A look into the harsh reality of being black behind bars and the survival mechanisms innocent people employ to overcome being wrongfully convicted.

02.13.19 By Alicia Maule and Emma Zack


Part 1: An Interview with Senior Staff Attorney Karen Thompson

In Part One, we interview Karen Thompson, the only black staff attorney at the Innocence Project and one of the few black staff attorneys in the Innocence Network. Karen Thompson shares how her clients navigate racial dynamics behind bars, how history has informed today’s criminal justice system, how race has played a part in the cases on which she’s worked and what she believes her role is as a black attorney.

What does being black behind bars mean to you, and what do you think it means for your clients?

I, personally, do not know, but I do know what many of my clients have told me. I think it is as complicated inside as it is outside, because prisons are their own little ecosystems. All of the ugliness we see on the outside exists in prison, but it is more consolidated and concentrated.

Karen Thompson and her former paralegal Corey Michon. Photo by Jeff Swensen.

A client just told me about being moved to a prison in a small town in Pennsylvania. He explained that the prison guards and other local folks working at the prison have, for the most part, rarely interacted with black people before. So, a climate is created where white residents are going to work in this prison filled with mostly brown and black people from Philadelphia or other urban areas, and those interactions are supporting various confirmation biases. Because many of the incarcerated people are black and brown, the mere fact they’re incarcerated justifies for the town residents whatever biases or racisms they might already be harboring—in addition to other incarcerated folks who might also be racist!

Hearing clients talk about negotiating these racial dynamics within prison while not having access to their emotional support systems is spiritually exhausting. When you’re wrongly incarcerated, you know you’re not even supposed to be there, you’re doing everything you can to keep it together and you have to deal with the racial dynamics, it’s complicated and devastating for folks.

There are currently 2.3 million people behind bars, 5 million people on parole or probation, the majority of whom are disproportionately black and brown–how did we get here?

Along with the other attorneys, I teach classes in our legal clinic through the Cardozo Law School, and one of my classes is Race and the Law. This year, I went historical; it’s too hard to talk about race and the law without historical context. I think many people have a sense of the problem—mass incarceration and racism within the criminal justice system—but think it’s just springing up out of nowhere. The reality is, we are here because of concerted, deliberate, legal efforts to define and sculpt racial inequality in this country.

Watch: Karen Thompson on Hot 97

This year in my Race and the Law class, I taught the case of Punch v. Virginia. John Punch was a black indentured servant during the seventeenth century who was hanging out with a Scottish man and an Irish man, also indentured servants, when the three of them decided to run away. Eventually, the three of them were caught. When John Punch returned, he was found guilty of leaving his indentured position. The Virginia Governor’s Counsel told him, “Your punishment is that you will never be free. You are going to be a slave for the rest of your life.” The two other men, however, received additional years of indentured servitude, with the possibility that they might still be free.

Punch v. Virginia was the first legal opinion in the United States sentencing a black man to slavery for life. It was the first time our country saw these stark disparities in treatment based on race in a legal decision. From that moment on, it’s a steady drumbeat.

Throughout U.S. history, the law has continued to reinforce and to create racism. When you trace how deliberately the law has been used to define race, it gets very disturbing very quickly. You can then see the direct lines to what’s happening now in our criminal justice system—it’s just being called a different name.

For me, it’s frustrating when people say, “We need proof, we need data,” before we can do anything with regard to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Of course, we need numbers; facts bolster and create legal arguments. But data can always be questioned: methodologies doubted, sample sets too small, interpretations deemed incorrect or misunderstood.

At some point, I want to say, “When do you start to believe the truth of your eyes and the truth of what you hear?” I think that’s hard for people to do, because when you do it, then you have to get very real about what we are doing to actual people. What we’re doing to families. And what we’re doing to communities. There has to be a time we decide to interrupt this, and it shouldn’t require thousands of dissertations or law review articles to do it.

“Throughout U.S. history, the law has continued to reinforce and create racism.”
“Throughout U.S. history, the law has continued to reinforce and create racism.”

