Archive for the '(in)justice system' Category Page 3 of 3



The death penalty – on request?

For years, I’ve been a staunch opponent of the death penalty. To me it seems both barbaric and unjust. In a fallible and inequitable criminal justice system, one can never be sure that the death penalty is applied evenly and without bias. And with the spate of false convictions that have been uncovered in the past few decades, it’s clear that even completely innocent people are sentenced to death.

So, I was more than a bit surprised when I read this article from the BBC News: hundreds of Italian prisoners who are serving life sentences are actually requesting that the death penalty be reinstated (it’s been banned since after World War II.)

The letter they sent to President Napolitano came from a convicted mobster, Carmelo Musumeci, a 52-year-old who has been in prison for 17 years.

It was co-signed by 310 of his fellow lifers.

Musumeci said he was tired of dying a little bit every day.

We want to die just once, he said, and “we are asking for our life sentence to be changed to a death sentence”.

I’ve always thought about death penalty as the most cruel and unjust form of punishment, but how much less cruel is life imprisonment, really? Unlike a death sentence, it’s reversible; if someone is found to have been wrongly convicted, they can be released; if they appeal and evidence is unearthed that proves them guilty of only a lesser crime, their sentence can be shortened. But the prospect of living the rest of one’s life behind bars is a horrifying one indeed, as evidenced by these prisoners’ plea for death.

Being a prison abolitionist, I’m looking forward to a time when prisons fade into obsolescence and are no longer how society deals with its problems. However, that’s probably a long way off. So in the meantime, the questions I’m pondering are these – should prisoners be allowed to request the death penalty instead of a life sentence? Should that be allowed even if the death penalty is abolished as an involuntarily imposed sentence? Does this amount to something akin to voluntary euthanasia (physician-assisted suicide), which I do not oppose? Is this a devaluation of the lives of prisoners? That last question sounds eerily like something a “sanctity of life” anti-choicer might say, but I’m coming from a different angle. People in prison are already so undervalued, even when they’re released; does something like this only reinforce that devaluation – saying that life in prison is worse than no life at all? And finally, does anyone but prisoners actually serving life sentences have the right or even the ability to answer any of these questions?

NYPD activist surveillance documents surrounding the RNC released

After a long legal battle, I-Witness Video has obtained and posted more than 600 pages of NYPD RNC-related activist surveillance documents, spanning from October 2003 to September 2004. On the I-Witness site, you can read more about the preceding legal fight, download a large PDF of the documents, or perform single-word searches on the documents.

I’ve already been going through them for about an hour, and am about to stop myself from looking at them all night. Otherwise I’m going to have nightmares. Lots of the stuff is really creepy. Some of it is creepy because of the infiltration factor that’s evident in what they’re able to find out; how disturbing to think of organizations and groups being infiltrated. However, some of the stuff isn’t creepy at first because it’s such public information, so the methods of obtaining the info aren’t so creepy seeming. But then, when you think about it a little more, it’s almost creepier, because the things they’re documenting seem so tame and so benign. I’m talking regular old community organization meetings, happy family-friendly kinds of marches and activities, that sort of thing. Green Party events held in sunny Tompkins Square Park, for fuck’s sake. These guys aren’t just worried about their infamous scary black bloc anarchists here, the kind of mythological threat that the cops and the press like to put on display to terrify the populace. Nah, they’re after anyone who has the slightest inclination towards evil anti-American concepts like justice or equality or liberation.

And that’s just the shit from the document that hasn’t been redacted (blacked out, usually with comments like “law enforcement privilege.” (Oh yeah, we know all about law enforcement privilege.)

Obviously, I know that the police and the rest of the government are fucking insidious, and all of this shit has gone on for decades upon decades in this country (centuries upon centuries, probably) and will continue to do so for a long while to come. And it’s not as if I don’t know that the groups and movements and coalitions and even social groups that I live and work within are heavily surveilled, even when we’re doing things that seem so innocent, so harmless, so tame, so right.

But it’s still scary. And it still might give me nightmares.

