System Work in When They See Us By Jason Rowland

While taking African American History I wanted to delve more into how our history is affecting our present and future. One of the first programs I became interested in was the viewing of When They See Us. It was hosted by the University Ministry and the Black Student Resource Commons. The panelists were Dr. Jamall Calloway, Dr. Shannon Franklin, and Dr Channon Miller. I went to the last section as the series is four parts. The entire series and event Took place in the entire month of February (Black History Month). In this reaction I want to try to provide an understanding of why this program is significant in our understanding of African-American history with the newfound knowledge of prison systems as well of racial prejudice in modern day society.

In When They See Us, a 28 year old banker by the name of Trisha Meili was attacked and raped while on a jog in Central Park. Five African American and Latino teenagers who were at the park at the same time were taken into custody and accused of these crimes. They were released and exonerated of their crimes when Matias Reyes confessed to the attack in 2002. Now the episode I attended was the final episode as it focused more on Korey Wise and how the prison system failed him to an unreasonable extent. Korey Wise was only 16 years old when he was sent to an adult prison while the other four went to a juvenile detention center. During his time in prison, he was transferred multiple times and given a very hard time due to the crime he was accused of and how famous the case was across the nation. The main issue I found in Wise’s experiences was ways in which  prisons are built and maintained in America. The goal  behind a prison is to rehabilitate the prisoners so that they will be ready to enter the real world again and be able to live in harmony without harming themselves nor others. Instead, the prisons are built to break someone down and violate them in almost every way possible in order to keep them fearful and crippled. Another issue revealed in the film is how many minorities, especially African American men and women take up the prisons. This is mainly because of racial disparity and prejudiceness against people of color in the criminal justice system. Now bringing this back to our history, when African-Americans were enslaved, we were treated as property and it was very clear who was in charge. Now when we were freed, however, African-Americans were now being brutally harrassed and constantly attacked by white society in order to assert dominance which started the trend of lynching in the mid-1850s. 

In Chapter 15 of Freedom On My Mind, the focus is prison systems and why African Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated compared to whites, and more likely to serve longer sentences. This stems back to the “law and order” agenda and its discriminatory application. This agenda came into play around the time of the black freedom movement and Ronald Reagan administration’s War on Drugs. During Reagan’s run for presidency, he declared that, “discrimination has already been effectively abolished” and that, “there was discrimination in favor of blacks”(White 578). Now with  his “war on drugs” declaration, he required very stiff penalties for having four ounces of any illegal substance. The sentence time for possession was a mandatory fifteen years to life. During this campaign the national media and law enforcement focused more towards the lower income black communities even though drugs were barely seen as a crucial issue that America was facing at the time. First-time offenders of drugs usually got the short end of the stick as well; they were the ones imprisoned and not the larger drug dealers. In 1980 for New York City drug offenses, 32 percent were white and 38 percent were African American. Now in 1992, 5 percent were Caucasian and 50 percent were African-American. Connecting this back to When They See Us, this so called “war on drugs” was at its height in the late 1980s and early 1990s.There was high discrimination and prejudiceness occuring throughout the nation against black people on the part of law enforcement.

“Black Male Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice Systems of the USA, Canada, and England: a Comparative Analysis of Incarceration” a journal article by Bryan Warde is about how black men are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system as they are usually targeted not just in the United States, but in Canada and England as well. This article focuses on numbers and statistics, as well as why black men keep ending up in the cycle of prison throughout the generations. An important fact this article mentions is that 1 in 7 of those imprisoned are felons and felons are permanently not allowed to vote. Now if a man believes that the government is corrupt and the criminal justice system failed him, he might influence those around him to not vote because he feels that nothing he can do will be enough. This creates a cycle that inclines younger generations to not vote for officials that can benefit them. It takes away a lot of voter power which is extremely important for certain communities in order to receive the change that is needed. This is not a claim the article makes, however, it can be induced from others facts within the article. Connecting this back to the Exonerated Five, these men and their families were betrayed by the criminal justice system and even though this event was made into a series. This happens everyday around the world and can be simply avoided once we address the underlying tones of discrimination and racism today.

Since black people have arrived in the United States we have been faced with constant discrimination and racism because we have been seen as less than. In When They See Us, the five boys were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were easy targets to blame for the crime. Like many others, they were wrongfully charged… They did not find their DNA at the area of the crime scene and the time stamps didn’t correlate to the crime. Once accused of these crimes the criminal justice system failed them and the research  affirms that this consistently happens. In order to ensure that these crucial mistakes do not happen again we must try to completely rework the criminal justice systems and the prison systems to rehabilitate and more accurately convict the proper criminals.

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