Karen Thompson Senior Staff Attorney

How have you seen race play a role in your cases?

We recently filed to vacate the conviction of a client who police claimed they saw “pulling his penis out of the victim’s body” and, when they told him to put his hands up, lunged at them with a gun. They shot him three times. We hired an expert who concluded that my client was shot from the back; no one was charging at anyone. DNA testing revealed other questions about my client’s involvement in this rape. The fact is, the officer’s stories were not true; my client was supposed to be dead, and none of those errors would have mattered. But, he didn’t die, and now he’s been in prison for a decade for a crime he did not commit.

Thompson’s client, Perry Lott, was freed on July 9, 2018 after spending 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

This is the thing that really devastates me in this work to my core: there is a real ease in this country with ignoring brown and black people’s pain, an ease evidenced throughout history. I feel like wrongful convictions are the most glaring evidence of this. All of our clients obviously have tragic stories, but when you dig into what’s happening to our black clients…the young ages at which they’re convicted, how much longer it takes to exonerate them, the plea deals they take because they know they have a higher chance of being executed, the plea deals they take even when they have hard proof of their innocence, like my client Perry Lott—it’s heartbreaking. Time and time again, our black clients are just going about their daily business when they’re arrested for a crime they didn’t commit; and thirty years later they’re walking out of prison.

This all points to the larger issue: as a legal and cultural precept, the presumption of innocence does not belong to black people. At best, the mere fact of their presence in a courtroom means not guilty…yet. Because they must be guilty of something.

When we exonerate someone of a crime they didn’t commit, it’s as though we’re getting people to where they should’ve been in the first place. But, they never got to be in that place in the first place.

I believe my role as a black lawyer at the Innocence Project is to give my clients the space to be seen and heard; part of my work is to believe them. Belief gives people their humanity back in a system that says they are beyond or unworthy of belief. My work is to hear them in the wholeness of who they are and not what this culture wants them to be. And in seeing them, they have saved me as well. These are the gifts we give each other.

Thompson on how the 1934 “spectacle lynching” of #ClaudeNeal inspires her to defend the innocent each day:


Part 2: What #BlackBehindBars Means to the Innocence Community
In Part Two, we ask a few members our the community about what being black behind bars means to them. Here’s what they said:

“I was 21 years old when I was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. I spent the next 16 years of my life there, all while prosecutors hid crucial evidence and yet not one prosecutor who hid evidence was punished or disciplined. I ask you, how is this fair?”

Jabbar Collins, Exoneree

“Being black behind bars felt unnatural. I felt like a slave being told what, when and how to do something. Being chained up all the time is slavery, but it was modernized.”

“Being black in America is an honor that few people realize. An honor that signifies greatness throughout all these atrocious conditions we faced. We’re still here survivors standing strong. Being black in America.”

Leroy Harris, Client

“In West Virginia, where I was locked up, all of the guards were white. White inmates got the best jobs and were given a level of trust that black inmates did not get. The way prison is currently structured, I found myself forced to practice not trusting anyone in prison. I practiced this until it became automatic.”

Kenneth Lawson, Co-Director Hawaii Innocence Project

“I knew I was going to prison for something I didn’t do. I trusted in the justice system and it failed me.”

Marvin Anderson, Innocence Project Board Member and Exoneree

“The system is designed to break you down mind, body, and soul. It’s up to you to stay focused and driven.”

Stefon Morant, Exoneree

“For me, being #Blackbehindbars is reminiscent of all the books I’ve read on slavery: the shackling effect of the whole experience says – your worth is not your own, but that of the overseer. It’s a continuous challenge to maintain my scruples, regardless of come what may. Incarceration proposes to rehabilitate, but it strategically destroys or threatens to do that much. It was truly up to me and the intangible forces aiding that gave me a sense of fortitude, hope, and drive.”

Mark Denny, Exoneree

“We were branded ‘monsters’ and rapists, high profile New Yorkers called for our execution, and we lost a combined 33.5 years of our youth in prison.”