I think it might also convince to me finally start practicing better technology privacy and security measures – you know, encrypting emails, that sort of thing. I always think that I don’t say or write anything interesting or sensitive or important enough to really worry about. But I think I’m realizing that the cops find a whole lot more interesting than I would’ve thought.

in case you ever doubted that prison is an industry

From the New York Times, via futurebird on the debunkingwhite Livejournal community: California inmates who meet certain requirements and can fork over a significant amount of dough get to have a cushier stay in prison than their less wealthy fellow inmates:

For roughly $75 to $127 a day, these convicts — who are known in the self-pay parlance as “clients” — get a small cell behind a regular door, distance of some amplitude from violent offenders and, in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer on which to compose a novel, or perhaps a song.

Unbelievable, right? Well, not so unbelievable, considering that our entire capitalist society constantly reinforces the notion that, the more money you have, the more worth you have as a person, and the better you deserve to be treated. And hopefully, though unfortunately, we’ve all been disabused of the silly fantasy that the justice is blind, that the justice system in this country is equitable and applies the law fairly and evenly across lines of race and class.

And yet somehow, I still managed to be a little shocked by this. I figure, if you’re a person with racial or economic privilege who still manages to be convicted of a crime (even if it’s a lesser crime than another person with less privilege may have been convicted of), and you actually get sentenced to time in prison (again, even if said sentence is lighter), and even still if you get some preferential treatment from prison authorities, you’re still going to be serving your sentence in basically the same facilities, with basically the same privileges and lack thereof.

Silly me to forget there’s always a way to make sure that the richer and otherwise more privileged are more comfortable and are treated more humanely than everyone else.

Some particularly infuriating passages (emphasis mine):

Many of the self-pay jails operate like secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world. You have to be in the know to even apply for entry, and even if the court approves your sentence there, jail administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.

Wealth and privilege aren’t limited to money; they also extend to knowledge and access to information. Many people are denied all sorts of rights to which they are fully and lawfully entitled because they just don’t know about them. Information is either never offered or made so inaccessible that those rights may as well not exist at all.

Many of the overnighters are granted work furlough, enabling them to do most of their time on the job, returning to the jail simply to go to bed (often following a strip search, which granted is not so five-star).

To me, this was one of the most galling aspects of the pay-to-stay privilege. For most people, the damaging effects of prison sentences extend far beyond the length of the stay. Even a relatively short stay can put a person’s job in jeopardy; do you think that most hourly-wage workers will come back from a few weeks or months in jail to find their old job waiting for them? Hell no; and then, of course, follows the difficulty of finding another job and the financial troubles caused by lost wages. But with the work furlough privilege, you can not only retain your job, but you can continue to make money right through your term.

Only one of the people quoted even comes close to getting at the all too evident problems with this situation:

While jails in other states may offer pay-to-stay programs, numerous jail experts said they did not know of any.

“I have never run into this,” said Ken Kerle, managing editor of the publication American Jail Association and author of two books on jails. “But the rest of the country doesn’t have Hollywood either. Most of the people who go to jail are economically disadvantaged, often mentally ill, with alcohol and drug problems and are functionally illiterate. They don’t have $80 a day for jail.”

Most of the other people quoted simply highlight how racist, classist, and generally fucked up this is.

“The benefits are that you are isolated and you don’t have to expose yourself to the traditional county system,” said Christine Parker, a spokeswoman for CSI, a national provider of jails that runs three in Orange County with pay-to-stay programs.

Since when does a person convicted of a crime that requires jail time have such latitude of choice when it comes to what they “expose” themselves to? Not that I’m any fan of the prison industrial complex, but doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole frakking purpose of prison?

Parker continues, going on to say what is perhaps the most outrageously honest thing in this entire article:

“You can avoid gang issues. You are restricted in terms of the number of people you are encountering and they are a similar persuasion such as you.

Hmm… can anyone guess the sort of things she might be talking about when she says “persuasion?”

When talking about how the Pasadena Police Department tried to “create a little buzz” (!) for the program in the 1990s, a department representative says,

“Our sales pitch at the time was, ‘Bad things happen to good people… People might have brothers, sisters, cousins, etc., who might have had a lapse in judgment and do not want to go to county jail.

Right. Because poor people who commit crimes are criminals, and rich people who commit crimes are good people who had a lapse in judgment.

The article’s conclusion seems to assert that the “five-star jails” still suck. Kinda.

Still, no doubt about it, the self-pay jails are not to be confused with Canyon Ranch… Lockdown can occur for hours at a time, and just feet away other prisoners sit with their faces pressed against cell windows, looking menacing.

