- The myth of American Exceptionalism promotes the stratification of individuals into good and bad and promotes power over others.
- People harmed and people who have harm need pathways for healing and reconciliation. Healing does not occur in our current justice system.
Her voice was clear and strong and her message deeply relational. Ivy Mathis, the founder of Successful Imperfections and a formerly incarcerated woman stepped to the mike at the Heart of Reconciliation Conference in NOLA and shared a simple, powerful message – anyone leaving prison should experience “Dignity on Day 1”. Ms. Mathis spoke on the last day of the November 2022 conference and as an attendee and conference planner, I was running on fumes. But her description of providing a care package with a pair of new underwear and make-up to women leaving prison landed on me with an eye-popping thud. Her organization promises more than the care packages – they also provide essential services like mentoring, counseling, and educational and employment resources to help women navigate the difficult transition from prison to freedom. But the underwear grabbed me – so personal, so vulnerable, so uniquely human. And a small window into what is taken from a person when he/she/they enter the American for-profit prison system.
The Heart of Reconciliation Conference was designed to offer stakeholders in the criminal legal system a chance to convene, to connect and to heal in a trauma informed space. There was no denial about the magnitude of violence and dehumanization that people are subject to when they enter the prison system. Everyone who attended the conference had been involved in the “justice system” – some had committed crimes, other had been wrongfully convicted, and still others were victims or family members of victims. There were lawyers and advocates, people involved in restorative justice, students whose lives have been impacted by incarcerated family members. The Orleans Parish DA, Jason Williams shared the challenges of trying to reform the justice system from the inside out. Everyone gathered to share reform strategies. No easy task. But Ivy’s message offered a critical starting point: Dignity.
What Is Dignity?
Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” What would a society or even a legal/justice system look like if it valued the dignity of every living thing? Certainly, not like America today with divisions and judgements meant to stratify and punish those deemed less than or undeserving of care and respect. While that person could be the young man who murdered my father, it could also be the person next door with a different political or religious belief. American culture, with capitalism at its core and wealth as the primary sign of success, too often values competition over cooperation.
Encouraging individuals to stand on their own two feet often means the central relational skills of seeing and hearing others, of curiosity and courage, take a backseat to getting ahead and gaining enough power to be immune from the whims and needs of others. The myth of American exceptionalism when applied to certain, dominant groups of people (most often white people) is a death trap, too often distorting them into careless, selfish, entitled people capable of imprisoning others for inhumane amounts of time, in conditions that are appalling. The fact that 27 states continue to use the death penalty as the ultimate solution for crime is perhaps the most outrageous example of power run amok.
Embedded in the system are the biases and inequities that exist in society, resulting in higher levels of wrongful conviction and extremely long prison sentences for people of color and those without the financial or relational needs to fight the legal system. There is little to no dignity in the American Prison system, particularly if you are not in a position of power.
The Wrongful Conviction of Isaac Knapper
My family had a front row seat to the inequities in the legal system when my father was murdered on the streets of NOLA in 1979. From start to finish, justice for my family looked like an undignified mess. When Isaac Knapper, a black teenager, was ripped from his mother’s home at gun point in his underwear and taken to a holding cell even though he was innocent, where was his dignity? When his conviction was overturned due to a flagrant Brady violation (prosecution misconduct of withholding exculpatory evidence) after 13 years in Angola, he received no compensation for the years in prison and no apology from the corrupt detective, prosecutor or judge. Again, where was the dignity? And when, after Isaac’s exoneration, my family was not told that the murder case was now unsolved, where was my family’s dignity? Though Isaac and my story seems exceptional and unbelievable, many at the conference shared similar stories of abuse in the American justice system. Our story is too often how justice looks in the US legal system. Undignified by design and intent.
Kathy Randels, founder and Artistic director of ArtSpot Productions, reminded attendees (in song) of the tendency and futility of dichotomizing people into good and bad. Human beings have an endless ability to both suffer and to hurt one another. But we can also understand that each of us is more than our worst actions or our biggest fears and to believe that how we treat others over the long run says more about us then the actions of any individual on their worst day. Humans harm and humans heal – individually and in communities. Perhaps dignity starts with that simple concept. Perhaps a new system of justice needs to wrap itself around the frailties of human nature.
Like many other attendees, I left the Heart of Reconciliation Conference with an enlarged heart, a fortified brain and a recommitment to helping reform the criminal legal system. But I also left wondering what the world would feel like if all children, regardless of race or class were entitled to dignity each day of their lives. Only when a new generation of people are raised to expect and demand this kind of kindness, nurturance and respect will we ever be able to create organizations and communities that bring out the best in human nature rather than the worst. And most importantly, only then will we build systems that facilitate healing from the traumas that occur at the hands of other human beings.
- Walker, Maureen. (2019) When Getting Along is Not Enough: Restructuring Race in our Lives and Relationships. Teachers College Press, NYC.
- Banks, Amy with Hirschman, Leigh Ann. (2016) Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong Healthy Relationships. Penguin Books, NYC
- Banks, Amy, and Knapper, Isaac. (2021) Fighting Time. Regal House Publishing. North Carolina.
Appears on Psychology Today