Slavery ended in 1865. Perhaps the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not get the memo. Various BOP facilities have issued policies stating that, “books from a publisher, bookstore, book club, or friends and family will no longer be accepted through the mail.” Incarcerated persons at these federal facilities are now required to submit electronic requests to staff, specifying the book title, author, edition, and International Standard Book Number. They are charged the retail price plus a 30% markup in addition to shipping costs. Given that the vast majority of incarcerated persons and their families are experiencing poverty, very few can afford to take advantage of this outrageously burdensome process to simply obtain literature. These new policies are unconscionable.
I immediately thought of slavery and the ripple effects that led to America’s addiction to mass incarceration. The United States has only 5% of the world’s population, but is home to 25% of the world’s prison population. There are more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States. 1 in 110 adults are incarcerated in a prison or local jail, and 1 in 35 adults are under some form of correctional control, counting prison, jail, parole, and probation. It is important to note that some of these people are innocent. Almost 2,000 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit. To me, these numbers are absolutely shocking and should not be tolerated.
Like slavery, incarceration is dehumanizing. In some places, once you are labeled a felon you cannot vote. You are denied access to employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. You have been released from prison, but you are not free.
The District of Columbia no longer has a federal prison, so incarcerated residents are sent all across the country to serve their time. In the District, Blacks make up 86% of the jail population – but Blacks are less than half (47.7%) of the District’s total population. By contrast, whites make up only 4% of the District’s jail population, but are 44.6% of the District’s total population.
Being able to receive books and other literature while incarcerated tremendously increases the chances of success upon release. Why would the BOP take away the most powerful mechanism that can improve the lives of incarcerated persons? During slavery, it was a crime for slaves to read and write because it was feared they would become educated and rebel. It seems BOP needs a reminder that slavery is over.
Today, I was astounded to read that my law school, North Carolina Central University School of Law (NCCU), was found out of compliance with American Bar Association accreditation standards. According to an article in the ABA Journal, the accreditation committee found that NCCU, a historically black university (HBCU), is not in compliance with factors such as academic and admission test credentials, academic attrition and recent graduates’ bar passage rates.
The moment I set foot on the campus of NCCU, I felt at home. The extensive academic curriculum, credentialed faculty, and clinical opportunities made my law school experience invaluable. NCCU provides the opportunity for deserving Blacks to receive the legal education that they otherwise would not be afforded. As explained in the NCCU “Explanation of Transcript”:
We take pride in remaining true to our historic mission and to the principles upon which we were founded. We provide an opportunity for a legal education to one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation. We also provide an opportunity for a select few who, based upon traditional criteria and guidelines, might not otherwise be afforded the opportunity for a legal education but in whom we see great potential. Because our student population includes those in whom we have taken a calculated risk, we must be rigorous in our assessment of our students’ academic achievement and have adopted a policy that critically assesses their skills and knowledge. While this policy results in a high attrition rate for our first-year class, it ensures that students who continue have performed at a level that we have identified as necessary for future success. Students who do not maintain a 2.0 grade point average at the end of their first or second year are academically dismissed.
Today, The Washington Post reported findings from the Metropolitan Police Department’s Internal Affairs investigation of the fatal shooting of Terrence Sterling, an unarmed Black man who was operating a motorcycle at the time of the incident. The investigation found that the MPD officer who shot and killed Mr. Sterling had no reason to pull his gun and was not in danger when he fired, deeming the use of force unjustified. The Post explained:
The 34-page report also concluded that Sterling was trying to maneuver around the cruiser, not ram it. And investigators noted that Trainer told them that, other than Sterling’s reckless driving, he did not have any reason to think the motorcyclist may have been ‘armed and dangerous.’ Trainer’s decision to shoot ‘was not in defense of his life, nor was it in defense of the lives of others,’ according to the report.
Earlier this year, however, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to file criminal charges against the officer on the basis that that they did not find enough evidence to pursue a case.