Because POOR PEOPLE ARE SCARY! Even when all they can do is scowl at you through a window because your money gets you better treatment and privileges than they have.

Ms. Brockett, who normally works as a bartender in Los Angeles, said the experience was one she never cared to repeat.

“It does look decent,” she said, “but you still feel exactly where you are.”

Yeah – in a watered-down version of jail that you get to stay in because of your most likely unearned privilege. We feel for you, really.

america loves a fall guy

Hi, everybody. I’m back from my month plus blogging sabbatical, during which I did many constructive things like playing hours of World of Warcraft, closely following women’s and men’s March Madness basketball (somehow, my first try ever brackets got first place in both my pools, woohoo!), and most recently, setting up a fantasy baseball team called Orgullo Boricua (which had a dismal first week, but I have faith in ’em!)

But now I’m back, after weeks of guilt over not posting, anxiety over how to start blogging again, and a few gentle prods. I’ve missed a lot, especially in other folks’ blogs – when I’m not writing, I’m usually not reading, alas. But hopefully I’ll be able to get back into the swing of things and stay there for a good long while.

This morning, I saw this headline from TIME: “Conservatives to Bush: Fire Gonzales. A group that calls themselves the American Freedom Agenda, dedicated to promoting conservative legal principles, sent a letter to the president calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ resignation. From the letter:

“He has brought rule of law into disrepute, and debased honesty as the coin of the realm… He has engendered the suspicion that partisan politics trumps evenhanded law enforcement in the Department of Justice… Attorney General Gonzales has proven an unsuitable steward of the law and should resign for the good of the country… The President should accept the resignation, and set a standard to which the wise and honest might repair in nominating a successor…”

TIME reports that this is “the first public demand by a group of conservatives for Gonzales’ firing;” however, I’ve heard grumblings to this effect from conservative politicians and pundits for the past few weeks.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’ve got no love for Alberto Gonzales, and I do think that he bears much of the burden of responsibility for the politically-motivated firings for U.S. attorneys.

However, this does seem like Scooter Libby all over again – Gonzales is simply the fall guy. Sure, he was an active participant in this fiasco and should therefore probably be fired; but he’s certainly not the only one who was involved in this, and is probably not the highest up of the guilty parties. And yet, he’s most likely the highest up person who will face any real repercussions – punishment, even – for his actions.

There has been a bit of a stir up over Karl Rove’s connection to the firings, centering around his “deletion” of four years’ worth of emails, some of which may discuss the firings. As a technologist, I find this particularly interesting, in that it’s got politicians, pundits, and the media talking about the technicalities of email and servers and how “deleted” usually doesn’t mean “gone forever (see this article from CNet for more on how those emails are probably not gone for good.) However, I can’t see that this will really amount to much of anything. Rove really does seem to be made of Teflon, despite the many flaps in which he’s been implicated. And it’s not as if he’s really at the top, either.

So, it looks like Gonzales is going to lose his job, most likely for following direction from higher-ups who will never really be forced to face the music. And I’m sorry, but I can’t help but think that lots of those conservatives were a bit too eager to give Gonzales up as a sacrificial lamb. Apparently, according to the TIME article, they’ve disliked him for quite some time:

Conservatives have long distrusted Gonzales, but until now many hesitated to criticize him publicly in the current controversy out or respect for the broad latitude they believe a President should have in selecting his cabinet. Behind the scenes, however, their opposition helped dissuade Bush from nominating Gonzales to the Supreme Court and, over the years, they have regularly disparaged him as too soft on key issues such as affirmative action and abortion.

Now, maybe I’m just being my usual paranoid brown self (that’s sarcasm there, folks), but I can’t help but think that if his name was Albert Gordon instead of Alberto Gonzalez, maybe those conservatives might not be quite so quick to hang him out to dry.

ACTION ALERT: Tell the NY Post to quit its transphobic “reporting”

3/2/07 Update: I’ve been kind of busy since posting this, so I wanted to post a quick thank you to everyone who’s written to the Post, and to everyone who’s reposted this. I didn’t expect such a great and large response, and it’s wonderful. Please keep reposting!

NOTE TO OTHER BLOGGERS: Please link to or repost this!

