The Not Guilty in Prison

There are lots of people being punished in prison for crimes they did not commit. Some for decades. We know this is true because the prison population has multiplied to eleven times what it was while crime has actually fallen. How does this happen?

First, it’s bound to happen as a byproduct of our lucrative imprisonment industry. Nothing else can explain the fact that we had 300,000 people incarcerated in 1972, and we have three million more today.

Too often it happens because the defendant is a person of color, and does not stand a chance for a fair trial no matter what the facts of the case are. Some of the most egregious cases have been in the Old South, where the rot of racism is kept alive generation after generation. In some cases guidelines established to prevent such things are simply ignored, and no one is powerful enough to challenge the court.

The prison industry has generated
three million more current prisoners
than we had in 1972.

Sometimes he (usually he) is wrongly identified by a victim or witness, even when he looks nothing like the real culprit. This happens about half the time, which is why perp-walk procedures have been changed in some places. Sometimes there is only indirect evidence. No weapon is found. No fingerprints. Sometimes felons who have been promised leniency for their cooperation give false testimony. Sometimes the defendant is so well known to the police and the court for previous convictions that he is convicted for no other reason than they already know he’s a bad guy, even if the prosecutor has not proven his case. The fact that someone is a bad guy with a yard-long record is irrelevant. The prosecution still must prove its case.

Sometimes a guilty verdict is honestly reached, but future technology uncovers exonerating evidence. DNA studies have had a major role in recent decades. Or some other criminal already on death row confesses to the crime, having nothing to lose for it. 

Some prosecutors withhold exonerating evidence, sometimes permanently, sometimes until minutes before the trial begins and there is no time to study it. They can also invent evidence.

The Innocence Project
has freed 316 wrongly
convicted prisoners so far.

Judges too can be corrupt. In especially egregious cases, the judge disallows virtually everything the defense asks for, including evidence he knows would exonerate the accused, and does the opposite for the prosecution, allowing shaky evidence to have the status of his approval.

The Innocence Project, a continuing legal project to exonerate and free wrongly convicted death row prisoners has so far won the freedom of 316 people, and the number keeps climbing. This is 316 people who have suffered unjust imprisonment (well, most of them, at least) for years or decades because they were wrongly convicted.

Without question, innocent people have been executed for crimes they did not commit. Texas governor Rick Perry (that pro-life paragon) has personally overseen the execution of 234 prisoners, equal to the annual toll for Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen combined. It seems highly likely that some of those executed so casually were innocent.

The Project has so far only concerned itself with prisoners scheduled to be executed, or are serving time for a very serious crime. If it were expanded to include all prisoners the numbers would most probably expand exponentially. But even at that, it usually takes years, even decades, to gain the release of someone wrongly imprisoned. In more than a few cases, judges have refused to hear new evidence that any fool can tell means the prisoner cannot possibly have committed the crime. And yet, he languishes behind bars for additional years, sometimes until the original judge dies and someone more reasonable takes over.

This doesn’t guarantee the behavior of the released felon. One recently released man took only days to commit his next major crime.

Renegade cops and courts
are responsible for
a lot of this injustice.

We must be very grateful for the vast majority of police and other justice officials, all but a few of whom are honest and admirable people. Those who are not are a decided minority, but they can too easily create havoc with innocent people’s lives. Some cops actually carry marijuana and hard drugs around with them so it will be handy to plant on someone they have arrested. People of color know this all too well. A home or car search, legal or not, is also an easy time to plant evidence.

In a number of urban areas, people have been victimized by cops who simply assault innocent people going about their business, arrest them for no defensible reason, plant narcotics or weapons on them, and more. (See Matt Tiabbi’s Divide.) Brutal and destructive middle-of-night raids often lead to injuries, and almost always destruction of property. Often, the city ends up paying millions of dollars to the victim for the cops’ misbehavior. In many or most cases there is no consequence for the guilty cops, and they continue their criminal activity.

Virtually all cities have cops who are simply out of control, violent people whose primary motivation seems to be to hurt someone. Sometimes these are lone cops, occasionally they are police teams who walk a thin line between law and crime. It is very common, for example, for someone completely innocent to be pushed and hit, then slammed to the pavement, their face pushed into it, and kneed in the back while being handcuffed. It’s not at all unusual for handcuffs to be much too tight. It takes about an hour before strangled nerves in the hands become permanently injured.

The reason for our
world record number of prisoners
is the usual:

The innocent victims of this criminal activity by the cops can suffer a lot. In Alice Goffman’s book On the Run, the author was present when Philly cops strangled a man to death right on the street, which went unpunished. Victims can be physically injured, and as often as not their injury is either ignored completely or treatment is delayed to the point there are sequelae that are never cured. Second, PTSD in a law-abiding citizen, after being beaten and thrown into a jail cell with a lot of low-lifes spoiling for a fight is not uncommon. This can affect a person for years. Third, after being held for days without being able to contact an employer, they can lose their job. The things they had in their pockets, such as a smartphone often disappear, cash especially. Even after being released from custody, an arrested person can still be fired simply because he was arrested.

In my opinion, it is probable that some cases are decided not on the basis of evidence, but something else. The defendant may be an ugly bastard who simply looks guilty. Although juries are not supposed to know about a defendant’s criminal record, it is not hard to guess what kind of person he is when the evidence is presented. In some cases, a person is picked up for some minor violation, then charged with a more serious crime for spurious reasons. Racism has more than a passing role here.

Our prison population has skyrocketed at a time when the incidence of crime has decreased greatly, and the falling crime rate is not because more people are in jail. Obviously, there is some other reason so many people are behind bars. You can be sure that reason is money.


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