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When the Justice System Fails

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For young black men in Philadelphia, sometimes just walking down the street is all it takes to earn a two-month stint in jail. On Dec. 8 2010, then-18-year-old Isaiah Smith was just returning from visiting his cousin, when he noticed two police officers who were patrolling the area peering out at him from their squad car.

The two officers returned to riding through the neighborhood and Smith thought nothing of it. Not until he found himself against the squad car, and countless officers surrounding him.

"When they grabbed me I had asked, why?" Smith said from his North Philadelphia home. "One of the arresting officers told me that I was being arrested for being an asshole."

He was about to learn a valuable lesson about the strained trust between the police and residents in vulnerable neighborhoods.

While he was held, Smith overheard the description of who the officers were looking for, a male with braids wearing a gray sweat suit. Smith had braids, but was wearing something completely different.

He soon found himself in front of a woman, unable to see because of the bright lights being shined in his face.

"Twice the officers placed me behind one of their cars after bringing me out to this lady," Smith said. "Twice this lady said no, that it was not me. The third time I was brought back out with some other guy the officers found and suddenly she said yes."

As Smith continued being held by police, his cell phone rang. He explained to one of the arresting officers that it was his cousin who was calling him. The officer took the battery out of the phone and threw it to the ground.

Being placed into the back of a squad car, Smith was driven to a police station and found himself sitting in a cell. He was not released to a correctional facility until two days later. During that period he would eventually be allowed to contact his family.

Meanwhile Mary Smith, Smith's mother, wondered where her son was.

"I already had butterflies in my stomach because I couldn't find him," she said, looking at her son intently. "No one notified me when he had been taken or where he was."

Mary sent her eldest son to look for Smith at places that he might be while she frantically called family and friends. She received a phone call from Smith's cousin saying that he had been arrested, but that she would likely receive a phone call from him sometime soon.

"From calling around I had found out that he was being kept at a police station," Mary said. "When talking to someone there to find out more about what had happened, I was told that I would have to be patient and that once he saw the judge he would be allowed to call me."

Smith continued sitting in a cell until being transferred to the Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility.

It was there that he found himself taunted by some of the prison guards regarding his situation. The guards asked Smith how he would feel if they invaded his home, did things to his mom.

After being finger printed, Smith would finally learn what it was he was being arrested for.

"I had been accused of breaking and entering the home of the woman who had accused me and holding her at gunpoint." he said. "I was even considered the "mastermind" who orchestrated everything." If convicted Smith could have faced 15 to 30 years behind bars.

The only thing that kept Smith from not worrying was that he knew he did not commit the crime. He waited in his cells for his first court hearing that was constantly being postponed.

Smith's first hearing had been scheduled for the 21st of Dec., but that was changed to Feb. 10, with his final date scheduled for May 3, 2011.

"Right after the first trial it was said that they were not going to release Isaiah because they had suddenly found evidence against him," Mary said. "During the second court case they said that if they didn't have anything that they would have to throw it out. "

During his preliminary hearing, the woman who accused Smith never showed, a repeating pattern that would continue for future hearings.

During his time within CFCF, Smith found solace with some of the other inmates.

"You always stay close to your cellmates," he said. "One of the inmates, his name was Anthony, was telling me how he was in jail for such a long time and that he was tired of repeatedly being placed here. We became close because he reminded me a lot of my older brothers."

Smith added how he was barely fed. He received a cheese sandwich every few hours, and the guards were simply horrible.

"When it was time for lockdown they would shout, "alright, you mother f----, you b----, time for you to go back into your cells. Stuff like that was just unnecessary."

Mary didn't know who to go to, or what she could do, all the while going to work and trying to make it through to the next day without her son close to her.

"I prayed first," she says. "And then I went to his coach, Kevin Farley, of Student Run Philly Style."

Smith had been a part of Student Run Philly Style, a program based on a similar initiative in Los Angeles that offers marathon training to youth in the city, for 13 years winning five marathons with the organization.

After receiving the distressing call from Mary about the situation, Farley and Smith's supervisor Jim Paterno, also from Student Run made phone calls to the city's district attorney, pressuring him and others to expedite Smith's release.

"They were with us through thick and thin," Mary said.

One day while at work Mary had received a phone call about the possibility of Smith being placed on house arrest. This was to take place Feb. 10, the same day of the trial.

The day came and went leaving Mary to wait all night with no phone calls of what had happened. The next day she found out that Smith was to be released the following day.

"So when Friday came he was still not home, no one called or said anything. When I had got to work that morning, I received a phone call saying that the signature from the judge was received and that Isaiah was to be finally released."

On May 11, Smith's case was thrown out and he was released the following week.

"They actually caught the guy who committed the crime," Smith interjected. "He told the investigators that he didn't even know me, but they didn't believe him. They started checking my mail soon after, thought I was bribing him."

One thing's for sure: Smith said that he will never look at a police officer the same way again. That trust is nearly gone.

"You're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, " Mary said, shaking her head slowly. "Not the other way around. They treated him reckless; they treated him as if he had been a criminal all of his life."

Despite being thrown into a situation way too many young men in Philadelphia have faced, Smith is determined to not let this situation deter him from staying on the right path.

He's not involved with Student Run Philly Style any more, finishing up his last marathon race before his ordeal had taken place. He is expecting his first child in January and is working on returning to school.

"You just don't take anything for granted," he said. "Just take advantage of ever opportunity while you can."

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