An important victory was recently won in the struggle for trans rights, specifically around health care. Judge Sheldon Rand of the Manhattan Family Court found, for the second time, that the City of New York is obligated to pay for the sexual reassignment surgery of Mariah Lopez, a young trans woman of color who was denied this important and necessary medical care while in the care of the NYC foster system. The City is constitutionally required to provide adequate medical coverage for all children in its care, and SRS is a medically approved procedure, one that is often necessary for trans people. In the decision, Judge Rand wrote: “Mariah L. should be treated in order that she may go on with her life and be in a body which blends with the gender with which she identifies.”*

Fortunately, Judge Rand was far more understanding and respectful than most of the media coverage, which has ranged from iffy to downright disgusting. (This article from PinkNews.co.uk is the most respectful one I’ve found thus far.)

Worst of all has been the coverage from the New York Post. Now, anyone who’s familiar with this sorry excuse for a newspaper should know that it’s usually chock full of shoddy, sensationalist, decidedly conservative-leaning rubbish that they attempt to pass off as journalism, so racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are all par for the course. But the two pieces that they’ve run on this story – an “article” entitled “Free To Be He-She” and the even worse editorial, “Justice Isn’t That Blind” – are really just awful and enraging. Not only are the articles thoroughly transphobic, but the editorial also falsely paints her as a “sociopath” due to her criminal record, completely ignoring her history of activism and community service and the fact that she and other trans women of color are targeted and abused by the NYPD (see Holly’s comment on this post for more.)

The New York Post needs to be sent a strong message: quit the transphobic “reporting”! Show some respect, some decency, and some attention to journalistic standards.

I ask all of you to join me in writing to the Post and giving them a piece of your mind. Below is a letter to the Post. You can copy and paste it as is, or you can add your own touches to it or write something completely new. Whichever one you choose, send it to letters@nypost.com and janon.fisher@nypost.com (the writer of the first article.) (It would be great if you also commented here, so I can get a gauge of how many emails they’re getting.)

***START OF EMAIL – START COPYING HERE***

SUBJECT: NY Post: Quit the Transphobic Reporting!

I was angered by the Post’s coverage of the recent Manhattan Family Court decision in favor of Mariah Lopez (“Free to be he-she,” February 25, and “Justice isn’t that blind,” February 27). Both articles were deeply disrespectful of Ms. Lopez’s gender identity. By referring to her as a “he-she,” a “wannabe woman,” and, in the editorial, using her old name and incorrect pronouns in direct violation of AP style guidelines, the Post has clearly demonstrated that it is more interested in playing to societal prejudice towards transgender people than in following good journalistic practices and treating trans people with the respect that they deserve.

Additionally, the articles’ sensational treatment of this story ignored the fact that the ACS is required by law to provide medically-approved treatment to children under its care, and that Ms. Lopez was indeed a child under the care of the ACS when she initially sought transgender health care, including sexual reassignment surgery. Ms. Lopez was denied access to a necessary treatment that is widely approved by the medical community. Judge Rand’s decision will hopefully ensure that no other child, trans or not, will be denied treatment in the future simply due to prejudice.

YOUR NAME HERE
YOUR CITY HERE

***END OF EMAIL – STOP COPYING HERE***

* Partly in anticipation of certain questions, I’d like to clarify that I don’t believe that SRS is always a necessary part of a trans person’s transition. Transition can mean all sorts of things, many of which are not medical or surgical; it’s all about what one feels is right for them. I think it’s important, actually, to get away from a medicalization of trans-ness, because that often leads to people passing judgment on who’s “really” or “fully” trans or not based on their medical history. Which is, of course, complete bullshit, given that not everyone chooses – or can afford or access – the same treatment.

ACTION ALERT: Support Florida rape survivor and condemn police actions

Planned Parenthood has launched a campaign around the Florida rape survivor who was arrested and subsequently denied emergency contraception after going to the police. Take a moment to go to the PP page and voice your outrage to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. (Thanks to Jessica at Feministing for the heads up.)

Report a rape – get arrested?

That’s precisely what happened to a young woman in Tampa, Florida. After reporting her rape to the Tampa police, she was arrested and kept in jail for two nights after the police ran a background check and found a four year old warrant on her record. This article from the Tampa Tribune describes how this incident brought together so many deeply disturbing things: a callous and sexist disregard for the needs and rights of a rape victim; an inherently flawed criminal justice system; and, on top of it all, how the so-called “right” of medical practitioners to impose their religious beliefs on their patients has seriously jeopardized this woman’s physical, emotional and mental well-being.

