Sunday, 30 April 2017

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

“Why do we want to kill all the broken people? ... I don’t do what I do because I have to, because I’ve been trained to. I do what I do because I’m broken too. You cannot defend condemned people without being broken.”- Bryan Stevenson

The author, Bryan Stevenson is an African American lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, to defend those within marginalised groups, who often can't get legal representation. to defend those who are marginalised and so often can't get legal representation. He talks mainly about an early case of his - one Walter McMillan, an African American man wrongly convicted and put on death row for the murder of a white woman.

Walter's story is the one we follow for the most part as Stevenson tries to investigate, interviewing "witnesses", to get Walter off death row. Stevenson uses this case, along with others,  to unravel and analyse the American justice system which, is robustly set up against and, to fail marginalised groups while completely disregarding the issues and systems in place that drive them to prison in the first place. And then when they get there, they're denied basic human rights.

Going into this, I knew the justice system was messed up. Like, we all kind of know that right? We've seen Reggie Yates documentaries, we've seen Making a Murderer (well I personally haven't but haven' I couldn't get into it but a bunch of y'all have) and especially in the UK and the States;  I understood we have an unspoken "lock them up and throw away the key" policy, particularly if you're of colour or poor - the justice system has no time for you. But even then, after reading this book, I realise that what I thought I knew - the actual details - were very hazy.

Well, Just Mercy was uncomfortably informative. He intertwines the details of these cases with research and statistics which reveal this really horrifying and confronting picture of our justice systems and where they're heading. He talks about abuse towards women, men and even children  - facts of which were shocking as in, there are many children as young as 13 being held in adult prisons where they become subject to abuse that pushes them to suicide. He talks about how statistically more likely you are to find yourself in prison if you're poor, black or just don't have the ability articulate yourself to the authorities, because of a lack of education.  People being encouraged (often forced) to take plea deals, the treatment of the mentally ill in prison, mass incarceration, lawyers in it for the money, officers under pressure to solve cases in limited time - the list goes on. And while I felt like I had to really concentrate when reading this because all these details form the bigger picture, I knew I hadn't even scratched the surface regarding the scale of the problem.

Just Mercy is a heavy read. A lot of it was so hard to swallow and I did have to go back and re-read chunks of it because I needed the space and time to digest it. And yet it is written in such a compelling, engaging and compassionate way. I think we often think of prisoners as these faceless people, without any humanity. Intellectually, I know it's not the case but when I think of prisoners, I think everyone's there because they're despicable people who broke the law and deserve it. It's a really embarrassing, lazy and dangerous way to think about people which is why, it was so powerful to humanise everyone he talks about. Stevenson provides background into their situations, talks about their family and loved ones and maybe most importantly tells us their names.

Reading this book made me really angry. I do read a lot (especially recently) that has made me angry but this was the kind of anger I couldn't shake off. It had an affect on me in a way I can't quite describe but when I finished, I couldn't read anything else. After going on this journey with everyone we meet in the book and then having to leave them behind - but now knowing and understanding the scale of the problem and, that there are so many more is hard. And I'm so thankful that I know now. I'll also add that the selflessness of Bryan Stevenson, his initiative, and others like it who work tirelessly and give so much of themselves for those who don't have a voice is inspiring and; it says that there is hope and just by being aware we can do more.

Someone on Goodreads said "this is a book for anyone interested in and/or concerned about the American system of justice." Yes it is but it honestly has so much more to say about our own humanity, how we understand and treat people and our understanding of justice and mercy. Such an important read and I urge you to pick it up.


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