As I have previously discussed, we need to hold our government accountable when tragedies such as this occur. We need to call for independent prosecutors, implicit bias and cultural awareness training for police departments, and improve police/community relations. We cannot stop fighting until we see measurable impact. If transformation will not come from our elected officials and others in power, we must serve as a strong voice to advocate for justice.
Today marks the first day of Kwanzaa, a week-long celebration of Black community and culture. The holiday is centered around seven principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). You are encouraged to give from your heart, so Kwanzaa gifts are generally handmade. Collectively, the values of Kwanzaa represent my personal views of the holiday season. We should direct our attention to the importance of spending quality time with loved ones as opposed to spending tremendous amounts of money on expensive gifts.
Have you ever looked around a restaurant or even a party and noticed that almost all of the guests are glued to their phones? Studies show that one in four people spend more time socializing online than they do in person. Sometimes we just need to put the phone down. Creating space for quiet time allows us to simply be thankful for the people in our lives.
Recently, I came across an incredible resource, We Buy Black. This website is designed to serve as a marketplace for Black owned businesses to sell their products and services worldwide. We Buy Black embodies the seven principles of Kwanzaa. As articulated on its website, the Black dollar only circulates within the community for 6 hours. Blacks face the highest rates of unemployment, poverty, and incarceration. However, Black owned businesses employ more Blacks than anyone other than the government. So, when you spend your money this holiday season, buy Black. We must support our own in order to work towards eliminating the systemic issues faced by our community.
As we prepare to enter 2018, I challenge you to spend time on strengthening your relationships rather than spending your hard earned money on material things. I assure you, you will feel a renewed sense of gratitude and self-worth.
Photo Credit: www.kwanzaalights.com
“Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.” - Thurgood Marshall
Recently news broke about Warren Demesme, a Black man, who told detectives, “…just give me a lawyer dog," but the police ignored his request. The Louisiana State Supreme Court found the defendant’s reference ‘ambiguous and did not constitute an invocation of counsel that warranted termination of the interview.’ This is simply unconscionable.
It is undisputed that Blacks are racially profiled and discriminated against consistently by law enforcement, due to implicit bias stemming from the horrendous history of this nation. Any police officer in this country therefore should know that in the Black community, the term ‘dog’ or ‘dawg’ refers to another human being.
This case illustrates the crucial need for all police departments to participate in comprehensive Cultural Awareness Training. Learning how to navigate across cultural lines would improve communications and allow for more dignified exchanges between the community and law enforcement, decreasing the probability that individuals’ rights will be violated. The protections we are afforded under the U.S. Constitution, especially the right to counsel, should be applied fairly to all people. Poverty, lack of education, and other social issues should not feed the pipeline to prison.
Earlier this week, Georgetown University released a report, African-American Employment, Population & Housing Trends in Washington, D.C. The key findings indicate African-Americans in the District of Columbia have experienced steady patterns of declining income gains, higher unemployment, and lower educational attainment than white residents. The report notes that by 2020, 50% of all new jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree or above, and nearly 60% will require at least some form of education and training beyond high school. These requirements severely limit the ability of African-Americans to be competitive in the employment market. Further, 60,000 adult African-American D.C. residents have not finished high school, 50% have no formal education past high school (compared to 5% of white residents), and only 12.3% of African-Americans have a bachelor’s degree (compared to 37.1% of white residents). These statistics are devastating.
The constraints discussed in Georgetown University’s report impact the District’s returning citizen population, nearly all whom are African-American, in an even more detrimental way. Approximately 60,000 D.C. residents have a criminal record and each year, an estimated 8,000 residents return to the District after serving prison sentences.
