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Imagining Freedom

Caitlin Heising | Article 3 Advisors | 13 January 2016

I couldn’t believe that only six months ago, the man in a suit standing onstage at SFJAZZ telling us about his three wives (Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, and – “would you believe it” – Kim Kardashian) had been in prison. In fact, this charming man, Anthony Ray Hinton, had spent the last 30 years on Alabama’s death row, most of the time in solitary confinement, for a crime he did not commit. So, of course, Mr. Hinton had not actually married these three beautiful women. He let his colorful imagination come up with love stories and world travels to escape the daily prison monotony and occasional smells of burning flesh coming from the nearby electric chair.

Mr. Hinton is not alone in this inhumane circumstance, though he was fortunate to have Bryan Stevenson, the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, as his lawyer. In addition to exonerating innocent death row prisoners, Mr. Stevenson puts forth a powerful argument that in our country, slavery did not end, but rather evolved. Generations later, its legacy is continuing racism in a society where a black person is six times more likely than a white person to go to prison for the same crime.

The failure to face our history and reform abusive policies and practices has served to reinforce a corrosive legacy affecting our country’s legitimacy around human rights. The U.S. now has the largest incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million people imprisoned along with 7 million on probation or parole. Out of the 9.3 million people in the correctional system, 1 in 3 are African-American.

Currently, the prison system makes $74 billion in profit, the gross domestic product of 133 nations. There is something fundamentally wrong with this situation, which should be recognized as an unacceptable human rights abuse that also weakens America’s moral authority around the world. If we systematically disregard the rights and dignity of people within our borders, how can we expect to have a say in, let alone positively influence, the advancement of international human rights norms abroad?

Considering the extent of this broken system, Article 3 Advisors, the human rights philanthropy consultancy led by TPW board members Darian Swig (TPW 2005-2006) and David Keller (TPW 2001-2002), chose to focus on U.S. criminal justice reform for its annual event commemorating International Human Rights Day on December 10th. A3A Human Rights Day brought together advocates, philanthropists, and politicians to hear firsthand from Mr. Hinton, Mr. Stevenson, and other experts and practitioners in the U.S. criminal justice system. With more than 100 people in the room listening raptly to Mr. Hinton’s story and hearing from visionaries such as Van Jones and George Gascón about what needs to be done, we joined an important conversation with humanity, dignity, and freedom at its core.

The proximity was powerful, almost palpable, as many people were brought to tears hearing how Mr. Hinton was kept locked up even after solid evidence of his innocence emerged 16 years before he was finally released. The system in which he found himself did not have to listen to him, his lawyers, or even concrete facts. The powerful players involved could – and still can – choose to look away, or forget, or villainize innocent people for being poor and black.

What’s badly needed, according to Mr. Stevenson, is a change in the narrative we collectively tell ourselves. We need to start actively remembering our country’s history of slavery, lynching, resistance to the civil rights movement, and Jim Crow segregation, rather than continuing to try to move on by burying it in the depths of history books. Our culture attempts to suggest that slavery is a thing of the past when really it has evolved into a legacy of racial inequality. As we can tell from today’s systemic poverty, endemic institutional discrimination, police brutality, and skyrocketing incarceration levels, our current incognizance of the deep ties between slavery and mass incarceration has not served to realize “a more perfect union.”

In a significant first step to this end, Mr. Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative are embarking on a capital campaign this year to build the Montgomery Memorial to Peace and Justice, which will memorialize lives lost to lynching in towns throughout the South. To achieve real change, we need to identify and challenge some of the stories our culture tries to tell.

In another life, Mr. Hinton could have been a comedian, politician, professor – he has the type of charisma that keeps you hanging on every word. Our unfair criminal justice system denied him the opportunity to live free and realize his potential. Yet he said he has no anger or regrets; he forgives the individuals involved in his unjust ordeal. He is clearly living his purpose now, sharing his story around the country to humanize our incarcerated masses and bring about systemic change. I can say that everyone at A3A Human Rights Day was inspired by his openness, resilience, and hope. Let’s act now, following Mr. Hinton’s lead, to make our country one that truly creates opportunity and freedom for all.

To learn more about the history of racial injustice in America from slavery to mass incarceration, click here to view an animated film from Equal Justice Initiative.

Caitlin Heising (TPW 2014-2015) is a philanthropy research associate at Article 3 Advisors and vice chair of the Heising-Simons Foundation. Caitlin studied international relations with a focus in politics, culture, and identity at Brown University, where she became involved with the human rights movement.

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