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Justice? Or "Just Us?" Racism and Profit In The Prison System

Amber Mobley |
April 20, 2009 | 5:55 p.m. PDT


It's a classic joke by the late, great, always controversial Richard Pryor.

In a joke about black men in prison, Pryor said: "You go down there looking for justice; that's what you find: just us."

But the "just us" doesn't always have to be exclusively black men.

The "us" are men of all colors.

Women too.

And a lot of times, the "us" have more in common than not, because most of the time the "us" are working class people.

After going to see the newly-released movie "American Violet" this weekend, this was my epiphany: Pryor was right. When we go looking for justice in the American justice system, "just us" is often all we have to lean on.

Inspired by the true story of Regina Kelly, "American Violet" is the tale of a young mother of four who is wrongly accused, arrested and charged with dealing drugs. Told to plea guilty, she refuses. And while she faces some dire consequences because of her decision, it's the sacrifice she makes in order to speak truth to power. In this case, power was a racist district attorney in Hearne, Texas accused of issuing and allowing drug sweeps that purposefully targeted blacks in low income areas.

But as the PBS Frontline story shows, racism is just one perpetrator in the brokenness that is the American "Just Us" system.

Profit is another. The court costs and other fees that prisoners and parolees must pay can be impossibly high for working class people and can skyrocket as they find themselves either in jail or "free" but unable to find work because of their felony status. Not paying the fees can qualify as a violation of parole.

The Frontline piece featuring Kelly's story and those of three others of different genders and races charged with different crimes in various parts of the country reveals the faces and facts behind the system and statistics that blew my mind: only about 5 percent of all felony convictions result from jury trials. The other 95 percent take pleas. 

These pleas can ruin lives. In Kelly's situation, she refused to plea because a felony conviction would not only mean 10 years of probation, hefty fines, exorbitant bail amounts, and an indelible mark on her record, it would also mean that she would no longer be able to get government assistance such as food stamps and would not be allowed to continue living in public housings.

And, she was innocent.

Faced with a "Damned if you do. Damned if you don't," situation, Kelly, with nothing and everything to lose, decided to fight and became the lead plaintiff in an ACLU class action lawsuit filed in 2002 that charged racial discrimination by the D.A. and local police in the 2000 undercover drug raid that resulted in her arrest. 

But the ACLU can't and doesn't take every case. A majority of working class folks who find themselves on the wrong side of the law -- for legitimate or bogus reasons -- often find themselves stuck there. With no money for a good lawyer (public defenders are usually so overloaded with cases that they seldom remember their clients by name) and possibly no knowledge of their personal rights, a lot of people don't know how to fight or even where to begin.

And that is an injustice if I ever heard of one.

(Click here to read reviews of the movie "American Violet" and here to find it at a theater near you.) 



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

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