Now my recent podcast interview with the founder of the Idaho Innocence Project is on replay in my head
Derek Chauvin deserved his prison sentence. But not this
If you managed to stomach watching the infamous video footage from May 25, 2020, you haven’t forgotten it.
Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer with previous complaints against him, kneels on George Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes. Floyd, handcuffed, lies facedown on the pavement.
Long past the point where Floyd can still gasp that he can’t breathe, long after he can no longer plead for his mama, Chauvin keeps kneeling on his neck while three other white officers look on.
Bystanders, including the 17-year-old girl who recorded one of the videos on her phone, plead for Floyd’s life. “You’re killing him,” says one; “Check his pulse!” demands another.
Chauvin continues to lean his weight on his knee, his face a mask of chilly calm.
You know what happens next
George Floyd goes into full cardiac arrest in the ambulance and is pronounced dead at the hospital.
The witnesses’ videos go viral. Americans erupt from their Covid lockdowns in protest and the #BlackLivesMatter movement is born.
In April 2021, Derek Chauvin is convicted of state murder charges and, later, a federal charge of violating George Floyd’s constitutional rights. He’s sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison.
Public reaction is mixed. Some think Chauvin deserved life in prison. A few cling to the belief that his trial and sentencing “were a sham.”
With a long and, sadly, continuing litany of unarmed, nonviolent Black citizens killed by police officers (most often white), many of us are relieved that Chauvin was convicted at all — despite the overwhelming (and heroically recorded) evidence against him.
Chauvin killed George Floyd in cold blood, and he did so thinking he was shielded by his uniform and badge. He deserved to lose his freedom for a very long time.
It seemed justice had prevailed. Until last Friday
The news was terse, but the Associated Press reported that Derek Chauvin had been stabbed in prison. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “responding employees initiated life-saving measures for one incarcerated individual.”
As of this writing, Chauvin is hospitalized in serious condition and is expected to survive.
Reaction to this news is mixed as well.
Others, as in this X post, express their belief that everyone deserves to be safe from violence in prison, even Derek Chauvin.
I’m solidly in that latter camp. What happened to Derek Chauvin may feel like retribution to some, but it’s not justice. I’m haunted by what happened to him not because I feel any particular sympathy with the man, but because of the brutality of our prison system.
Even more so after recently interviewing a guest for an upcoming episode of the Crows Feet: Life As We Age podcast.
My guest hasn’t served time, but he knows many who have
And some of them were wrongly convicted. Hence his mission to restore their freedom.
Dr. Greg Hampikian is a professor in the Biology and Criminal Justice departments at Boise State University. He’s an expert in advanced forensic DNA technology and is a co-founder of the Idaho Innocence Project.
He’s best known in the media for helping secure the freedom of Amanda Knox after she’d served four years in an Italian prison on a wrongful conviction of murder.
His team has helped free over three dozen people who were wrongfully convicted — and helped police identify new suspects in six of those cases.
My interview with Dr. Hampikian touches on a wide range of topics — he’s something of a Renaissance man who is also an inventor, a playwright, a novelist, and an essayist.
But our conversation kept coming back to the human tragedy of people serving time for crimes they did not commit.
Sometimes Dr. Hampikian and his colleagues are able to get those wrongful convictions reversed. Sometimes they can’t, no matter how hard they try or how much evidence it seems is clearly on their side.
On one occasion, Dr. Hampikian had to walk a man back into prison — after his conviction was overturned by one court and then reinstated by another.
That man had to return to an environment that is often unsafe and dehumanizing.
Our prisons aren’t fit places for the innocent — or the guilty
We on the outside — those of us who’ve never run afoul of the criminal justice system, or who don’t have loved ones who have — like to assume that offenders are sent to prison to pay their debt to society and become reformed and rehabilitated so they’re safe when released.
But our prisons, far too often, make a mockery of the term “correctional facilities.” They’re dangerous places — made even more damaging by the way in which those of us on the outside seem to accept that fact.
Prisons are notoriously understaffed — Chauvin, a high-profile inmate who was also an ex-cop, was held in a federal pen because they’re supposed to be safer than state prisons.
But the facility where Chauvin was held in Tucson, Arizona, suffers from severe understaffing, an inherently unsafe situation prevalent among the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A New York Times article notes that the Bureau:
“. . . has often relied on teachers, case managers, counselors, facilities workers and secretaries to fill shifts . . . About 21 percent of the 20,446 federal positions for corrections officers funded by Congress — amounting to 4,293 guards — were unfilled in September 2022.”
And state prisons are worse
Jails and prisons are notorious incubators of sexual assault. The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report in January 2023 — “Substantiated Incidents of Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2016–2018.”
The numbers are appalling. The instances include inmate-on-inmate as well as staff-on-inmate assaults. USA Today, in its article on the above report, quotes Jesse Lerner-Kinglake from Just Detention International:
“The violence is so normalized, and so engrained in our society that prisoner rape jokes are common even now, in the post MeToo era … No matter what crime a person has committed, rape is not part of the penalty.”
A brutal prison system brutalizes everyone
Do we need protection from rapists and murderers? Are some people so dangerous that they shouldn’t be at large unless and until there’s sound reason to believe they’ve taken responsibility for their crimes and have truly reformed?
But do we truly benefit from having close to 2 million people incarcerated — more than any other nation except China — many of them for nonviolent or nonserious offenses?
Is anyone with a history of violent or antisocial behavior likely to become a better person while confined in a violent and antisocial environment?
As the Prison Policy Initiative points out, the punitive aspect of prison is supposed to mean being locked up; deprived of one’s freedom to come and go as one pleases.
It’s not supposed to mean being subjected to inhumane treatment, sexual assault, and the chronic threat of violence.
Every prosecuting attorney represents the People. That’s us. In a democratic society, what happens within the criminal justice system and within its prisons is done in our name. Yours, mine, and all citizens.
When we tolerate or ignore unjust, brutal conditions, it has a desensitizing, demoralizing effect on all of us. Much of the time, though, we’re insulated from that reality.
After my talk with Dr. Hampikian, I’ve lost my insulation
One part of our conversation keeps coming back to me as I think about what happened to Derek Chauvin, and then what happens to far too many people in far too many of our county, state, and federal lockups.
We touched on the topic of criminal justice in other societies. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the punishment for theft is amputation of the offender’s right hand.
We decry that as barbaric, something we would never condone in America.
Not long ago, Dr. Hampikian had lunch with several of his former clients, people whose wrongful convictions he’d been instrumental in overturning. All of them had served years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
He asked them this: “If you’d been given the choice to lose your right hand and then be released rather than spending that time in prison, would you have taken it?”
It’s a terrifying question.
And every single former inmate answered yes.
We’ve got to find a better way. What happens in our jails and prisons does not reflect the nation we want to be.
At least, I sure hope it doesn’t.
I hope you join me in January for my interview with Dr. Hampikian
That Crow’s Feet: Life As We Age episode is scheduled to release on January 24, 2024, on all major podcast platforms. As I said, it’s a lively, wide-ranging conversation. I’m sure you’ll find it engaging.
But it may leave you with a degree of discomfort about a topic to which many of us would rather turn a blind eye.
That’s not such a bad thing.