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I Want You to Know I Am Human: Listening to the Stranger Behind Bars

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I am a public defender. I have a client who thanks me, constantly. He thanks me for taking his calls, for answering his letters, for passing on bad news. On some days, his enthusiasm and gratitude buoy me. I hope he believes that I am fighting for him as well as any lawyer could. I hope he knows I hear him. On other days, I rail against my clients’ low expectations. Some of our clients do not expect competent lawyers, do not expect to be heard. They do not expect their lives to matter. More than anything, I cannot accept this. And so I am obligated to show that I do, deeply, believe Black Lives Matter.

The Torah teaches us, over and over, that we shall not wrong a stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt. We are taught from the outset that God brought us forth from Egypt, from bondage. This identification of our own story of redemption with the oppression of strangers among us speaks directly to my work. I try to release people from bondage. It doesn’t even require a metaphor.

Even though freedom from bondage frames our story, the Torah reveals little about prisoners until we reach Lamentations. We read there that imprisonment is lonely and endless, miserable, dark, numbing, humiliating, and like being dead. I spend a lot of time talking to prisoners. The words of Lamentations are as apt today as they were when they were written. Most chilling of all, the prisoner laments: “And when I cry out and plead, God shuts out my prayer” (Lam. 3:8). 

The United States imprisons far more people per capita than any other country in the world. Right now we hold over 2.25 million people in our prisons and jails. We disproportionately incarcerate people of color. One in three African-American men, and one in six Latino men, will be incarcerated at some point in his lifetime. White women like me face a far different likelihood of incarceration: one in one hundred and eleven. 

One of the privileges of my work is the opportunity to connect with my clients, who are in many ways strangers, those with vastly different experiences of living in our country. I defend their liberty and insist upon their dignity, in a criminal justice system that is relentlessly dehumanizing.

When I began practicing law, I imagined my career would contribute toward dismantling systemic injustices facing racial minorities and the poor. Ten years later, I am not convinced we are dismantling anything.  Instead, I see my work in microcosm: in representing my clients and working with their families, I strive to reach across the boundaries of difference and locate our shared humanity. That radical act of extending compassion to a stranger may be the closest my work gets to social change.

The myth of legal training, even for lawyers who wish to serve the poor, is that we practice law to “help” people. For me, the practice of poverty law is a two-way street. My clients open my eyes; they transform me. I learn about resilience and love as much as I learn about trauma and violence.

As I talk with my clients’ mothers, wives, and partners, and as I hear about their children, I understand how our justice system fractures families, creating widows and orphans: 2.7 million children in our country have an incarcerated parent. That is one in 28 children. But again, people of color are disproportionately affected. One in nine African-American children is an orphan of our criminal justice system. One in nine. 

Have you ever watched young children waiting in a prison lobby to visit a parent? On one hand, it is heartening. At least this family is fighting the geography of incarceration: they have somehow reached this prison, no matter how remote, and they are maintaining connection. It is also a source of despair. I see children for whom this routine is obviously unremarkable. Children who have learned to silently, motionlessly wait. Children who see their caretakers, almost always women, endure the humiliation of the guards’ scrutiny. Prison regulations about women’s clothing are talmudic in their inscrutability and can be applied to prohibit almost anything. My own clothing has occasionally been questioned, although as a lawyer I am generally accorded an exception. But there are no exceptions for the underwire bra rule. Bras that set off the metal detector usually must be dismembered, because one cannot enter without a bra (that’s another rule). The guards send visitors out, not always kindly, to remove metal from their bras. Children watch all of this. Children see the state exert control over the body of their incarcerated parent, and over the bodies of their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, too.

Just over three years ago, I was in a Texas prison, in the death row visiting room, to see a client. It was an execution day; another prisoner, not my client, was going to be killed that evening. That prisoner was having a family visit, a farewell visit, on the other side of the same visiting room.

I was very pregnant. After speaking with my client for a couple of hours, I excused myself to use the bathroom. I waited outside the visiting room bathroom. Waited. And waited some more. The delay exasperated me, immersed as I was in the urgency and self-righteousness of late pregnancy.

When the door finally opened a girl emerged. A teenager, bent over double. I realized she was the condemned prisoner’s child, and she had been throwing up. A second too late, I reached out for her shoulder, to comfort her; but she was gone.

What could I do but go back to my client and continue our visit, professional, competent. When we finished, I left; it is always surprising to exit a prison so easily. Guards, unnervingly calm, opened doors for me. I got into my steaming car and called my wife, Abby. I call her from a lot of prison parking lots. But this time, as soon as I heard her voice my veneer of competency dissolved into sobs. She was alarmed: is it the pregnancy? No, it is fine, kicking. It’s just that the child was heaving, and that child will never forget this. It’s just that maybe it was not a good idea to come on an execution day. It’s just that we are so cruel.

When I say that representing my clients opens my eyes, this is what I mean. I leave every prison visit more aware of my experience as a free person choosing to be there; a white, educated, professional; a person who does not have to cultivate the patience of the incarcerated; a wife and mother unlikely to be widowed or see her children orphaned by the criminal courts, and extremely unlikely to see her children endure a final farewell in a prison visiting room. Understanding this allows me to understand more about those who are not me.

In Lamentations, as we read of the prisoner whose face was ground into the gravel, and the streets defiled with blood, we learn that Jerusalem was complicit in her downfall: our sins brought the destruction upon us. The notion that God would destroy a nation for lack of righteousness seems so biblical and remote. But far too often we watch, on video, blood spill in our streets. Last year we saw a human being’s head, Alton Sterling’s head, ground into the gravel as shots rang out, and we watched him bleed. You don’t have to smell a child’s fear on the day of her father’s execution to know that we are now, as in ancient times, living in deep transgression of our values. Last spring, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, dissenting in a case about police stops, “No one can breathe in this atmosphere.”1 She was right. And our hearts are sick.

