Since sharing this note of reflections and next steps, local media have highlighted Richmond Justice over the radio and online:
→ NPR affiliate WCVE, "University of Richmond Downtown to open exhibition on 'Richmond Justice,'" by Charles Fishburne, February 1, 2017
→ RVAMag, "Richmond Justice highlights those impacted by the local justice system with new UR Downtown exhibit," by Kathy Mendes, February 9, 2017
→ Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Project seeks more expansive portrait of justice in Richmond," by Michael Paul Williams, February 10, 2017
And we offered a gallery talk at UR Downtown on March 16, 2017. Watch the video and read the transcript at this link.
January 6, 2017
A note to our readers:
We set out to spend 2016 examining what criminal justice looks like in our adopted home town, to see in names and faces and experiences an otherwise opaque system. We knew we would be interested in talking to fellow Richmonders about their personal experiences and perspectives on the justice system. And we hoped others would be interested, too.
To our amazement, you and many others were. On January 1st, we launched the project by sending our first interview to 129 friends and family members. By the end of the year, our audience grew to more than 17,000 people across Richmond—and elsewhere around the country, too. Richmond Magazine highlighted our project. Mayoral candidates attended our justice-focused debate, making bold promises, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch was there to document it.
Richmond Justice was made possible by the people who trusted us to interview them, photograph them, and honor their story. It was made stronger by those who connected us to people doing remarkable things in the justice world. And it was made worthwhile by our readers and supporters who shared the stories, commented on them, gave us encouragement, and followed the project week in and week out.
The project affirmed some ideas we had before the launch. So many people have had their lives touched by—or rocked by—the criminal justice system. We met individuals from widely varying backgrounds and life experiences all over the city and its suburbs. Many currently and formerly incarcerated people we met were in desperate situations before being locked up. Nearly all told us of family and friends who care about them deeply. We thought this would be so.
But conducting 53 interviews about justice also surprised us and taught us new things. We didn’t know that 78% of people in the Richmond City Justice Center struggle with substance abuse, or that about 25% have mental health challenges. We didn’t understand how homelessness is criminalized. We didn’t know just how few resources formerly incarcerated people have when they’re released. We didn’t know that “banning the box” from job applications tends only to delay discrimination and disappointment—not offer new opportunities.
We also couldn’t have predicted the reasons why criminal justice made local headlines. Thanks to a confluence of efforts by nonprofits, government agencies, foundations, and individuals, we found fresh energy dedicated to examining and reforming the juvenile justice system. Investigative reporters discovered that no agency was in charge of tracking deaths that occur in jail—revealing a culture of secrecy and a need to legislate change. And Governor McAuliffe eventually restored voting rights to tens of thousands of Virginians with felony records, despite a legal battle and political opposition.
We’re in a moment when concern surrounding the criminal justice system is high, and when members of multiple political parties are interested in reform. Locally, we have smart, dedicated, reform-minded people in positions of power. Merely three days into 2017, Governor McAuliffe had already proposed criminal justice reform. Mayor Stoney promised to provide new opportunities to formerly incarcerated people. Nonprofit and government agency leaders are seeking ways to prevent incarceration in the first place, by providing more and more accessible treatment for substance abuse and mental illness; by addressing trauma in schools and interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline; and by offering economic opportunities that set young lives on the right tracks.
We started Richmond Justice knowing that most people—whether they’re bureaucrats, activists, social workers, or politicians—are trying to do the right thing. But we also recognized that we were studying a system built on racism and inequality. Many of the conversations featured on this site left us heartbroken and angry. People’s lives have been destroyed. People like you have lost hope, livelihoods, and family members to what many call the “criminal injustice system.”
But we were also heartened. Nearly everyone we asked for an interview agreed to speak with us. People in power said they care—and often, demonstrated that they do. We were humbled to learn that one of the mayoral candidates read every single one of our Richmond Justice posts. That means that he not only read the insights of Richmond’s Chief of Police, Sheriff, and Commonwealth’s Attorney; he also read the stories of men and women struggling with addiction and homelessness, encountering obstacles to securing a job, and fleeing abuse. All of their stories are worth hearing. All of their opinions are worth considering.
So what’s next? We were honored to have all of the portraits—plus memorable quotes, a photo essay, and a short film—on display in an exhibit at UR Downtown. The exhibit opened on Friday, February 3rd, attracting over 150 people, including men and women we interviewed, students, and community members. The exhibit closed on March 24 after hosting dozens of nonprofits, civic agencies, and conferences in the gallery.
The exhibit will be available to travel to other venues in the coming months; please contact us if you know of a school, community organization, or museum that may have interest. And the Richmond Justice site—newly organized—will remain available. We’ll continue to follow developments in criminal justice, locally and nationally, good and bad, and to produce media on these topics as we’re able.
Thanks again for your support.
Hannah Ayers and Lance WarrenCo-Directors, Richmond Justice
P.S. We would love to hear which Richmond Justice stories you found most memorable, and what the project meant to you. If you like, drop us an email to share your own reflections: firstname.lastname@example.org — or post a comment on our Facebook page.