On a quiet April evening inmates gathered in San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel to hear attorney Bryan Stevenson speak.
About 120 inmates from Patten College’s student list accepted an invitation to listen to Stevenson, a champion for the voiceless – those condemned to death, afflicted by poverty, inadequate education and incarceration, and as a result, according to Stevenson, underrepresented in the United States and exploited by the criminal justice system.
“I recognized that I had been struggling my whole life with the question of how and why people are judged unfairly,” Stevenson says in his new book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. However, in no way did he promote his book at this event.
Instead, Stevenson discussed issues cited in his book, such as the collateral consequences of incarceration, disenfranchisement, the need to get closer to places where change is needed and changing the narrative on race, history, crime and the criminal justice system.
Stevenson told the men how in the 1980s politicians put forth a narrative of fear, which produced the anger that brought about mass incarceration.
“For the last 40 years politicians have been able to push a narrative based on fear and anger,” Stevenson said. “Our success in changing the world relies on us changing the narrative.”
Stevenson said politicians created a system in the U.S. where one in three young boys, Black and Brown, are projected to go to jail in their lifetimes.
Determined to make a difference, Stevenson co-founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in 1989; a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to inmates. It is a complement to his legal practice and his tireless effort to bring justice for all.
“To change the world somebody’s going to have to stand when everyone else is sitting. Someone’s going to have to speak when everyone is quiet,” said Stevenson. “I believe that we have to change the narrative about race.”
Stevenson told the audience that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not do anything to change the narrative about slavery. He said, “Slavery didn’t end, it evolved.” He added, “The worst evil of slavery in America was not about the forced labor, but the narrative created around the idea of racial differences.”
The discourse delivered by Stevenson toggled between a lecture, admonishing those in attendance to duty, and instruction. He said humans are programmed to seek what is comfortable but urged the audience to “choose to do uncomfortable things to achieve justice.”
|“The worst evil of slavery in America
was not about the forced labor,
but the narrative created around the idea of racial differences”|
It is Stevenson’s opinion that many courts see the finality of prosecution and sentencing as being more important than justice. He said, “Wealth, not culpability, shapes our courts.”
In Just Mercy Stevenson wrote that as a young law student he was told by a Southern Prisoners Defense Committee lawyer that “capital punishment means, ‘them without the capital get the punishment.’” To his audience of inmates he said, “Poverty is the opposite of justice.”
“I work in a broken system of justice,” said Stevenson. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too. You don’t get to justice thinking that you are right and just. You get to justice thinking that you are broken.”
In the April/May issue of Time magazine Stevenson is listed as number 55 of the 100 most influential people. “For decades, he has dedicated himself to fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system with the perfect combination of unwavering passion and idealism,” wrote Serena Williams, a renowned tennis player.
There was no one single message when Stevenson spoke. His delivery was emphatic as he advised the men at San Quentin that they must change the narrative that’s written about them in the U.S., take the opportunity to engage in restorative justice, and get in proximity to the things they care about in order to change them.
“I believe that everybody is more than the worst thing you’ve ever done,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson is the executive director of EJI (www.eji.com) and a professor of law at New York University Law School. He has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court five times and has won relief for many prisoners on death row. He is the recipient of many awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.
R. Malik Harris and Ali Muhammad contributed to this article