Author of Just Mercy, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, professor of law at NYU, and Harvard graduate it is easy to understand why he has spoken before the U.S Supreme Court 5 times, and been awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Listening to him unravel the inequities of criminal justice in America and capital punishment was thoroughly fascinating. Even though we were allowed to watch one of his TED talks the week before and had an idea about what to expect the entire room hung on his every word. He is a rock star in our world for the dozens of condemned men he has saved, his constant fight against injustice and much, much more.
In a lot of ways Bryan Stevenson’s ability to weave complex concepts into engaging true stories and leave you wanting more is similar to Malcom Gladwell. In all of Gladwell’s books one may find psychological theories and statistics that might bore anyone outside of the field, except they are expertly described in conjunction with simple relatable examples that help readers learn without realizing it. This is the mark of a true master and Bryan Stevenson is exactly that.
There were some harrowing statistics mentioned that anyone familiar with criminal justice or paying to the attention knows, but the general public is less conversant in:
--Nationwide 154 people have been exonerated from death row since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977. “If an airline” said Mr. Stevenson, “had a similar rate of airplane crashes not a single plane would be allowed to take off. Yet we continue to execute people even as one out of nine death row prisoners are found to be innocent.
--In the 21st century 1 in 3 black male children will be incarcerated in the US. A rate that has increased over the last thirty years.
--70 million Americans have a criminal record and are restricted from many kinds of employment opportunities, loans and housing.
--The U.S. is the only democratic nation in the world to sentence children under 14 year of age to life in prison.
The most interesting point in Bryan Stevenson’s lecture was his discussion of proximity. Being proximate to change is the only way to create a lasting difference in any given situation. Real change in the criminal justice system, not the sort that is merely talked about, comes from working in the trenches with prisoners who need to be habilitated before they can be rehabilitated. Proximity to change means action instead of complacency, knowledge of every aspect of a problem and a willingness to apply that knowledge in a just way.
By acknowledging all of a problem this places you in a position to impact the narrative of a story. If the old narrative is “don’t talk about slavery and racism”, the new narrative must be a thorough discussion on that very subject. For those of us on death row the old narrative is our alleged inhumanity, so the new narrative must be a display of our humanity, showing any who will witness that we are more than men condemned to die.
Before Bryan Stevenson left I got a chance to speak with him and obtain a signed copy of his book Just Mercy . It was affirming in a way I didn’t think possible on death row. He saw our humanity, recognized it and gave us many jewels of wisdom. And the most poignant advice of his visit? “Hopelessness is the enemy of what we’re trying to achieve. Being on death row is an exhausting experience but you must fight it to maintain your humanity.” I certainly intend to.
It was an honor Mr. Stevenson. An absolute honor.