I am staggered by the number of television shows, documentaries, big-screen & made-for-t.v. movies and reality series I see involving various aspects of the criminal justice reform movement. I cannot help but think when I see these shows, that are not (often) hosted or manned by individuals that have been in the justice system, of how criminal justice reform has become a fad much like the Black Lives Movement (BLM).
A quick study of U.S. history demonstrates that every time a progressive movement(s) for change has emerged and become vibrant, so has the commercialization of those movements have emerged and becoome vibrant as well. And when this happens, usually the movements are destabilized and derailed.
Sadly, this is what I see as someone whose been (newly) implanted into our society. Twenty years of imprisonment worked as a gift and a curse for me. The curse was obviously the loss of time, relationships and opportunities, but the gift I take from my incarceration is my unique ability to see our society from a different angle because of my newness to it.
I travel the country often networking with advocates many who are ex-offenders themselves. There are a lot of us that have returned to society from prison that are striving and doing tremendous things. Working in the community, in the Church, creating awarness and fighting the injustices in our system. Yet, these individuals are made to take backseats in the struggle to reform the criminal justice system to people who have no experience inside of the system. Reality Star activist and anybody with a Criminal Justice Degree who can cook up a half-baked solution are being enabled to lead the movement for reform.
Ex-offenders and exonerees are often simply used for their stories, while the people who have no experience in the system, work to reform it and benefit off of their “stories”, their pain and suffering. With these sorts of reform efforts we find ourselves year after year talking reform while men, women and families are continually afflicted by our broken system.
Every year we are kicking the can down the road. Prisoners are languishing in prison for many years just to have their cases reviewed because many of the cities and states like Missouri that are plagued with injustices in their system refuse to institute Conviction Integrity Units or even appoint to Public Defenders to prisoners appealing their innocence claiming innocence. Politicians are moving the needle forward because they do not fear the criminal justice reform movement anymore because of its commercialization. Now, everyone is waiting on the next “Making of a Murderer” Series or “Thirteenth”. This is what criminal justice reform has degenerated into, while people like Brendan Dassey, Rodney Lincoln and Ricky Kidd, three obviously innocent prisoners in our system languish behind bars and suffer.
The commercialization of criminal justice reform isn’t helping our society and certainly isn’t helping to change the broken system. We are relying on people who benefit from the prison industrial complex or the profiteering from crime and the justice system to be the individuals to fix the system.
The criminal justice reform movement is being commercialized in a very “insidious” way to the detriment of innocent men and women. To people suffering inside of our prisons serving lengthy sentences behind “Tough on Crime” and “Drug War” laws that we have long done away with.
Many innocents’ stories aren’t being told and injustices aren’t being exposed simply because the press or one of the Reality Shows doesn’t believe an individual’s story! Your story isn’t profitable, that’s what they tell you. You don’t have a Made-for-T.V. Face or the details of the innocent person’s case are too gruesome for T.V.
There are innocent men and women trapped in our criminal justice system that only fault of their own is that their charges weren’t murder or that they did not recieve a Life sentence or the Death Penalty. They are innocent but they cannot get to help because they do not fit the “criteria” or the most assinine denial I’ve ever received – that is very common – is the agency or attorney telling you to “wait until all of your appeals are denied and then reapply.” And waiting until your appeals are denied for some could mean a decade or more, depending. The truth is that most wrongful conviction agencies do not entertain inquiries from prisoners claiming innocence who do not meet certain strict criteria and that’s just how it goes. It gets very cruel once you’re in and it’s not as simple to be exonerated as it appears on Reality T.V.
I sat down recently and watched the Netflix/HBO Show ‘Thirteenth’. I must say, it was a great show! Nevertheless, ‘Thirteenth’ didn’t alert me to anything I hadn’t already known about our criminal justice system. I experienced ‘Thirteenth’ for 20 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections as a innocent man!
‘Thirteenth’ was my reality for 20 years and is the reality of every prisoner incarcerated int he United States black or white, and particularly, blacks trapped in our criminal justice system. We all know the stories told on the reality shows because we’ve experienced them first-hand. The horror stories. The racism, segregation and criminalization of offenders, particularly, “low-level” prisoners. That is the reality of a Missouri prisoner.
I created the Freedom Blog so ex-offenders and exonerees would have a platform to tell these truths and share their stories freely. Far too often these television shows and commercialized criminal justice reform efforts mask a lot of truths. Ex-offenders and exonerees are not often allowed to tell their stories freely and speak to these injustices. Sadly, many in the criminal justice reform movement have been co-opted and commercialized. Real solutions and programs are not being provided because the organizations and agencies “messages” are “tailor-made”. They are more funding-oriented than services-oriented, so the people who need the services aren’t getting them.
The truth is that there is funding being passed around. The reformist organizations and agencies aren’t saying this because they are always seeking more and more funding, yet the ex-offenders and exonerees I have encountered since my release cannot seem to get to any help when help is needed. I know fact because I have gone through the system and been forced to experience Re-entry. I know what is needed because I have been afflicted by the system as well. “Re-entry” is a process and it is a process that will requires more and more resources the longer you confine people if you expect them to successfully reintegrate into society and not re-offend. Much of the programming and resources I know that exist from what I have seen and experienced is very inadequate and inefficient. This is something that needs to be addressed as well inside of the reform movement in a more concerted way.
The commercialization of criminal justice reform movement may be viewed as a gift and a curse for many. A gift that a wider audience has become exposed to the injustices in our system. A curse in the sense that now the public is waiting on the next Season of “Thirteenth” rather than on truly reforming the criminal justice system.
By Anthony Williams, Exoneree & Director
Missouri Prisoner Advocacy Consulting, LLC