Rethinking Mass Incarceration

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Mississippians interested in learning how the criminal justice system works – and doesn’t work – are invited to the first University of Mississippi Conference on Rethinking Mass Incarceration in the South at the Robert C. Khayat Law Center.

The conference opened Sunday with a screening of “Mississippi Innocence,” the 2010 film that explored similar capital murder cases in Noxubee County in which the men convicted were eventually exonerated. After a tour and presentations at Parchman Penitentiary, the on-campus programming continues today at 5:30 with a keynote on prison rebellions. Tuesday will feature 12 panels on subjects from prisons and higher education to post-prison reentry and from experiencing incarceration and its aftermath to race and the Southern criminal justice system.

PICKETT

PICKETT

“As you may have seen by the volume of tweets over the past few weeks, we’re excited about this,” Otis Pickett, assistant professor of history and political science at Mississippi College and co-founder of the Prison to College Pipeline program, told Sunday night’s audience. “Thank you for caring so much about the issues … for giving a voice to those who are often neglected.”

Patrick Alexander, assistant professor of English and African-American studies at Ole Miss and co-founder of the Prison to College Pipeline program, said many of the issues at the conference will be as pertinent to those most focused on public safety as to those interested in restorative justice.

ALEXANDER

ALEXANDER

“This conference is not only putting forward the issues that aggravate us but is putting forward solutions – or at least makeshift solutions until we get better ones,” he said.

The “Mississippi Innocence” film stunned the audience of more than 50 people. It explored factors that contributed to the flawed convictions of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks of a crime that DNA eventually proved was committed by someone else – who then admitted his crimes. The problems ranged from undisclosed evidence to deeply flawed “expert” testimony and a lack of accountability for false prosecution.

“Because the justice system looks very official, you can’t assume it is always right,” said Joe York, the Ole Miss documentary filmmaker who directed “Mississippi Innocence.”

“I would like people to leave (the screening) with a healthy mistrust for the legal system,” he said. “Things didn’t work the way they were supposed to work in these cases, and they probably don’t work the way they’re supposed to a lot of times.”

Except for today’s prison tour, all sessions are at the Robert C. Khayat Law Center on the Ole Miss campus and are open to the public. For more information, visit sarahisomcenter.org/mass-incarceration or call (662) 915-5916.

errol.castens@journalinc.com

  • Tupelo_Guy

    Half of prisoners are marijuana possession users. They don’t deserve to be in prison at all. Legalize it!

    • Jon

      That is simply not true, there a very few people in prison strictly for marijuana possession.

  • FrereJocques

    If you want to fix the biggest problem with our (In)justice system, take a close look at Government prosecutors and DA’s (District Attorneys). The vast majority of them are corrupt. They are looking for convictions regardless of the evidence. They don’t ask, “Is this person guilty or innocent?”, they ask, “Is there enough evidence to get a conviction?” There are many cases where there was evidence the person being tried was innocent, yet the person was tried, convicted, and sentenced because the prosecutor had evidence that would, standing by itself, show the person guilty. And many prosecutors withhold evidence proving the accused person innocent, in clear violation of the law. Mike Nifong, former prosecutor in North Carolina, is the Poster Child for this problem.

    In places where DA’s and prosecutors are elected rather than appointed, they don’t run on the slogan that “I was fairer and more accurate in dispensing justice”, they run on the slogan, “I got the highest percentage of convictions of the cases I tried”. This position implicitly implies that he’s not interested in justice, only convictions.

    One solution that would help tremendously would be a law to force the Government to pay the legal expenses of those that are prosecuted and found not guilty. We also need to beef up our Public Defender program, so that the poor get better legal representation than 1st year law school graduates. Right now, the State has all the advantage–top-rate lawyers, unlimited resources, and large staffs. Poor people can’t afford the Perry Masons and Ben Matlocks, even if they are innocent.