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Bobby and the Supremes

A prison visitation park is not a park at all. Just a cinder block room packed with folding tables and chairs. Maybe a box of dirty and well-used toys in the corner, a couple of 80s-era microwaves. But it’s the place to be on the weekends. Who wouldn’t want to hug their momma or steal kisses from their old lady or play with their kids? These connections are vital. They remind us that we are human in an increasingly savage world. Plus it’s nice to get away from the fights and stabbings and squawking PA system and just be with family, mask off.

Unfortunately, not many people in here get visits. Some are too far from home and the trip is too expensive or they burned too many bridges on the way in. Others had the years whittle away their remaining loved ones until they found themselves alone. There are roughly 900 inmates in the gated community where I reside and maybe ten are in the visitation park with any regularity. Twenty on Christmas. Some of them I know from other prisons. Their mommas and wives have stood in line with my momma and braved the weather, the pat searches, and the ever-changing rules of the Department of Corrections for close to three decades.

This is how I met Bobby.

He used to come and visit his son J, who is serving a natural life sentence for felony murder. J didn’t kill anyone, but he was party to a crime where shit went bad and a codefendant snapped and did the unthinkable. By 2008, Bobby and his wife had sold their home and pretty much everything else they owned to pay attorney fees. J had exhausted all of his post-conviction remedies. Natural life. He accepted his fate but his family would not. They remain vocal opponents of the felony murder law. Both parents have spent a few afternoons rallying for change on the Capitol steps.

Bobby is a good old boy who lived on the Blackwater River and claimed to have done time himself at Raiford back in the day. His narrow views on race and religion and the world are consistent with the views of other rural white Southerners his age. I don’t hold this against him. People are more than their fears and insecurities. Bobby was a product of his times. I still remember his face when I tried to convince him and his wife to vote for Obama. “I ain’t voting for that socialist…” He may have used a couple other descriptive words as well. This led to a vigorous debate on presidential politics and who represented who.

My position, then and now, is that the only power a president wields that directly effects state prisoners is the ability to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court and judges to the lower appellate courts. That’s it. And for prisoners and their loved ones, whose hopes rest on future rulings of this court, it’s all that matters. It transcends race, supersedes party affiliation, and nullifies petty grievances. A couple years ago, my Christian nieces didn’t understand when I spoke out against Trumpโ€™s SCOTUS appointees. For them, abortion is a major issue. For my second amendment buddies, itโ€™s guns. I get it. And I respect their conviction. Climate change, affirmative action, a robust military, national debt, nuclear nonproliferation, transgender bathroom laws… These are all complex issues that voters must grapple with, but they’re not my issue. I’m trying to get my friends home.

I once read a case where conservative Justices Scalia and Thomas said that a prisoner in Louisiana who got his teeth kicked out by guards in a confinement unit at Angola could not seek punitive damages. This is not the exception; this is the tradition. The conservative wing of the court is extremely consistent when it comes to ruling against prisoners, while liberal justices tend to have a more human rights-oriented monocle through which they read and decide cases. If you ever get the chance, read Justice Sotomayor’s masterful dissenting opinion in Jones v. Mississippi, where the conservative majority shot down the possibility of parole for a young man who was 15 when he committed his crime.

I was thinking about Bobby in 2016 when there was an empty seat on the Supreme Court (because the senate majority refused to hold confirmation hearings on Obama’s pick until after the election). During this time there was bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform. Crime was at a record low and the war on drugs was in a death spiral. For all her warts, if Hillary wins that election she gets to fill not only that opening but also two more during her term. Plus hundreds of open federal seats across the nation. Instead, the biggest upset in the history of American politics occurs and Donald Trump goes on to stock the courts with a record number of young conservative judges who will shape the landscape of the judicial system for years to come. His appointees were former prosecutors by a whopping 10:1 ratio over former defense attorneys. This was obviously horrible for prisoners.

Equally depressing is the fact that violent crime is once again rearing its ugly head. It was a matter of time. Between the opioid epidemic, extreme poverty, and the merging of gang culture with the entertainment industry, no one I know is really surprised. Tough-on-crime politicians are already dusting off their old speeches. Prison profiteers are salivating over the financial possibilities. Here’s what you should know: America is already tough as nails on crime. We are the worldโ€™s leading incarcerator. I’m sure you’ve heard the numbers. We make up 5% of the worldโ€™s population, yet 25% of the worldโ€™s prisoners are caged right here in the land of the free. Getting tougher on crime will only spend more tax dollars to build more prisons that teach people how to be professional criminals. What America needs is a mechanism in the penal system where men and women can earn their way home. Back into the communities that need these reformed mothers and fathers to take up their places in the families they left behind. If their kids are already lost, maybe they can reach their grandkids. The bleeding has to stop somewhere.

