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Shortly before the Scott Sisters, Jamie and Gladys, were released from
prison in Mississippi in early January, 2011, I was a bit player in the drama by
efforts to have Jamie apply for a pass for me to visit as her pastor. Conversations
with a number of happy, accommodating bureaucrats within the system, all of
whom claimed not to have heard of the Scott Sisters, led to a dead end as the
paperwork for my visit fell through the cracks.
Dr. Boyce Watkins, of Syracuse University, published an article on January
9, 2011, suggesting that cases like the Scott Sisters tend to take the focus off of
prison reform by virtue of a false comfort that we can move on once a case is
solved.
His reference point was the
December 2010 Georgia Prison Strike,
where prisoners participating in the work
stoppage were beaten with hammers.
One prisoner reportedly is wheelchair-
bound with brain damage. Dr. Boyce was
lamenting the shift from reform to the
feel-good outcome of the Scott Sisters.
Dr. Boyce speaks to the
consciences of those for whom prison
reform seems a matter remote from our pedestrian lives on the outside. ³Nothing
could be further from the truth,´ he says. ³The United States puts more people in
prison than any country in the world, and most of us are only God¶s grace or one
bad situation away from ending up in the big house.´

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That is particularly true of black men, one of every three of whom is
destined to spend time in state prison, federal prison or local jails.
Dr. Boyce points to the Jim Crow culture in America that consigns both
innocent and guilty black men, through incarceration, to a future devoid of access
to jobs, housing, voting and education.
Along with numerous other writers, I have written several articles on the Jim
Crow laws legally resurrected through our criminal justice system. A recent
measure passed into law in Florida, for example, would make it more difficult for
non-violent offenders to vote after serving their time. Inasmuch as African-
Americans and Hispanics comprise nearly 70% of incarcerated prisoners, I dubbed
this measure the ³Republican Majority Assurance Act.´
³In our exuberance over the release of Jamie and Gladys Scott,´ Dr. Boyce
cautions, ³let¶s not forget the hundreds of thousands of other men and women who
are incarcerated but don¶t have vocal and dedicated advocates on the outside;
symbolism only gets you so far.´
He goes on to point out that our prisons are living testimony to legalized
slavery, benefiting companies like Nike, Dell Computers and McDonald¶s, who
take advantage of prison labor to keep their wages down. ³Being enslaved by
another person is not nearly as scary as being enslaved by corporate greed designed
to show no mercy.´
Dr. Boyce raises a key issue that has haunted all of us who campaign for
prison reform. That is, that focus on individual cases, while offering tangible,
concrete examples that feed our passion for excitement, tempts us to take our eyes
off the systemic cultural problems that created and sustain this mess.
I would add one thought. Focus on individual cases too easily permits the
uninformed and uninitiated widely to cast aspersions on a criminal justice system
that would be little less corrupt if it were fully staffed by human rights activists.
Either/or dichotomies fall apart when tested in the intricacies of individual cases as
they wind through the courts.
Injustice is rarely intentional. Most often, it is dispensed by people
convinced they are doing the right thing and will move Heaven and earth to defend
their actions after the fact.
Thus, relief from judicial error has rarely emerged from within. That is why
consistent and relentless pressure from the outside is critical. Bear in mind that the
most effective change of late has come from the world of science ± DNA.
Thanks to Dr. Boyce for reminding us to keep our eyes on the big picture.

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