Yusef Salaam, Innocence Board Member
and member of the Central Park Five

“When the person you love is in prison, you’re in there too. You feel locked up even though you’re free.”

Shoshanah Hobson, Innocence Project Events and Special Projects Manager

“I knew I was going to prison for something I didn’t do. I trusted in the justice system and it failed me.”
“I knew I was going to prison for something I didn’t do. I trusted in the justice system and it failed me.”

Marvin Anderson Innocence Project Board Member and Exoneree

Part 3: Former Case Analyst Edwin Grimsley’s Required Reading

In Part Three, former Innocence Project Case Analyst Edwin Grimsley repurprosed his “Multimedia Wrongful Conviction Syllabus,” which was originally published in 2016. For ten years, Grimsley reviewed thousands of letters from people in prison who contacted the Innocence Project, trying to prove their innocence. Grimsley also led the effort toward more conversations about the effects of racial biases in wrongful convictions and conducted his own research on how black men and black youth are disproportionately wrongly convicted. After a decade of outstanding work at the Innocence Project, Grimsley is now earning a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on race and policing.

History: How did we get here in the first place?

Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of Prisons
– by Michel Foucault

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass
– by Douglas Massey

Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice
– by David Oshinsky

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America
– by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

“The Case for Reparations”
– by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic, June 2014 issue)

The Age of Jim Crow
– by Jane Dailey

The Fire Next Time
– by James Baldwin

Slavery to Mass Incarceration
– by Equal Justice Initiative (Youtube)

Introduction to mass incarceration

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
– by Michelle Alexander

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America
– by Elizabeth Hinton

Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics
– by Marie Gottschalk

The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America
– by Naomi Murakawa

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
– by Bryan Stevenson

Inside: Life Behind Bars in America
– by Michael Santos

The House I Live In
(2012 Documentary)

Former Case Analyst Edwin Grimsley on a Decade at the Innocence Project

Wrongful conviction

Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong
– by Brandon L. Garrett

False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent
– by Jim Petro and Nancy Petro

In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process
– by Dan Simon

True Stories of False Confessions
– Edited by Rob Warden and Steven A. Drizin

The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions
– by Helen Prejean

Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned
-by Reuven Fenton

Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity
– by Alison Flowers

Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn’t Commit
– by Kerry Max Cook

An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington, Jr.
– by Margaret Edds

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption”
– by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, with Erin Torneo

Exit to Freedom
– by Calvin Johnson, with Greg Hampikian of the Idaho Innocence Project

The Trials of Darryl Hunt
– by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern (HBO Documentary, 2006)

The Central Park Five
– by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David Mcmahon (Documentary, 2012)

The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions, and the Norfolk Four
– by Tom Wells and Richard Leo

Journey Toward Justice
– by Dennis Fritz

Race and wrongful conviction

Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control
– by Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver

Race and Justice: Wrongful Convictions of African American Men
– by  Marvin D. Free Jr.and Mitch Ruesink

Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town
– by Nate Blakeslee

“Before the Law”
– by Jennifer Gonnerman (The New Yorker, October 6, 2014)

What Wrongful Convictions Teach Us About Racial Inequality
– (Innocence Blog) by Edwin Grimsley

African American Wrongful Convictions Today
– (Innocence Blog) by Edwin Grimsley

Lessons about Black Youth and Wrongful Convictions: Three Things You Should Know
– (Innocence Blog) by Edwin Grimsley

Women and wrongful conviction

Wrongful Convictions of Women: When Innocence Isn’t Enough
– by Jr., Marvin D. Free and Mitch Ruesink

Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison
– by Paula C. Johnson

“Death, But Is It Murder? The Role of Stereotypes and Cultural Perceptions in the Wrongful Convictions of Women”
– by Andrea L. Lewis & Sara L. Sommervold (Albany Law Review, June 2015)


Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better
– by Maya Schenwar

Let’s Get Free, A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice
– by Paul Butler

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