• V.M.

Representing People Convicted of Murder Made Me an Abolitionist

CW: Physical & Psychological Abuse

My journey toward prison abolition started the day the state charged someone with my boyfriend’s murder.

Kyle was a good person. His compassion for others was a magnet to me that overshadowed his drug addiction. In fall 2010, his buddy Steve picked up an eight-ball and brought it over. They got high together. Kyle died. Steve didn’t. And Steve was charged with murder simply because he was the one who bought the eight-ball.

Even in my grief, I was horrified. Why would we send Steve, another person with an addiction, to prison? How would that bring Kyle back? How could anyone believe that was justice? I decided to become a public defender the day I saw that charging document, and I have been fighting this punitive and dangerous system ever since.

Over the years, the failures of the criminal courts have cemented pictures in my mind. I don’t see justice. I see a man sobbing on the floor after his parole was revoked for accidentally breaking curfew. I see a teenage boy’s face, still round in the cheeks with spotty acne, draining of color when he learns he’s going to adult prison. I see a trans woman stoically shaving her head because she has to go to a men’s prison and wants to do everything she can to avoid being assaulted. I see thousands of Black children and adults forced into tiny cages for doing the same thing their white friends get away with every day.

I see police laughing while they tase a suicidal man who cries for his mother, making fun of him for urinating in his pants. I see deputies slamming a mentally ill man’s head in the wall, breaking his teeth, while he laughs and cries because he doesn’t understand what’s happening. I see police yelling at the sobbing victim in an assault case, goading her, telling her to stop crying if she wants anyone to take her seriously. I hear joints crack as prison guards roughly force my handcuffed client to his feet while he frantically fights with the voices in his head.

And I work in what is widely considered one of the best and fairest jurisdictions in the entire country.

When people learn I am an abolitionist, they accuse me of being bamboozled and whippersnapped by my savviest and most emotionally manipulative clients. But my activism is based on reality and has very little to do with emotion.

Reality shows our criminal court process is deeply flawed from start to finish because it is based on revenge, not justice. Reality shows that criminal convictions lead to significant collateral consequences, and all of society is less safe when people with convictions have no access to employment, housing, education, a living wage, and positive social support. Reality shows that people pick up drug addictions in prison, learn how to be violent in prison, and must fight to survive in prison. Reality shows prison leads to trauma, and trauma leads to more criminal behavior in a never-ending treadmill to hell. This is the reality of our criminal courts, and why we must abolish our current system.

When a person is bleeding to death, they need an immediate tourniquet, then hospital care and a blood transfusion. From arrest to conviction, the criminal courts are like a person bleeding to death. Reform measures (like crisis de-escalation training and body cameras) put a tourniquet on the spurting artery; these policies must be implemented carefully, by people with knowledge and experience, and they are emergency measures only.

Abolition, on the other hand, is the blood transfusion. We must tear our system down to its racist and classist foundation and imagine a brand-new world of criminal justice. We must create a system where people matter more than convictions and we are all invested in preventing violence, not doling out punishment after the fact. Only then can we heal together as a society.

Every day, my clients show me something new. They show me that we are better than the worst thing we’ve ever done. They show me that good people can do harmful things without giving up their humanity and worth. Now I honor my clients by joining in the call for a better future, where we do not meet poverty, disease, and mental health crises with handcuffs, but with open hands.

If you are just beginning this journey, I encourage you to read through the other posts on the Forgive Everyone blog. You should also listen to The Intercept’s interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and read anything and everything you can by Mariame Kaba. Most importantly, follow the lead of incarceration survivors—especially Black and indigenous incarceration survivors—and commit to getting uncomfortable as we tear down this system of violence and replace it with something beautiful and new.

V.M. has been a public defender in the Midwest for eight years, representing clients in all levels of cases from traffic misdemeanors to multiple-victim homicides. Her opinions are entirely her own and do not reflect those of her employers.

This piece was published by the Forgive Everyone Collective.

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