The trauma around us may be overwhelming. But every day when we wake up, we are given the opportunity to see ourselves, and our contributions, anew. We all must learn to live anew. Often we believe that what we bring to our work is the ability to help our clients or students or patients, to help our colleagues, to use our special skills to do something. We forget, or we do not have our eyes and ears open to see and hear, that our work can transform us. And when we hope to heal our fractured world that might be the place we have to start.  

What can we bring about by hearing? There is a well-known rabbinic dialogue questioning which is greater, action or study. The rabbis concluded that study is greater, because it leads to action.2 This is probably not a surprising answer. And yet, it’s not the only answer. When Moses read us the Torah, we responded: “we shall do and we shall hear” [na’aseh v’nishma] (Exod. 24:7). The rabbis also teach that our entry into the covenant with those words reflects a promise first to act, observing the laws of Torah, and only afterward to study and understand the law.3 This is seen as an extraordinary declaration of faith. It is also practical; imagine if we could not act, perform a mitzvah, until we understood the entire Torah? But even so this “act first” teaching seems inconsistent with the initial lesson that study leads to action. I can only conclude that we are not to see “doing and hearing,” or “action and study,” as binary; they are intertwined. At its core we can understand our obligation to do, and to hear, as a promise to sanctify ourselves by emulating God—by letting our actions be affected when we hear the cries of strangers, of those who suffer.

May 15, 2016, marked the 100th anniversary of a notorious lynching in Waco, Texas, the lynching of Jesse Washington. If you ever studied twentieth-century American history, you probably saw a photograph of it; you would not forget. Ten thousand spectators gathered to watch 17-year-old Jesse Washington being brutally killed, burned, and dismembered by the lynch mob. To mark the anniversary, an African-American journalist named Jesse Washington, knowing he shared a name with the victim of this tragedy, traveled to Waco. He wrote a searing essay about this visit.4 Among white residents, including judges now presiding at the courthouse where the lynching began, he encountered few people who knew the history of the lynching, or who cared to talk about it. Among African-American residents, he found that people immediately recognized the significance of his name, and knew about the lynching in great detail.

Some of us can choose whether to hear and listen to the story of Jesse Washington’s lynching; others cannot. Some of the black residents interviewed for the article were old enough to have been told the story of the lynching in hushed tones: a cautionary tale about the threat of violence in their town, violence by their neighbors. But some of us have to put ourselves in positions where we will hear such stories. Only when we can hear and understand the significance of Jesse Washington’s lynching can we hope to grapple with the weight of our history.

To that end, I invited into this essay some voices other than my own. After all, who am I to tell you what it is like to be in prison? I asked a few of my clients what they would want to share about being incarcerated. In the letters I received, my clients told me things they had not told me before. One wrote that he was “elated” I had asked for his story. Clearly, I am not asking enough to hear these stories.

The elated client wrote a lot about his family. In particular he wanted to praise his mother:

I grew up in North Philadelphia. My mother raised three children, two daughters and one son, not to mention the fact that she also cared for her siblings as well. My mother did good with us and I make certain that I tell her that all of the time. […] I want to make her proud of me despite all the obstacles that I have come up against due to choices I have made.

This struck me, because I could always use a reminder to praise my own mother, who is wonderful. And it struck me because, of all the ways I have attempted to understand imprisonment, I had never thought about how a prisoner might want to make his mother proud.  

Another client wrote about something I have observed, too, but I would not have been able to describe from his perspective. He wrote:

I will say this, it’s interesting how much men read in jail. It might not all be high literature but it’s reading. Most of these men didn’t read in school or even like school. That shows me that in the right conditions the will to learn is there.

Just days after my client wrote that letter, President Obama described how we have failed communities where “it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.”5 Together, President Obama and my client teach us that there is an entire community of African-American and Latino men for whom the first environment we provide that is conducive to reading is a prison. 

Another client’s letter reflected on how he maintains his humanity after childhood trauma and three decades of solitary confinement:

My childhood tragedy has not affected my ability to love others generously and that possibly is the real miracle. That ability can only be a blessing from God… . Loving others is my way of crying. Most of all, I want you to know I am human.

Maybe the stranger you encounter is not a prisoner. Many others also want us to know that they are human. Maybe your stranger is mentally ill, disabled, an immigrant, a person within the Jewish community who is not Jewish, or a person who is differently Jewish. We do not lack for strangers, or for life stories that remain unheard due to differences between us. You will hear things that I do not hear; those stories too will enrich our humanity.

It is somewhat intangible, maybe, to pursue hearing and listening. At home, at work, in community, we want to do. I believe in doing. I represent people with pressing needs. But it is precisely this call to hear, the imperative we recite twice each day, that we hope can awaken us to engagement. It was when God heard cries—the cries of Ishmael, the cries of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt—that hearing brought about redemption. Our challenge is to put ourselves in positions where we will be able to hear. Sometimes, like me, we will need to ask to hear these stories.

When I propose that we must listen and make ourselves able to hear the cries of those suffering among us, that is not the end of our responsibility. We cannot begin to heal these wounds by listening alone. Our individual intentions, no matter how righteous, cannot correct structural inequalities. Instead, may we hear the obligation to realize those rights.6 May we be engaged to pursue political and social change. May we build a society where no one has to cry out, “I want you to know I am human.”

This essay is adapted from a talk, “Listening to the Lament, Finding our Dissent,” given at Philadelphia’s Germantown Jewish Centre in August 2016, on erev Tisha B’Av. 

Pursuing Justice
Assistant Federal Defender, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

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