The woman’s mother sums it up well:

“You’ve got to make sure you throw somebody in jail on a four-year-old felony warrant after they’ve been brutally raped?” the mother said. “It was a failure to take the actual dynamics into play.”

And as if the arrest alone wasn’t infuriating enough:

Adding to the mother’s ire is her claim that a jail nurse prevented her daughter from taking a second dose of emergency contraception prescribed by a nurse at a clinic as part of a rape examination. The jail nurse, said the mother and the victim’s attorney, denied the medication for religious reasons.

The article describes a police department policy that advises against arresting victims of violent crimes on outstanding warrants, stating that “the severity of the injury suffered by the victim compared to the seriousness of the crime specified in the warrant.” However, this policy only explicitly names misdemeanor warrants, not felonies.

“It’s rare in police work that someone isn’t arrested on a felony warrant, but you always want to have compassion for a victim,” police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Monday. “This may be a case where we need to revise our policy.”

No, really? Brilliant that this conclusion is reached after this woman is jailed, denied emergency contraception, and basically put through hell – all as a result of reporting the violence committed against her. As the article points out, this sort of thing only adds to obstacles that frequently prevent women from reporting when they’ve been raped.

Bonnie Bucqueroux, a victims’ advocate and coordinator of the Victims and the Media Program at the Michigan State University School of Journalism, said the handling of the situation could have “a chilling effect” on this case and others.

“This is one of those cases where they made the wrong call,” she said. “Spending two days in jail … certainly adds to the trauma she endured. … Why would victims who had any concerns about any dealings in their past come forward?”

Why, indeed.

Edited to add: In her post on this incident, Jill from Feministe cites this statistic: forty percent of rape survivors in Connecticut, for example, aren’t offered EC in emergency rooms – in both secular and religiously affiliated hospitals. Unbelievable.

ACTION ALERT: Entire Queens Family Arrested as Intimidation

Note from Jack: I heard about this on NPR the other morning, but unsurprisingly didn’t get the whole story, not even from them. I’ve added emphasis on some parts of this press release from DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), which is an important and kick-ass organization that everyone should know about.

Also, for more information on Shahawar Matin Siraj’s case, see Democracy Now! interview with his lawyer, Martin Stolar.

PRESS RELEASE
January 9, 2007

Entire Queens Family Arrested as Intimidation

For questions, contact:
Fahd Ahmed, DRUM (940) 391 -2660

At 5am on the morning of January 9th, 2007, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raided the Queens home of and arrested three members (father, mother, and daughter) of the Siraj family, a tight-knit Pakistani family that has been caught up in the U.S. “War on Terror’s” most recent act of racial and religious profiling. Tuesday’s deplorable raid on the home of an innocent family is amongst dozens of other targeted, prejudiced sweeps across the country that are tearing Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities apart. The arrests occurred less than 12 hours after their young son, Shahawar Matin Siraj, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for alleged terrorism-related charges emerging from a clandestine NYPD-paid informant’s entrapment.

ICE officials are currently falsely reporting that the family was arrested on immigration-related charges and that the father’s appeal for an asylum case was “denied.” The reality is that the father’s appeal is still pending in the Second Circuit Court and has not been decided, and that the mother and teenage daughter do not have any immigration cases or deportation orders pending against them. Given the high-profile media attention on their son’s case, in which there were many underhanded legal irregularities and rights violations, these arrests are being seen by the community as an attempt to silence and make an example of the family through harassment. The family maintains that their son was ensnared by an NYPD informant, evidence of which the court did not properly consider, resulting in an unfair trial and sentencing. The family has filed a notice of appeal for their son’s case.

Both the father and the mother have ongoing and severe medical conditions, and the mother was only allowed to take two days of medicine at the time of the arrests. All family members are currently being held at Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth, NJ, but they may be moved or separated to different facilities.

