Ava Duvernay’s “When They See Us” is one of the most accurate portrayals of incarceration
I wanted to hate Ava Duvernay for making When They See Us. Her film was too poignant, too distressing, too good, and, frankly, too close to home. The scene when Korey Wise, the character played by Jharrel Jerome, first entered Rikers Island—I was transported back to that same moment in my life.. When the officer said to get butt-naked—I was there.. The interrogation—I was there too, 19, trembling and repeating “I just want to go home,” exactly like Yusef. Most of all, I remember the visits.
Oh, my God, I remember the visits. It was both the happiest I felt times and the worst I felt—all wrapped up in the entirety of the visit. Like little Antron, my eyes would light up when I got visits, especially when my older brother and sister and nephew would come. They would make me laugh—I was so happy I almost forgot where I was. It was the closest thing to breathing good air. But, what I remember the most is the end of the visits. It’s the part that is causing a tear to fall on to my Macbook keyboard as I type this right now.
It was torturous.
At the end of each visit, my visitors would watch me walk out with my back to them, my eyes leading me to a search booth. I’d hear an officer direct me to lift up my dick, then my balls, then rub my fingers through my mouth, then, “turn around. Bend at the hip. Pull the cheeks apart,” sometimes, “cough, next.” That laughter that came so freely around my family would dry up immediately, at least until the next visit—sometimes months later.
Which brings me back to why I wanted to hate Duvernay. Her directing was too good—so good it made feel and remember what it was like to be there—10 years after I was released. But I’m so grateful because at least she was accurate. At least she’s making us question not only the brutality of incarceration but the system that leads to so many of our black and brown populations to end up incarcerated.
Yes, police lie. Attorney’s lie. Victims are politicized. Families are devastated and become distrustful of the entire system because of all of the above.
Yes, prison is brutalizing. Good officers are aberrations in bad systems. Incarceration fucks with your mind. Parole inhibits. Society is unforgiving. People reoffend because of all of the above.
The great Russian formerly-incarcerated writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, famously opined that, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Dostoyevsky, spent four years hard labor in Siberia in the 19th century, so his opinion, we can deduce, was based on his time in prison. Almost 200 hundred years after Dostoyevsky’s words, what does it mean that America is the most incarcerated nation on a planet of over 7.5 billion people? Even more, what does it mean that in America, innocent victims of the system like Yusef, Antron, Raymond, Kevin, and Korey and countless others are incarcerated when they are innocent?.Because that’s what Duvernay’s latest masterpiece shows: that lying is codified in American jurisprudence.
These prisons are fed by law enforcement systems that can legally lie in the pursuit of justice. In Holland v. McGinnis the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals created a distinction between lies. Intrinsic lies were okay, but extrinsic lies were not as okay and “could be the basis for suppressing evidence.” “Could” is a suggestion at best, which means that in practice the line between intrinsic and extrinsic lying is arbitrary.
Guilt and innocence is blurred.
While Duvernay’s work is built on the perfect narrative—innocence, I’d like us to ask: What if they were guilty?
Would we care about police lying, prosecutorial misconduct, and prison violence dispensed by the prison guards--in the pursuit of justice? I don’t think the majority of people would care.
As a friend to two of the men portrayed in When They See Us, Yusef and Raymond, who has stood side by side with them in support of many injustices; as a witness to what Kalief Browder and Sandra Bland went through. I don’t think the majority of people would care.Though I didn’t experience the extreme violence that Korey Wise did, I did have to pause the Part IV episode several times because I needed to lay on my bed and cry because I remembered what Korey saw. I heard the sounds of men screaming, wailing, banging on their gates, talking and arguing with themselves. I saw guards beat men. I witnessed the guards set men up to be jumped by other incarcerated men. Most viscerally, I remember becoming numb to everyday prison life.
Several weeks ago the New York Times featured an article about Ruthie Wilson Gilmore titled, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruthie Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind”. Dr. Gilmore is a prison abolitionist. She does not believe in the usefulness of prison, not dissimilar to Dr. Angela Davis, another esteemed public intellectual. Prisons are inhumane spaces that have become the repository for human brutality. By vote, by denial, or by selective ignorance, the American public has decided that prisons and all that comes along with them are acceptable ways to deal with people who have transgressed against the social contract.
So, if not prisons, then what? How do we deal with people like Mattais Reyes, the person who confessed to being the actual assailant of Trisha Meili, the woman egregiously assaulted and raped in Central Park?
I do not fully know just yet. But, there are some who are testing out other ways to address harm. Danielle Sered outlines her strategies for addressing harm that does not include the justice system in her new book, Until We Reckon Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair. Mariame Kaba has created an entire website and has written exhaustingly about holding people accountable for their violence without reciprocating violence. Their work is an attempt to evolve the degree of our society that is okay with the inherent inhumanities of prison.
Everyday injustices are happening to the guilty and the innocent, and two wrongs have never made anything or anyone right.