Rubin Carter, know to many simply as “The Hurricane
,” delivered a stirring speech
to a crowd of 150 yesterday at Harvard Law School in which he lambasted the criminal justice systems in the U.S., Canada, and Jamaica for what he claimed was a high incidence of wrongful convictions and a system that is based more often on prejudice and “tunnel vision” than on evidence.
“Wake up!” he implored the crowd. “And learn that liberty and the pursuit of happiness are actually the same thing.”
Carter recounted the details of his conviction for triple murder in 1966 when he was at the height of his middleweight boxing career. He spoke of how he was saved from the electric chair only because of the quality of his legal representation, and how he still spent nearly twenty years in prison, ten of which were in the pitch dark of solitary confinement.
Carter also said that when a court granted his 1985 petition for a writ of habeas corpus—one of only three granted that year out of 8,500 filed nationwide—it effectively gave him back his freedom. In overturning Carter’s conviction, the court wrote that “the trial had been based completely on racism and not on legal evidence.” Carter, who still carries the original writ in his breast pocket, repeatedly referred to habeas corpus as “the great writ” and said that without it he would have “languished and died behind bars.”
Carter also lashed out at the criminal justice system, saying that capital punishment had turned the system into “assembly lines of death,” and pointing to the large numbers of incarcerated minorities—blacks in the U.S., Muslims in France, and Aborigines in Australia—as evidence of its shortcomings.
Carter ended with a plea for his new group, Innocence International, which he said will expose abuses and wrongful convictions in justice systems across the world.
Carter was joined at the event by Courtney Kazembe and Kevin Wallen, both of whom work in Jamaican prisons to promote “restorative justice,” and Charles R. Nesson,
the Weld professor of law and the co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Kazembe and Wallen first spoke of their work in rehabilitating Jamaican prison inmates, and how after six years in operation, their program, Students Expressing Truth, has kept every one of its participants from becoming repeat offenders. Kazembe, who addressed the crowd first, outlined the theoretical contours of their program and how “transformation” can be used to reduce redicivism and to give people a “reason to live.”
“Our program makes people ask, ‘Why am I getting the results I’m getting in my life?,’” Kazembe said. “It’s a powerful realization where you cause people to step outside of themselves [and] take and accept responsibility.”
Immediately after Kazembe, Wallen began to fill in the details, starting with an extended anecdote about his path to becoming a teacher and motivational speaker. He told of his first meeting with Carter and how the two were invited to visit a Jamaican prison after inmates attended one of their events.
“The prison that was designed to hold 600 inmates was holding 1,800,” Wallen said. “The prisoners were in 8.5 by 5.5 by 11 foot cells, and there were a minimum of four and a maximum of nine people in each one. The inmates were locked down in their cells at 3 p.m. each day and not released until 9 a.m. the next morning.”
Wallen also spoke of the rampant homophobia in Jamaican prisons, saying that the prisons have sections labeled “Boy’s Towns” where homosexuals are isolated from the other inmates.
“If someone calls you gay and you don’t deny it, you have to go to ‘Boy’s Town,’” Wallen said. “If a cup hits the floor and you drink from it again, you’re gay. It sounds stupid and it is, but [it’s] something they have to live with.”
Of his own prison sentence, Carter said, “I sat in that cell feasting on hatred for ten years.”
—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at email@example.com.