In my work as an advocate and writer, I've encountered countless men and women who are incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. There is a particular tragedy to these cases. It's the madness of not being believed and the cruel punishment inflicted for a crime you did not commit. It's screaming under water, drowning as you try to be heard, and seeing good people pass you by.
There are times I'm enjoying an everyday freedom - walking down the street and feeling the sun - and I'll think of John who is locked away from this moment for a crime he had nothing to do with. It's when my mom tells me what my son did while I was at work when I'll think of Betsy, who has several grandchildren she's never been able to babysit. It's when I lived in my ill father's hospital room that I thought of the countless Johns and Betsys who are not permitted the dignity of being by an ailing loved one's side.
One of the incarcerated innocent was Kalief Browder, who many of us met through his courageous interview with The New Yorker's Jennifer Gonnerman. This month Browder died, after being tortured at Rikers Island for three years for a minor crime - stealing a backpack - that he didn't even commit. He was beaten by staff and fellow inmates, starved, and subjected to solitary confinement.
"I think what caused the suicide was his incarceration and those hundreds and hundreds of nights in solitary confinement, where there were mice crawling up his sheets in that little cell," his attorney told the Los Angeles Times. "Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time."
Browder was innocent and never even convicted; while at Rikers he was one of the many drowning, begging to be heard. The headlines justifiably drum away at this horrific fact: Kalief Browder, jailed for 3 years in N.Y. without a trial, commits suicide.
Punished but innocent. Punished without trial.
But what if we take another person who is guilty and guilty of more than a theft; let's presume he is guilty of rape. He goes to trial and is convicted. Does a trial, cloaked in formalities and civility and decorum and paperwork, strip him of his humanity? Does his crime justify the type of torture Browder was subjected to? Does any crime?
In our prisons, Browder's treatment is commonplace - its quotidian nature making it all the more horrific. And yet, we continue to wield incarceration - an institution based on absolute control over its inhabitants, an institution where this abuse is as ingrained as the locks on the cell doors - as a tool to condemn certain types of behavior. We use prison to punish; to make us feel safe; to rectify injustice; to show that the victim is important, listened to, valued.
But if we don't incarcerate, what do we do when a person has committed a violent crime? I don't know. I don't. Helping me as I work through these questions are the seminal works of Maya Schenwar, Debbie Nathan, Josh Gravens, Nell Bernstein and Angela Davis who write on humanity, punishment, and the ingrained violence of our prison systems. Their work challenges us to, as Davis has said, "creatively explore new terrains of justice where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor."
With these issues and questions in mind, I have also turned to survivors of violent crime who are advocates of restorative justice. One of those survivors is Azim Khamisa.
"When the crime happens in the context of community there are basically three parties: there's the victim, there's the offender, and there's community," Khamisa explained to me when we spoke on the phone last summer. "Justice is not done until the victim is made whole, until the perpetrator is returned to society as a functioning and contributing member, and the community is healed."
In 1995, Khamisa's son, Tariq, was a 20-year-old college student at San Diego State University who worked part-time delivering pizzas.
"He was a generous soul," Khamisa told me of Tariq. "He'd give the shirt off his back to you. He had a great sense of humor. He could crack a joke even in the most strenuous circumstances and lighten up the situation. He was a great photographer, great writer. He wanted to work for National Geographic."
On January 21, 1995, Tariq was working when he was called to a bogus address and confronted by several gang members. After Tariq got back in his car, Tony Hicks was ordered to "bust him." Hicks, then just 14, fired a shot, killing Tariq.
After his son's death, Khamisa began the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, an organization dedicated to teaching young people about forgiveness and empathy. It offers mentoring and community service programs to children all in an effort, he says, to "stop kids from killing kids." Shortly after he started the Foundation, Khamisa contacted Hicks' grandfather to ask if they could work together.
"I reached out to the grandfather, the guardian of my son's killer, with the attitude that we both lost a child," Khamisa said. "He was very quick to take my hand of forgiveness."
Hicks was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life, becoming the first 14-year-old in California to be tried as an adult. Five years after his son's murder, Khamisa decided to meet with Hicks.
"I am looking in his eyes trying to find a murderer and I didn't," Khamisa said. "I knew the spark in him was no different than the spark in me or you or anybody. Sure he had done the worst possible thing, he'd killed an innocent unarmed human being. That did not make him inhuman."
At the meeting, Khamisa, who advocates for Hicks' release, promised him a job at the Foundation so he could share his story with other young people.
During our conversation Khamisa asked if I had a son.
Yes, I told him.
"As a parent it's very, very complicated to lose a child, as I'm sure you can relate to," he replied. "If I was there I would have automatically put my body between him and the bullet. You do that instinctively for your children."
As we finished up the interview, my son woke from his nap. I explained I would have to go, and thanked him for taking the time to speak with me.
"You're more than welcome, Elizabeth," he said. "And now it's more important for you to take care of your baby."
My son, now almost three, had a run-of-the-mill virus the other week. As I sat with him, trying to comfort him, I thought of the incarcerated families I have encountered over the years, both the guilty and the innocent. I thought of the parents who had once sat with their children as I sat with mine, but now had to see their sons and daughters at visiting time at the prison: bruised from abuse, wounded from months in solitary, hopeless from serving a sentence to die in prison. And I knew that another way must be possible, for this center can no longer hold, it must fall apart.