The prison industrial complex is one of the most prevalent forms of institutional racism.  One incredible lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, has tackled this issue since the 1980s. Despite Black people only making up 12.1% of America’s population, they constitute 34% of America’s prison population. His work has exonerated several innocent Black individuals unjustly incarcerated by the justice system and has saved 156 individuals from death row.

Stevenson’s education was the product of judgement from Brown v. Board of Education. He started in a non-integrated school that only taught until the 8th grade. That was the only school in his town that he was allowed to attend. If integration had not happened, Stevenson may not have had the opportunity to pursue his law degree. Thankfully, he overcame these institutional obstacles and studied law at Harvard University. He has been representing people on death row for more than 31 years. He started the Equal Justice Initiative to bring awareness to this as well as to fight against the injustices within the criminal justice system.

If you take a look at the history of the criminal justice system, you will see a history of lynchings particularly targeting Black people. Lynchings are immoral on several levels, but imagine being lynched just for using the wrong door. That is how it was for Black people. The scariest and most unbelievable part is that people who came to watch these lynchings treated them as entertainment events. It’s devastating that, even to this day, Black people are given lengthy imprisonments for minor crimes and continue to be trapped in a cycle of racial oppression.

Working for Justice

Getting up before 4 AM without an alarm, Stevenson is ready to face any new situation that may have arisen in the few hours that he slept. The first thing he does is check his email and plans what to tackle and in what order. His day is filled with attending meetings, answering phone calls from prisoners, planning out defenses for hundreds of his death row clients, and even visiting his clients in prison. The Equal Justice Initiative is every minute of Stevenson’s day. His every breath and action are dedicated towards finding justice for people unjustly persecuted.

The Initiative not only fights for justice, but it also educates people through art and group discussions. The Equal Justice Initiative’s office has a wall that contains jars of soil where several Black individuals were unjustly lynched in the past. These jars of soil serve as a reminder of the brutality of the past and a call for people to act more justly in the present. In his words, the jars “get us to remember so we can recover and fight to claim a different future.” Students, community members, and families have come together to collect these jars of soil for this installation.

Stevenson also spends time educating diverse audiences and speaking about these issues to them. He has given TED Talks, been featured in movies like 13th, and presented his work in the HBO documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a busy individual, and he does everything with passion. To him, it doesn’t feel like work…it feels like it is his responsibility and calling as a citizen of the world.

Valuable Free Time

The work Stevenson does is challenging and consuming, so he has a few coping mechanisms. Growing up, he played piano in his church. This love for piano and music continued on. For Stevenson, playing piano is something he looks forward to doing to relax. He usually plays piano right before going to bed between 10:30 PM and 11:30 PM. Although he exercises and goes on runs whenever he has time, he says that music provides him solace that exercise cannot. His mind is still running when he exercises, but with music, his mind slows down.

Whenever he has free time, he reads to expand his knowledge. The few books he carries in his briefcase could be fiction or nonfiction. Either way, he savors the time he has with any book he comes across.

A Kind Soul

Bryan Stevenson at TED2012

Bryan Stevenson spends time with his loved ones and does all he can for his clients. Despite his busy schedule, he will go visit his clients in prison on a Sunday morning. He does this because he wants to make sure that his clients have someone they can rely on. He is happy with what he has and spends time with his brother, sister, nieces, and nephews. I’m overjoyed to know that such an advocate for equality and justice exists because as Stevenson says, “We have a system that is compromised by racial bias.”

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