I strongly believe returning citizen employment outcomes can be improved by beginning the job application process prior to release from incarceration. With a sufficient investment of resources, residents coming home could be contacted by a District government agency (or other affiliated organizations) while they are still incarcerated. Residents should be given the opportunity to complete an intake form that surveys their interests, educational level, and relevant skills. Having this information beforehand would accelerate the placement process. The agency/organization could contact potential employers so that meetings and interviews could be scheduled prior to release. Additionally, the agency/organization could send resources to residents that provide information about the interview process, such as resume formulation, practice interview questions, proper etiquette, and the like. All of this will build confidence and hope in the individual as well as increase the likelihood that they will follow through with the job application process. Coming home without a plan leads to unfavorable outcomes. Persons get frustrated with the system and often revert back to their previous behavior. Already having the job application process in play, and with the assistance of “Ban-the Box,” recidivism will be prevented and returning citizens will be kept on the path to success. Moreover, the D.C. Council passed the Incarceration to Incorporated Entrepreneurship Act of 2016, but it has not yet been funded. Fully investing in this initiative would most certainly assist with creating essential opportunities for our returning citizens.
Earlier today, news broke that Dove posted a racially insensitive advertisement on Facebook. The ad appears to depict a Black woman who turns white after using the Dove product. It conveys the faulty message that white is clean and black is dirty. This is not the first time Dove has been scrutinized for publishing racially insensitive advertisements. In an ad with before and after pictures, they showed an array of women and signified the white woman as the desired result. Even worse, the company sold a lotion that had the label “for normal to dark skin,” indicating that dark skin is not normal. Unfortunately, these types of messages in advertising are not new. Blacks have been the subject of racist soap advertisements dating as far back as the 1700s.
As a Black woman, I am outraged by what I saw today. The reckless disregard of vetting ads for racially offensive content time and time again is simply unacceptable, especially during a period where our country is the most divided it has been in recent memory. By neglecting to do so, Dove has established a pattern and practice that should not be overlooked. We must demand answers to why these types of ads would make it past top level executives. This therefore speaks to a larger issue of the lack of Black women in corporate leadership. There needs to be more people of color at the top who are empowered to chime in when questionable acts are being contemplated. It is undeniable that racial diversity allows for a variety of innovative ideas leading to more equitable outcomes. Unless we make our voices heard and demand accountability, these despicable acts will continue.
United We Stand
Over the weekend and during Monday Night Football, millions of people from all around the globe watched a beautiful thing: unity in the fight for justice. The National Football League came together to take a stand against police brutality and racial injustice in America, by kneeling and locking arms during the singing of the National Anthem. Even the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars, who were playing in London on Sunday, demonstrated their support. These historic acts by the courageous players of the NFL signals a giant step forward in our fight for equality.
No vote. No voice.
There is nothing more important than voting in the fight to effectuate change. I have heard people say, "What is the point of voting? My vote does not count anyway." This could not be further from the truth. If you do not vote, you silence your voice. By not voting your address is in jeopardy of being removed from the voter rolls. You will therefore not receive bulletins about debates or other information about how to become involved in the political process. Generally, candidates running for elected office work unbelievably hard to raise money to run their campaigns. These candidates do not have the incentive to use their limited funds to engage persons who do not vote and they will instead focus on persons who do. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” The reality is if you do not exercise the privilege of voting, you will not have the ability to make your voice heard.
Today is National Voter Registration Day. If you are not registered to vote, there is no better day than today to do so. Tell everyone you know to register to vote as well and create a plan to get out to the polls on Election Day. We owe it to ourselves and our ancestors who put their lives on the line to fight for our right to vote. Use the inspiration of the NFL to fuel you to take action.
African Americans are racially profiled and discriminated against consistently by law enforcement, due to implicit bias stemming from the horrendous history of this nation. I am outraged that yet again another police officer has been acquitted for murdering one of our people. I am sick and tired of this cycle repeating itself over and over without requiring accountability and transparency on the part of our government, which is paid by our tax dollars to protect and serve.
“I feared for my life.” These five words are regularly used by police officers as a defense. Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” The countless police killings in recent years prove that the law does not protect African Americans. These instances are teaching us that if you are African American, you are a threat and therefore free game to be killed. The reality is, African Americans are the ones who are in constant fear for their lives. For example, if I am driving and see a police officer behind me, my stomach flips. I get nervous and shaky. I am worried that I will be pulled over for no valid reason and endure unnecessary emotional stress during the encounter. It does not matter that I am an attorney and know my rights. All it comes down to is that I am African American and perceived as dangerous.
