When They See Us
On February 25th, 2020, I attended the final showing of the Netflix short series “When They See Us” directed by the American filmmaker Ava DuVernay. This Black History Month event was a Faith and Justice Film Fest, brought by University Ministry and the Black Student Resource Commons, that featured a showing of each episode with a panel talk afterwards. This film series showcased the stories of “The Central Park 5” in which five African American and Hispanic boys ranging from ages 14 to 16 were wrongly accused and convicted for assaulting and raping a female jogger in New York City. The last episode focused on one boy in particular, Korey Wise, and showed his horrifying experiences in the various jails, including Riker’s Island and other correctional facilities that he was imprisoned in. It also ended with a bittersweet homage to the other boys: Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray, and told of their actions and legacies following their release from prison. Throughout this final episode, the viewers see Korey Wise transform from a scared and naive boy to someone who understands the unfairness of the American justice system for minorities as a direct result of the many abuses he suffered from in prison. The ending scene of this episode gave me mixed feelings, when all five men joined hands and raised them to celebrate their exoneration. I think it showed a proud moment, yet also invokes a feeling of accomplishment and finality to the situation. It wrongly conveys to the viewers that justice was served, especially to those still wrongfully imprisoned or imprisoned for petty crimes. There is still so much progress to be made within society towards racial equality in terms of the criminal justice system, but it is also important to remain hopeful, as the ending scene conveys. Overall, the final episode of “When They See Us” reflects current disparities within the United States criminal justice system and exposes the racial inequalities seen contained in the prison system to a broad audience. The criminal justice system can be seen as an extension of slavery, furthering the degradation of Black Americans and perpetuating the people in power’s abuse towards racial minorities.
As a result of the heavy focus on Korey Wise’s experience with prisons during the final episode, the panelists also discussed much about the criminal justice system in the United States. The panelists included Dr. Jamall Calloway, a Theology and Religious Studies professor, Dr. Shannon Franklin, a counselor at University of San Diego’s counseling center, and Dr. Channon Miller, a professor in USD’s History department. They emphasized the similarities between the Central Park 5 and those currently incarcerated in jails. The Central Park 5 story is not a singular case; estimated cases of wrongful convictions range from 1-5 percent. The Innocence Project estimates that as many as 124,000 people incarcerated are actually innocent (Innocence Project). This parallels with whether or not prisons as a whole are able to be justified. Dr. Calloway believes that prisons continue the degradation of African Americans. Because of the fact that mass incarceration is racially quoted, it is extremely important to eradicate the unjust nature of these institutions. Along with the actual topic of the justifiability of prisons, there are also the mental and psychological effects of the prison system showcased in the film. Korey Wise is subjected to solitary confinement for a large portion of his time in prison. He did this mostly for his own protection, as this was the only option to dissuade the other inmates of him being a snitch. However, being in solitary confinement for several long periods of time can wreak havoc on anyone’s mental health. As told by panelist Dr. Shannon Franklin, some human necessities are not met when in solitary confinement. Crucial abilities such as impulse control are not able to be learned, which are vital to one’s functioning in society. Humans are social creatures and require relational connections which Korey did not have in those periods of solitary confinement.
The story of the Central Park 5 and of Korey Wise has similarities with Bryan Stevenson’s article (pg 81) within the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Stevenson exposes the history of how the U.S. criminal justice system emerged as a form of “new slavery” in which those in power exert control over racial minorities. He also emphasizes how slavery resulted in America’s fear of black people and the willingness towards violent treatment and how both of these play a critical part in the modern criminal justice system. In order to understand the United States’ tendency for practices of mass incarceration and excessive punishment, it requires an understanding of the pervasive effect of slavery in American society. We are taught in our American History classes that the 13th Amendment marked the end of slavery. However, laws over slavery were simply replaced with Black Codes over freed black people. According to Stevenson, anything that challenges the racial hierarchy in the U.S. could be seen as a crime, demonstrated by the increased intensity of racial control strategies when black people “asserted their independence or achieved any measure of success,” (Stevenson 81).
The prison system as it stands now has four major purposes: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Yet, in Korey Wise’s case, the prison’s purpose meant extreme punishment and physical and psychological damage. In order to improve the criminal justice system and prevent stories similar to the Central Park 5’s, I think the U.S. should adopt concrete measures to reduce the racial disparities that are so deeply rooted in the current justice system. The topic of how to improve the criminal justice system was also discussed by the panel and even the notion of getting rid of prisons was brought up, but certain measures can be implemented to come to a middle ground. In chapter 14 of “Freedom on My Mind,” President Barack Obama turned his attention towards the criminal justice system in 2013. The Justice Department dropped “the federal mandatory minimum sentencing requirements”; a rule that sent many African Americans to jail for long periods of time, even for minor offenses (White et. al). Other implementations would also benefit, such as the United States developing a training guide to reduce racial bias across all levels of the justice system, from the police officers to the judges. The judges should treat every case individually while considering the sentence for a defendant. Additionally, the U.S. should reduce the flow of low-level drug offenders prosecuted in federal court. With these improvements, there can be an attempt at reducing the racial bias and disparities found within the justice system and prevent more stories like Korey Wise from occurring.
“African Americans and the New Century.” Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents, by Deborah G. White et al., Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.
“Help Us Put an End to Wrongful Convictions!” Innocence Project, www.innocenceproject.org/.
“The 1619 Project.” The New York Times Magazine.