with this inmate could have taken place anywhere. We could have been talking over dinner or run into each other at a shopping mall. He could have been a childhood friend of my dad’s who came over to visit. The truth is I genuinely enjoyed spending time with him, and he enjoyed talking to me as well. His attorneys have told me he receives visits few and far between and any human interaction is a positive one. In all honesty, I plan to visit him again on Monday. When we fail to face our humanity, we risk losing it all together.