DRUM, as a community based organization that works with Muslim and South Asian immigrants and has seen the targeting of this community before and especially after 9/11, is calling on all concerned individuals and organizations to contact the ICE Field Office Director, at 973-645-3666, and demand that (a) the Siraj family be immediately released on their own recognizance or a reasonable bond, and, (b) that ICE stop targeting immigrant communities, in particular Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians. DRUM is also calling on all people of conscience to call Warden Charlotte Collins at Elizabeth Detention Center, at 908-352-3776, to demand that (a) they provide urgent medical care and medication for the mother and father, and (b) that the Siraj family be kept together, particularly the mother and daughter not be separated, and, (c) to pro-actively facilitate direct communication and visitation between the family and their son, Matin, who is being held at Metropolitan Detention Center. DRUM, alongside countless civil and human-rights organizations and concerned citizens will continue to expose the ongoing injustices of the “War on Terror” against this family and all targeted communities.

not all rainbow balloons and frolicking gay boys

Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things. But below is a press release from the Audre Lorde Project, an organization for queer people of color in NYC, that addresses a far less joyful and celebratory incident that occurred at Sunday’s Pride march. It’s a good reminder that, despite the raucous celebrations and flamboyant displays that take over Manhattan for a day or two, we queers are still targets, some of us more than others.

Pride Celebration Marred By NYPD

Youth of Color Arrested While Participating in Annual LGBT Pride Parade

New York City, NY, June 26, 2006: The annual Heritage of Pride Parade celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities in New York City was marred this year by the unjust arrests of two young marchers.

At approximately 2:30 in the afternoon, while marching with Manhattan Pride Parade People of Color contingent two young people of color were arrested as they sought to re-enter the parade. The two young people had left the parade briefly and when they attempted to return they were placed under arrest by the NYPD. Marshals with the People of Color contingent repeatedly informed the police that the two young people were with the contingent and asked why they were being arrested. The police refused to respond. Witnesses stated that the police used unnecessary force when arresting the two young people. Kris Hayashi, Executive Director of the Audre Lorde Project, witnessed the incident. Hayashi states, “I observed the police brutally throwing one of the young people into the police van. This incident of unnecessary, unjust arrest is part of an ongoing pattern of harassment and brutality by the NYPD towards communities of color and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Non Conforming people of color in this city. We must hold the NYPD accountable.”

The two young people were taken to the 6th precinct where the younger of the two was released while the 19 year old was held at the 6th precinct with a charge of disorderly conduct. Despite pressure from elected officials and community leaders to release the 19 year-old the young person was held overnight at Central Booking and to date has not been released.

Concerned community members and the Audre Lorde Project called a press conference the day of the parade at 9:30 PM in front of the 6th Precinct. Representatives of the Audre Lorde Project, Maua Flowers Institute, and
FIERCE spoke at the press conference, which was attended by 50 community members. Speakers called for the young person’s immediate release, for the charges to be dropped, for the NYPD to be held accountable for harassment and brutality, and for the community to stand up against ongoing harassment and brutality towards our communities.

“In the wake of recent violence against the LGBT community, it is an outrage that the NYPD has responded with a message of more violence, sadly against a young person of color marching the annual peaceful LGBT Pride Parade, ” says Rickke Mananzala, Campaign Coordinator of FIERCE, an LGBT youth of color organizing project in New York City.

Community members packed the court the morning of Monday, June 26, calling for the young person’s immediate release and for the charges to be dropped.

The Audre Lorde Project (ALP) is a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Non Conforimng (LGBTSTGNC) People of Color (POC) center for community organizing, focusing on the New York City area.

jury duty, part deux

First off, a quick note: my letter on gentrification to Time Out New York was published in this week’s edition. And they didn’t edit all that much out, though they did leave out the sentence about poverty and neglect in Bushwick. Ah well, that they published it at all is somewhat surprising!

So – my jury duty experience lasted only one day, but I did get my wish. After lunch, the lawyers for the plaintiff and the defendant (it was a civil case, a lawsuit around an injury) picked three more people to interview at random. These three came off as being much less prejudiced, in the “having a prior opinion” sense of the word, than the three who went before lunch. They were three men, two white, all very quick and eager with the “right” answers that made them seem fair-minded and lacking prejudice. Part of me couldn’t help but suspect that they were giving what they knew to be the “right” answers without thinking very deeply about the questions being asked. They were also grilled a little less than the first three folks who were up there (two women, one white person.) I wonder what it was about them, or what they had on their juror survey ,that maybe reassured the lawyers. Anyhow, in the end, they were quickly chosen as the other three jurors; they’d picked the first three the day before.