When I was learning to drive, the first thing my mother told me was if I ever got pulled over, to keep my hands on the steering wheel at “10 and 2” where the officer could see them. If I did not have a chance to get my license and registration out prior to the officer coming to my window, I was to ask for permission to remove it from the glove compartment. I am certain my friends in white households were not taught the same.
I refuse to sit idle and watch another tragic incident occur. We must demand change. We cannot stop fighting until we see measurable impact. If transformation will not come from our elected officials and others in power, we must serve as the influencing voice to advocate for justice. But what is the solution?
“Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.” This profound quote by Thurgood Marshall succinctly illustrates the importance of knowing your rights when encountering the justice system, especially if you are African American. It is undisputed that African Americans are racially profiled and discriminated against consistently by law enforcement, due to implicit bias stemming from the horrendous history of this nation.
African Americans are pulled over by police, searched, and arrested at tremendously higher rates than whites. In Washington, D.C., between 2009 and 2011, more than 8 out of 10 residents arrested were African American. The inmate population at the D.C. jail is 89.1% African American, but African Americans only make up 48.3% of the city’s population! These figures are shocking and demonstrate how African Americans must always be prepared to demand equal treatment under the law. Unfortunately, I recently found myself in a situation where I would need to do so.
A few months ago, my friends and I were passengers in my friend's vehicle, a newer model Maserati, when we were pulled over by D.C. police for no apparent reason. We were followed by this officer for at least .25 miles prior to being stopped. We were told the reason for the stop was due to a call about a woman in distress. The officer also stated that my friend failed to use his turn signal. Both of these statements appeared to be unfounded. After the officer collected my friend's license and registration and returned to the vehicle, he stated that sometimes foxes are mistaken for a woman's scream. He then issued a warning for failure to signal. My friends and I were outraged. The stop seemed to be an obvious act of racial profiling and a clear abuse of discretion. We were four young African Americans in a luxury vehicle, driving in an upper class neighborhood in the early morning hours. I shudder to imagine how this incident would have ended had my friend not indicated he lived in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, the District of Columbia established a mechanism for residents to hold law enforcement accountable. The agency was opened in 2001 and is called the Office of Police Complaints (OPC). The stated mission of OPC is to increase community trust in the District of Columbia police forces by providing a fair, thorough, and independent system of civilian oversight of law enforcement. Residents can file complaints against the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and D.C. Housing Authority Office of Public Safety within 90 days of an incident. Since OPC opened, it has received approximately 15,830 total contacts with potential complainants and has handled 6,968 formal complaints.
I submitted my complaint to OPC via the online form. A few weeks later, I was interviewed by an OPC investigator. My case was then referred to mediation. In mediation, the mediator guides you and the officer through a dialogue about the incident that led to the complaint with the goal of reaching a common understanding. My mediation went surprisingly well. The officer was very cordial. He provided an extensive history of his background and thought process for the stop. He said hindsight is 20/20 and described what he would have done differently. He was clearly briefed and his statements seemed a bit rehearsed, but I think he was genuinely concerned and empathetic about my frustrations as an African American woman in America. The officer’s body worn camera footage did not capture the alleged failure to signal so it was essentially his word against mine. In the end, I agreed to resolve the complaint. It was a transformative learning experience. I was able to hear directly from the officer about his perspective of the incident and he was able to identify what he could have done differently, hopefully leading him to make better choices in the future.
I strongly encourage all residents to take advantage of the services OPC has to offer. While it can be an extensive process, the results are invaluable. You will feel empowered and motivated to help others fight for their rights. We must come together and join forces to hold our government accountable to its citizens. Our collective action will effectuate movement towards a more fair and balanced justice system.
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Melanie Bates is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. She has a passion for criminal justice reform and believes that poverty, lack of education, and other social issues should not feed the pipeline to prison. Through consistent advocacy, she desires to alleviate the factors that force many people to become a part of the criminal justice system. The views expressed here are her own.