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Chris Hedges Walks With a Champion of the Imprisoned

Posted on Nov 21, 2012
amandabhslater (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“It has been so strange,” Herbert Richardson told incarceration activist Bryan Stevenson on the day of his execution. “All day long people have been saying to me, ‘What can I do to help you?’ … More people have said what can they do to help me in the last 14 hours of my life than they ever did” before, Chris Hedges writes in Smithsonian magazine.

Richardson, Hedges reports, was a disturbed Vietnam combat veteran who landed on Alabama’s death row after an explosive device he left on the porch of an estranged girlfriend killed a young girl.

“You never got the help you needed,” Stevenson told Richardson, moments before a guard would pull the switch on his electric chair. Before Richardson was killed, Stevenson made the following promise: “I will try and keep as many people out of this situation as possible.”

Stevenson kept that vow. Since he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, he has helped reverse the death sentences of more than 75 inmates in Alabama. “His efforts culminated this past June in a Supreme Court ruling effectively barring mandatory life sentences without parole for minors,” Hedges writes. “As a result, approximately 2,000 such cases in the United States may be reviewed.” In 2012, Stevenson won the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social justice.

“Do you think we should rape people who rape?” Stevenson asked Hedges. “We don’t rape rapists, because we think about the person who would have to commit the rape. Should we assault people who have committed assault? We can’t imagine replicating a rape or an assault and hold onto our dignity, integrity and civility. But because we think we have found a way to kill people that is civilized and decent, we are comfortable.”

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Chris Hedges at

Mass incarceration defines us as a society, Stevenson argues, the way slavery once did. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but imprisons a quarter of the world’s inmates. Most of those 2.3 million inmates are people of color. One out of every three black men in their 20s is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or bound in some other way to the criminal justice system. Once again families are broken apart. Once again huge numbers of black men are disenfranchised, because of their criminal records. Once again people are locked out of the political and economic system. Once again we harbor within our midst black outcasts, pariahs. As the poet Yusef Komunyakaa said: “The cell block has replaced the auction block.”

In opening a discussion of American justice and America’s racial history, Stevenson hopes to help create a common national narrative, one built finally around truth rather than on the cultivated myths of the past, that will allow blacks and whites finally to move forward. It’s an ambitious goal, but he is exceptionally persuasive. When he gave a TED talk about his work last March, he received what TED leader Chris Anderson called one of the longest and loudest ovations in the conference’s history—plus pledges of $1.2 million to EJI.

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