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Sitting on the airport floor w/ my son waiting for mommy to come off the plane from her work trip each with our own way to pass the time. Him: “Daniel Tiger.” Me: “Felon” by friend & colleague @dwaynebetts. Have read it thru several times. Some passages that stood out to me: 1/x
From “Ghazal:” “Make paper of my bid: a past I won’t reject after prison.” I’ve heard Dwayne talk about misnomers “ex-con” & “ex-felon” & argue that people shouldn’t be deprived of who they are. Shouldn’t be defined entirely by what they went through. But it’s an indelible part.
From “The Lord Might Have Given Him Wings:” “The subtext of her son’s coffin will be on the outside of advocacy.” On teenage shooting of another teenager. To me: Survivors’ interests (here: victim’s mom) are too often marginalized (by both pro-carceral & reform minded) advocates.
From “Behind Yellow Tape.” “Statistics ain’t prophecy, & ain’t none of us expect to be in the NFL or a cell.” A powerful rejection of the deterrence rationale of prison. Teens aren’t thinking about future — either good or bad. Living in moment. Impulsive, immature. Human.
“We all standing on the wrong side of choices.” Truth. The difference though for folks I represent is that their “choice” might just be walking down the street, doing nothing or putting their hand in their pocket, failing to signal. Benign things. Police violence will find them.
Something I & public defenders feel a lot: “I am not his father, just a public defender, near starving, here, where the state turns men, women, children into numbers, seeking something more useful than a guilty plea & this boy beside me’s withering.” So many thoughts on this:
There is a natural instinct as a public defender, especially w/ young clients, to assume a parental role, give advice from a place of familial caring. Finding the right balance btwn emotional investment & crossing lines of paternalism (moral/ethnically) is critical/challenging.
Beyond issues with paternalism is secondary trauma. Get too emotionally invested in a case, you won’t have reserves for other clients, yourself, your loved ones. Burn out. Too little investment & you cant provide zealous defense. Finding that right balance is a learned skill.
“Numbers.” The process is dehumanizing figuratively & literally. Fingerprinted. Assigned a barcode. Retinas scanned. Given a docket number. When jailed pretrial you have other numbers assigned. Officers/judges/clerks call you “bodies” & “jails” & “cards.” A thing to be processed.
“Seeking something more useful than a guilty plea.” These days, 99% cases don’t go to trial. 95% convictions are guilty pleas. Not bc defenders don’t care, want to fight, or can’t. Bc laws—pretrial detention, mandatory minimums, withholding evidence—creates a climate of coercion.
Public defenders are often trying to negotiate best possible offer, given the risk of going to trial & clients desire to just be done or go home. Whether guilty or innocent. So many cases you want to go to trial. Or confront officer misconduct. But client understandably says no.
Given current coercion & danger of the criminal process, pleas can be “useful” from a utilitarian standpoint. Avoid more time. Go home. End process. They’re also “useful” for power: Allows overcrowded system to function. Suppresses truth. Insulates police/prosecutor misconduct.
Sometimes when I’m negotiating w/ prosecutors, I talk about the concept of “usefulness.” Like, what’s a prison stint going to accomplish? They’ll be getting out in 3, 10, 20 years, way worse off than when they went in. Why not offer an alternative? Better for individual & public.
Increasingly, defenders are starting to think outside box more. Starting to take experiences & knowledge of the crush of court & start advocating outside court for transformative change. “Something more useful than pleas.” Ending laws/conditions that lead to so many of them.
Guilty pleas may end short term pain or resolve cases with less than they faced, but long term effects devastating. Same as a conviction post trial. Lifelong criminal record. Jobs. Housing. Benefits. School. Licensing. Marginalized.
While we fight for “something more,” the feeling of urgency is always there. This damn system is making the people we represent literally & figuratively “wilt beside” us. Emotionally. Physically. Psychologically. As individuals. As communities. It’s deadly. Time is now.
Dwayne on being a dad to Black children after Tamir Rice’s shooting for being a Black child. A normal day. Should be happy. 2 kids in back seat listening to music, but it sounds like “misery.” Because Tamir’s “murder playing in my head.” He continues:
“I am a father driving his Black sons to school & the death of a Black boy rides shotgun & this could be a funeral procession.” We often talk on how one experience w system ripples out to a person’s community & family. Police brutality spreads even farther. Could be your own.
From “When I think of Tamir Rice While Driving.” “The killers mind refused the narrative of a brown child, his dignity, his right to breathe, his actual fucking existence.” Police violence (stop/frisk included) not just about lack of accountability. It’s seeing them as less than.
From: “Redaction.” A series of poems @dwaynebetts crafted from actual legal briefs filed by @equalityAlec. This one on mandatory fines & fees in Alabama. “A 38 y/o father lives w children went to police after learned he had warrants for traffic tickets. Arrested. Placed in jail.”
Debtors prison: After being jailed for unpaid traffic tickets, the 38 y/o father was told he could serve “23 days” or “work off his debt.” He “did not want to clean blood & feces, but desperate he agreed to clean blood & feces from the jail. Lost his job while he sat in jail.”
There’s so much more to this book of poetry. I’m gonna pause here for now. But continue posting some more passages later this week on this thread. Meantime, bravo to @dwaynebetts.
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