I was a little disappointed until the lawyers said that they were then going to pick two alternate jurors, who would attend the entire trial just like the regular jurors and would fill in if one of the jurors became ill or otherwise unavailable. They picked two more people at random to interview for those seats, and I was one of them! I tried to avoid grinning too broadly as I took my place in the front row of office chairs that were crammed into our little empanelling room (as they are called.) It was me and another woman of color. They asked us way more questions than they asked the previous guys. There’s a section of the form that asks questions like, “Have you or anyone close to you ever been accused of a crime, convicted of a crime, victim of a crime, witness to a crime, filed suit against someone, been sued?” I checked almost all of them, so they got to ask me about the lawsuits; neither bore any resemblance to the lawsuit at hand. They asked about my technology work and about the other woman’s work as the principal of an elementary school in Harlem (she seemed like she’d be a good principal.)

They then asked if we’d be prejudiced against either of the parties in the lawsuit – ConEdison, or the policeman who claimed he was injured due to ConEd’s negligence. They specifically asked if it made a difference to us that the man was a police officer. That gave me a bit of pause, but in the end, I said that it wouldn’t sway me either way. Having heard the background of the case, I thought I’d be able to be balanced. After all, big corporations and the police are kind of on the same level of undesirability, aren’t they? Heh. I wonder how my personal preconceptions would have played out as I observed the trial. I mean, sure, I’d have attempted to be as impartial as possible, but come on, I don’t really believe in objectivity and I know that certain preconceptions would have lurked in the back of my head. Class issues (police officer vs big corporation), issues with the police, any other buttons that might’ve been pressed during the trial… anyhow, regardless of all that, I really thought I’d be able to be an impartial juror, and so said I.

Both the other woman and I were picked as alternate jurors! First, I was excited. Then, I felt a sense of dread at the possibility of having to spend five days at court. One day of jury duty is one thing, many days in a row is a whole other ballgame. But in the end, I wound up being excused – I’m going out of town next Friday, have a reservation made and everything, and they weren’t sure that the trial would definitely be over by then. So, they excused me, after which I waited around for around two more hours until I was finally discharged from jury duty. I’ve now fulfilled my civic responsibility (as they described it, my right and privilege) for the next six years, in Kings County, at least.

*****

At the beginning of the day, when we were being instructed as to how to fill out our juror cards, a woman sitting near me asked me if I spoke Spanish and could help her with her card. I said yes, with the caveat that my Spanish kind of sucks. She was an older Mexicana woman who had somehow managed to not be called for jury duty in her 20-something years of citizenship. In my broken, half-assed Spanish, I helped her with her card, but also told her that she might not even need to serve because of her limited English comprehension. Indeed, after a while they asked folks who did not speak English to come up to the front to be excused. She went up, but came back not too long after – apparently she spoke just enough English to get to sit around in the main jury room all day, which she did. I saw her at lunch time and came to sit with her again when I was excused from my case. She was really nice and didn’t make me feel more ashamed than I already was about my Spanish. When she finally got called up for her jury discharge, she touched me on my shoulder as we said goodbye. That small gesture, combined with her departure, made me unexpectedly sad. I think I miss the presence of older Latina women in my life. Since my grandmother died almost three years ago now, I haven’t seen much of my family; I have my mother, but even she lives far away from me, and I only get to see her two or three times a year, tops. I think that Silvia reminded me that there’s something really special about older Latina women, something that I can’t really put into words; just a warmth, a familiarty that I miss.

*****

Having jury duty got me to thinking. I know lots of folks around my age and of my general political persuasion who hate jury duty, or at least the idea of it, and would be happy to get out of it. I’ve heard some people talk about playing up their lefty tendencies in the hope that no jury would want them.

This strikes me as a bad attitude and a worse strategy. Yes, the tedious, immensely boring ordeal of court sucks. Yes, the (in)justice system in this country is majorly fucked in twenty million ways. But I think it’s important for folks like us to get ourselves on juries, especially in criminal cases. I do believe that it’s important for jurors to be as impartial as possible, but do I think that most jurors really leave their personal and societal prejudices at home? Hell no. Have many people (especially people of color and poor folks) been royally screwed by juries stacked with people almost guaranteed to look upon them unfavorably? Hell yeah. So, even though the whole carcereal system (as one friend so aptly put it today) probably needs to be done away with, it’s here now, and as long as it’s effecting people’s lives in a very real and often very harmful way, we social-justice-minded folks should try to participate as fully as possible. At least then, the juries might be more likely to be prejudiced towards true justice than against it.