Enter Biden. During his first year in the White House, the world watched as desperate Afghans hung from American planes in the botched pullout of our twenty-year war. I think even his most staunch supporters would agree that he gets a triple F minus on his handling of that situation. No other way to spin it. Same goes for the lack of a coherent policy on the southern border. And inflation. And gas prices… Little fires everywhere. He’s had his successes too. Infrastructure, plummeting unemployment, keeping his promise to lower the national temperature. But I’ve got to give it to the old man. He knocked it out the proverbial park with his Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The fact that she’s the first black female appointed to the highest court in the land is obviously monumental. Volumes will be written about this. But the honorable Judge Jackson is also a Miami native with relatives in prison and in law enforcement. She has a firm grasp of the state of Florida and its broken criminal justice system. For prisoners and the families of prisoners, this is astroseismic. More importantly, she’s a former public defender. This means she’s actually been inside jails and prisons to meet with clients who could not afford counsel. A life sentence is not some abstract idea to her. And by the way, she’s not just any public defenderโ€”she’s the first public defender nominated to the Supreme Court. Ever.

The typical path to a judgeship is to be a prosecutor or work for some big law firm. Then with a little luck and the right connections, you might get tapped. Public defenders and civil rights lawyers are generally left out in the cold for these positions. Of the 880 federal appeals court judges in the US, a whopping 318 are former prosecutors. More than a third. As opposed to the 58 former public defenders who make up 7% of all judges. When PDs do get nominated, they are usually grilled about their ability to be impartial. As if their prosecutorial counterparts are beacons of truth and light who put justice ahead of their coveted conviction rates. No need to inquire into their impartiality. Right. For those keeping score at home, three of the nine current Supreme Court justices are former prosecutors: Alito, Gorsuch, and Sotomayor. The Biden administration appears determined to address this disproportion as he continues to nominate more public defenders than prosecutors for all federal judgeships for the first time in history. Time will tell.

I heard Bobby died a few years ago but I haven’t been able to substantiate the rumor. I hope not. I would love to be able to talk smack to him when none other than Ketanji Brown Jackson authors some future majority opinion that renders his boy’s life sentence unconstitutional and sends him home.

It’s not as far-fetched as it was a couple years ago. A glimmer of hope has arrived. Her name is Ketanji Brown Jackson. And it’s officialโ€”she’s Supreme.

Dead end kids, Lifetime bids

Who were you at age 15? Do you remember that kid? Were you a wild child? Did you ever skip school, or sneak out, or play mailbox baseball? Did you experiment with drugs? Who did you love with your teenage heart? Was it that all-consuming apocalyptic brand of high school love? Where is that person now?

I can no more imagine myself into the head of 15-year-old me than I can imagine my 47-year-old body in his parachute pants. We are two different people. One of us has grown, evolved, failed, rebounded, loved, lost, lived. The other is a little hard-headed know-it-all. Loaded with potential but not there yet. He’s just a kid.

Kids are impressionable. They follow crowds. They want to be cool. They want to fit in. And without solid and consistent leadership, they are easily led astray, sometimes never to return.

My world is full of kids serving life sentences. From baby-faced 18-year-olds just starting out, to men in their fifties who have been locked up since the advent of the internet. Barring some miracle, they will all die in prison for something they did when they were childrenโ€ฆ for impulsive choices made when their brains were not yet fully formed. And an 18-year-old brain is by no means fully formed. I doubt there is a neuroscientist alive who would debate this. Many believe that age 25 is a more realistic mile marker between adolescence and adulthood, especially in males.

Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court cares nothing about neuroscience. In a recent decision that split justices 6-3 along ideological lines, the court ruled that minors don’t need to be found “permanently incorrigible” before being sentenced to life without parole. Ironically, it was Justice Kavanaugh who wrote the majority’s opinion, a guy who knows a thing or two about youthful indiscretions.

But the Supreme Court doesn’t make laws. That responsibility falls on the legislature. You’d think that between reform-oriented liberals who at least strive to create the illusion of compassion, and fiscally responsible conservatives who understand that you can’t have “small government” with a gluttonous criminal justice system bursting at the seams, common sense laws might be passed. Especially when it comes to kids and life sentences.

Nope.

Not down here in the South, at least. Our politicians are either too fearful of appearing soft on crime or too busy lining their pockets with the campaign contributions of prison profiteers to do the right thing. There are exceptions. Republican Jeff Brandes for instance. He seems to understand that prisoners and the families of prisoners are citizens of Florida too. And that if anyone can be rehabilitated, it’s our youth. But every legislative session, his innovative ideas die on the House floor.

America remains the world’s leading incarceratorโ€”25% of planet Earthโ€™s prisoners are caged right here in the U.S. Yet our nation only accounts for 5% of the world’s 8 billion inhabitants. Think about those numbers for a minute. Such a staggering statistic for a country that prides itself on being the land of the free. In order to shake this dubious distinction and relinquish it to China or Russia or some other authoritarian government where it belongs, our lawmakers must take an honest look at our outdated and draconian criminal justice system. What better starting point than the kids we’ve been throwing away.

There is no them, only us.