Exonerated Prisoners Recall Injustice Behind Bars

Unnamed photo
Winston X. Yan

Three prisoners who were wrongfully convicted speak at an event organized by the Harvard College Human Rights Advocates.

On his first day at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, Greg Bright said he witnessed one prisoner jump out of line and stab another prisoner in the neck. And everyone kept walking.

Bright, who was wrongly convicted of second-degree murder in 1976 and spent the subsequent 27 years in prison, spoke before a crowd of undergraduates as part of Voices of Innocence, an event organized by the Harvard College Human Rights Advocates to commemorate the 60th anniversary of human rights’ universal declaration.

Bright, in addition to two other exonerated prisoners who spoke during the event, said they were angry about the lost time they spent behind bars but stressed that forgiveness has helped them overcome their traumatic experiences.

“The same system that took everything away from me gave it all back to me,” Bright said.

A RISE IN INCARCERATION

Sociology professor Bruce Western said that the spike in incarceration rates has occurred over the last 20 years.

“We’re living now in an era of mass incarceration, and this era has produced a generation of enduringly disadvantaged young African American men,” he said. “The growth of the penal system more broadly has expanded the extent of wrongful conviction and of unwarranted racial disparity.”

Western attributed the acceleration of incarceration rates to a “historic collision” of two forces: the shift of the criminal justice system from rehabilitative to punitive and unemployment problems that have arisen in the inner city since the 1960s.

But Western placed much of the onus on politicians.

“It’s been more of a political process than an economic process in which elected officials began competing with each other on who could be harder on crime,” he said.

In 1979, 12 percent of African American men would be incarcerated at some point in their lives. By 1999, that number had increased to 20 percent.

“Prison has become a normal life event,” Western said.

Law professor Carol Steiker said that up to 5 percent of prisoners on death row are wrongfully convicted.

“The hunt goes on still for the executed innocent,” said Steiker, who added that 129 prisoners have been exonerated from death row since 1976.

Western went on to assert that time spent in prison reduces human capital, erodes social ties, and confers stigma that repels employers.

“They make up all sorts of excuses about why they don’t want to hire you,” said Dan Bright, who was convicted in 1996 of first-degree murder and sat on death row before his appeal resulted in his release in 2004.

John Thompson, who spent 18 years in prison for first-degree murder before DNA testing on blood evidence exonerated him, said that the violence prisoners experience could contribute to their eventual reentry.

“Prison is the most violent place you know,” he said. “Now all of a sudden, I’m home, I’m free, but for 18 years I’ve been dealing with this madness. And you want me to do what?”

‘ABOUT THE NEXT MAN’

Despite the harrowing experiences that the three exonerated prisoners faced, all of the men emphasized that forgiveness was essential to moving on from their experiences.

“People often ask me if I’m angry, and I answer ‘Yes, I was,’” Greg Bright said.

Bright added that he uses his personal plight to advocate for reform of the justice system.

“This experience is not about me, it’s about the next man,” he said.

Western said that the criminal justice system needs to move away from a punitive approach to one that focuses on reintegration for both the guilty and the exonerated.

The exonerated prisoners who spoke at the event said that this reform should take the form of monetary compensation for the exonerated, more intensive DNA testing, and abolition of the death penalty.

Bright said that part of this reform could be accomplished by college students.

“I would just encourage students to stay focused, come out and see what’s going on, and make a decision from there,” he said.