On March 16 in the gallery at UR Downtown during the run of the Richmond Justice exhibit, project co-director Lance Warren offered these reflections on a year of discovering the city through the justice system. The transcript of his talk appears below this video.
Thank you so much for making time to be with us today. We’re heartened by your interest in Richmond Justice, because we’re humbled by the contributions of everyone pictured on these walls. These folks trusted us with their stories. They gave freely their time. They invited us into their homes and workplaces. They risked sharing secrets long-held. And they joined us in hoping it would matter. The fact that you’re here today indicates that it did matter—and it does.
I say that we’re humbled by the contributions of these folks, and another reason for that is because they remind us of the diversity of Richmond—diversity of backgrounds, and diversity of experiences. We met with women, men, and a transgender individual. We spoke with African American, white, Asian American, and Latinx neighbors. The youngest person who sat with us for an interview was 17; the oldest was in his 70s. We learned many ways in which a person’s life can be turned upside down—and how quickly that can happen. (It can take just minutes.) We learned what hope and happiness means in so many varieties, more often than not borne of profound struggle. What does it mean to be a Richmonder? Look around.
The main thing I want to do today is talk with you—not at you. I want to hear what thoughts are in your mind about the justice system in Richmond. I want to learn from you just as we’ve been learning from folks who care about these issues for more than a year. But first, I do want to offer a few key reflections.
I’d like to consider with you why 70 million Americans—roughly one-third of all adults—have some sort of criminal record. I’d like to tell you why Richmond’s Sheriff told us that “we’re locking up the wrong people,” since so many arrive in his jail due to opioid abuse, while every dollar spent fighting addiction through policing is a dollar not spent reducing a troublingly high murder rate here that disproportionately affects our communities of greatest need, communities of color, communities that have already suffered for generations. I’d like to tell you about the cycle of marginalization and re-incarceration—the fact that those released from jail in Richmond, as in cities all across the country, face astoundingly difficult obstacles to finding safe housing, jobs that pay living wages, effective treatment for trauma and addiction. But exploring those issues ideas won’t bring you closer to Richmond Justice, because this project hasn’t been shaped by data or big-picture analysis. We’ve focused on stories, individual realities. Data can be tracked down; but stories of those whose lives are shaped by the system? Well, they’re not easy to find, so we’ve tried to amplify those voices that are hard to hear.
And that’s why today I want to reflect on pain; I want to talk about mercy. These things are tough, but I want to ask you to really think about them with me. Because I also want to talk about what you can do to help.
We all know pain, but often just our own—we don’t often get the opportunity to walk around in someone else’s shoes. Hannah and I have had the privilege to avoid so much of the pain described to us in Richmond Justice interviews. But we saw it lining people’s faces, creeping in at the edge of wary smiles, weighing down eyes that were bright, but burdened.
Several weeks ago we were filming at the Richmond City Justice Center—the local jail. We were there to capture testimonies by inmates and experts aimed at preparing the releases the jail processes each year—9,855 last year alone—many of which involve people who entered the jail multiple times during that same year, all of whom reenter our communities. One man, Jonathan, spoke of his struggle to work through addiction and start a new life. “I’ve been at war with myself,” he told us—and who couldn’t relate? But, he said, “I’m trying to learn how to love, and learn how to accept love. My whole life, I’ve been renovating—renovating myself. The problem with that is, I had no foundation; I just put up a facade. … [Now,] I’m tearing the house down and starting from scratch.”
We interviewed a man named Michael. If you study that photo, you might see the determination we saw, and also the years. Michael told us about how drug addiction distanced him from his family. He mentioned that he was shot, multiple times, in 1999, and explained, “I wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He was right where he was trying to be, buying drugs, because he couldn’t help it. He had to get a fix. After years behind bars a friend helped him to get clean, here in Richmond, at a remarkable organization that has saved so many—aptly named The Healing Place. When he got there, Michael told us, “I hadn’t smiled in years. There was nothing to smile about.” That’s pain. But in some ways it had only just started.
“August 26th is my older brother’s birthday,” Michael told us. “My brother called me that day in 2008. I said, ‘Hey, man, I’m sorry I forgot your birthday—I’d meant to give you a call.’ He said, ‘No, I didn’t call you for that. Your son was killed today.’ My son was 16 years old. That was the hardest moment of my life.” Just as Michael was making the turn that would see him today as a college graduate helping to manage the furniture bank at CARITAS, Richmond’s largest anti-homelessness organization, his son had fallen to the same struggles that had long wrecked his own life.
Michael was clear on the need for personal responsibility. “No family is perfect,” he said, thinking back to his childhood. “But mine raised me with good core values. I began to make mistakes in my late teens.”
Yet Michael, and Jonathan, and so many others represented on these walls, grew up in neighborhoods with more than their share of pain—places defined by danger and dead ends. Marvin described his childhood in Highland Park simply but powerfully: “I saw things no child should see,” he said, “and they broke my spirit.” Denine, days after her release from jail, acknowledged her long battle with addiction, and told us she believed she could overcome, especially through regular and frequent attendance of Narcotics Anonymous meetings. But she worried. “I’m keeping busy,” Denine told us, “because I’m scared not to be busy.” These folks touched us deeply. But as Julia, a public defender we interviewed, told us, widespread bias against people living with addiction is a huge obstacle to recovery and to justice. “We’re a public service,” Julia explained, “that serves a portion of the public that most of the public prefers not be served.”
