Springboard to Criminal (In)Justice – Bearing Witness

Contributed by Lisa Bergson.

Shujaa Graham stops short at the sight of the solitary-cell 6’ X 9’ dimensions measured with blue tape on the linoleum floor of the Acme Screening Room lobby in Lambertville, N.J. It’s the afternoon of “Shatter the Silence: Criminal (In)Justice,” a program organized by Indivisible Lambertville/New Hope’s Civil Rights Action Team, where Graham is scheduled to speak.  As attendees file by, many glancing in horror at the cell’s cramped quarters, he steps inside the bounds of a world he knows all too well. Exonerated after five years spent in isolated confinement on San Quentin’s death row, Graham has dedicated himself to Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based organization led primarily by exonorees, seeking an end to the barbarism of the death penalty.

Out for close to 37 years, Graham stands at the foot of the taped, narrow rectangle labelled “bed,” his eyes far away as he points about, like a tour guide in hell, “It was just like this, only no window, and I don’t remember no desk.  Just half-hour a day to get out for a shower.”

The United Nations equates more than 15 days in solitary to torture.  But, right here in New Jersey, we rank third in the nation, just behind Nevada and Massachusetts, when it comes to women inmates stuffed in isolated confinement.1 At Edna Mahan, the state’s only prison for women located in Clinton, NJ, the average number of days individuals are so-called “segregated” is 338.

Any worries the event’s organizers had about turnout on this sunny spring afternoon are dispelled by the over-capacity turnout of 72 folks who showed up to hear Graham and the director of Trenton’s Campaign to End the New Jim Crow (CENJC), Patrick Hall. Patrick’s organization is part of a nationwide movement, inspired by Michelle Alexander’s award-winning book, The New Jim Crow, exposing our racist system of mass incarceration and its destructive impact on minority communities, along with the exploitation of prison labor by many of our country’s biggest businesses, including Walmart, Procter & Gamble, and MacDonald’s, according to Hall.

 “Mass incarceration is about money,” Hall tells the gathering.  “Mass incarceration is an extreme rate of imprisonment. They keep locking people up. Crime is going down.  But, mass incarceration is a business.” Not only are private prisons a big and burgeoning business,2 but their expansion is becoming an economic bedrock of the often poor, white, and rural communities where they are located.3 (Any one listening to National Public Radio during the recent federal government shutdown would have been riveted by the story about unpaid prison guards working in a correctional facility in Oakdale, Louisiana, and what those jobs meant to their community.)

 “Private prisons have contracts, and the cities and counties are getting paid for them too.  They have to keep them filled,” Hall says, matter of fact.

Although their paths took widely divergent trajectories, both Hall and Graham share a childhood marked by loss and instability.  “Between the first and third grade, I went to 11 different schools,” recalls Patrick, noting that his father was an alcoholic and the family “moved around a lot.” Seeking work, Graham’s parents left their boys with their grandmother when they moved to Los Angeles. Not long after the family was reunited in the depressed South Central neighborhood, Graham, then 12, got caught up in the gang world. “That’s where my troubles begin,” he laments, adding: “They were recycling me in and out of juvenile hall.”

At 18, he wound up in Soledad State Prison, where his life was forever changed by an encounter with an older inmate who encouraged him to improve his reading skills and learn history “to understand how you got here.”  As Graham recounts: “I started reading right then, and I renounced the gangs. We started organizing.” After moving to another facility in Stockton, Graham got caught up in a prison uprising:

“On September 27, 1973, a human being was killed. I would have make them kill me that day if I had a clue of what I would face for the next five years.  San Quentin had the gas chamber, and that’s where I went.”

Framed for his activism, Graham’s first trial ended with a hung jury.  His next two trials were overturned, based on the systematic selection of all white juries. “I never contemplated suicide, but there were nights when I went to bed, it would be OK if I didn’t wake up.” By the fourth trial, Graham was given the chance to help select the jurors, surprising his lawyers by picking a white banker. (“I could tell he was intelligent.”)  He goes on, “The jury deliberated for four days. I was up in a cell, just like the one you see out there. I was pacing.”

Such a plight is not unlike that of many on Pennsylvania’s death row.  Pennsylvania is the one state in the nation that does not provide funding for the defense of poor defendants, who comprise over 80% of those accused. It cedes this obligation to the counties, leading to a big disparity – in fact, the largest in the U.S. – of capital sentences from county-to-county. The result is a haphazard and inconsistent patchwork of attorney appointment protocols, literally playing Russian Roulette with defendants’ lives.4

In the Keystone State, some one-third of the convictions on our death row have been overturned as a result of poor lawyering.  Execution of those denied fair and proper representation is tantamount to state-sponsored murder. For this reason, in February, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a friend-of-the court brief in February, asking the state Supreme Court to hold PA’s capital punishment system in violation of the PA constitution!

“I’m tough on crime,” says Graham, by now a grandfather of five. “But, I am against the death penalty.  We don’t need more victims.”

“I never wanted no one to have to experience what I had experienced,” Graham intones. “Every day, I wake up and think about where I would be if California had its way.”  After offering a standing ovation in tribute, audience members in tears come to hug him, offering their support, some sharing their stories of incarceration.  Graham is crying too, but not for himself. May his tears for those men and women still on death row, may they not be in vain.

Calls to Action:

  • Curb Solitary in NJ: Tell your New Jersey representatives to support the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (bills A-314 and S-3261, Assembly and Senate respectively). The bills limit solitary to 15 days at a stretch and ban it for pregnant women, inmates 55 and older, those 21 and younger, as well as folks suffering from mental illness and disabilities. It can only be used on those posing a “serious and immediate risk of harm to self or others” and after all less restrictive measures fail.
  • Stand up for Witness to Innocence: Learn about and support this vital and inspiring exoneree-driven organization: Witnesstoinnocence.org
  • Link arms with our Trenton-based Campaign to End the New Jim Crow: endnewjimcrownj.org
  • Support the PA ACLU: “Defending Liberty Where It Began!”
  • JOIN US! Join the ILNH Civil Rights Action Team as we continue to educate ourselves and our communities about the plight of our nation’s most oppressed populations, promoting sweeping and powerful change for the better.

Footnotes and sources:

  1. “Reforming Restrictive Housing: The 2018 ASCA-Liman Nationwide Survey of Time-in-Cell”, The Association of State Correctional Administrators, The Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School, ASCA-Liman Restrictive Housing 2018 revised September 25 2018, October 2018, pages 14-15.
  2. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 230.
  3. Ibid., 232.
  4. ACLUPA.Org/News, “ACLU Urges PA”

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