Jonathan, Denine, Michael, Marvin, and Julia didn’t speak of distant realities. These things happened not far from where we’re standing. The weather is the same there, the streets we took to get here go there, too. We can’t love Richmond without loving all of our neighborhoods. We can’t call Richmond “home” if we’re not doing our part to fix what’s broken. Who would let one part of the house crumble while making other parts shiny and new? In the space of a house, we’d see that behavior as clearly silly. Our city is a collection of homes; we shouldn’t confront the gap between here and there any less urgently. In the Richmond we ought to know, the East End and West End denote geography—not opportunity. And trauma is irregular, aberrant, deeply troubling but largely avoidable—not the likely outcome of growing up here. We can’t heal all the pain, but we can insist that our elected city leaders work swiftly and effectively to prevent more—repairing our neighborhoods and crumbling schools and creating more opportunities for second chances instead of more chances for pain.
Let me speak briefly about regret. If you could help me to make this point, I’d ask you just for a few moments to close your eyes. Let yourself, just briefly, think about the worst thing you’ve done. The worst thing. If there’s not a clear “worst” thing, think of something you wish so badly you hadn’t done. Now open your eyes. And imagine if everyone in this room knew what that thing was. Imagine if we could Google it, if you had to talk about it in every job interview—for the rest of your life. For some of us—for many of us?—the mere thought is almost too much to bear, and the reality would be too much. But that’s the case for so many people whose portraits surround us. In some cases, because of five minutes that can’t be taken back, lives turned upside down. We saw Micah, a comedian who works with inmates prepare them for job interviews, speak to a group at the jail and make a provocative point. “You know what’s one of the biggest differences between you and me,” he asked the group. “I didn’t get caught.” We all need second chances, yes, but let’s face it, as we grow older, most of us need ninth, tenth, eleventh chances. Where would we be without them? This is what Bryan Stevenson calls “just mercy”—the compassion of a second chance, well deserved.
We can offer paths to mercy in our own, one-on-one interactions with folks. But we can also push our city to build a structure of mercy—to look to the organizations represented here who offer paths to housing, to employment, to treatment for addiction, and coordinate them, help fund them. We can push our city to put civic muscle behind mercy, so that there aren’t so many opportunities for those who get caught up in the system to stay there.
Jonathan spoke of his readiness for change, his pain, his regret, his hope for a chance of mercy. In late January, not even a week after we met, he went to a courthouse for a hearing to decide just when he would get that chance. Jonathan was in his 40s, not old, but with decades of drug use behind him. As he waited for his turn before the judge, probably nervous, just as we’d all be, Jonathan had a heart attack. He died in a waiting area just outside the courtroom. He died waiting for mercy, he died after so much pain.
Like Michael, Jonathan had been quick to acknowledge just how much he had hurt himself. He had no ego, no sense of entitlement. But he’d also, finally, learned what he needed to live a balanced and healthy life. The writer James Baldwin, speaking about tough blocks in Harlem in the ‘60s, once said, “I knew a guy who told me, ‘I’m not trying to get high. I’m just trying to hold myself together.’” Jonathan knew he had held himself together in the wrong ways for far too long. Incarceration had largely made it worse. Until finding his way to a single program offered at the local jail, he hadn’t found counseling or treatment that stuck. He had been in-and-out of institutions, again and again returning to streets with nothing—broken family connections, dead or untrustworthy friends, no credentials, no money, only the clothes he was wearing when locked up. If you had to leave this room today in the same way—if you had to walk out of here with no degree or promise of a degree, with none of the cash or cards in your pockets, with no one healthy who would return your calls, with no phone to make a call, with nowhere safe to sleep—what would you do? In time, you might do what you had to do to hold yourself together. You might find yourself on Jonathan’s path.
There are about 900 women and men incarcerated in Richmond right this minute, at the local jail just a mile from here. Many have made mistakes, and it’s true that a few—a very few, dozens, not hundreds—have done awful things, things that may not in fact call for leniency. But the vast majority need mercy. More than 90% will be discharged one day; and again, thousands will re-enter our city this year alone. The vast majority will leave just as Jonathan left too many facilities. We ought to help create—and to insist on—paths to mercy that will end the pain without terrible endings.
Richmond is a city with tremendous promise and energy. There are good reasons that we keep popping up on national top-10 lists, good reasons I’m happy to call Richmond “home.” But it’s also a place with pain, a place with not enough mercy. Through Richmond Justice, we’ve tried to document, in a representative way, the promise and the pain. And we’re calling on the city to help turn the tide. Over here, you will find cards—some are blank, offering you the chance to write your own ideas for what city leaders could do to expand justice in Richmond. And you will see others where we’ve written a message calling on Mayor Stoney to appoint a Special Advisor for Justice to coordinate his commitment to reform. Often on the campaign trail last year, he spoke of his vision for Richmond as a “second-chance” city, one that puts ex-inmates to work, treats addiction, and helps to find safe housing. The Mayor recently appointed Special Advisors for Innovation, for Engagement, for Opportunity. But we haven’t heard him say much about justice. Aides have suggested that this will be part of his anti-poverty efforts. But the Mayor’s nearly 13,000-word anti-poverty plan submitted to City Council last month doesn’t address the smart and bold ideas he proposed on the campaign trail. So, if you’d like, we’d encourage you to sign your name to help remind the Mayor just how many people care. The obstacles to justice in Richmond are too many and too specific to be effectively addressed as a component of other initiatives. We can’t address these problems at all without giving voice to them. And these problems are too profound to ignore.
Earlier, I suggested that if you want to know what it means to be a Richmonder, all you need to do is look around. That’s true—for reasons good and bad. We’d love for you to help us make this city more just, more reflective of the values we all share, and the mercy we all crave. Thank you.