The title of this panel was "Nonfiction: Police, Prisons & Justice" but actually it was about injustice (Panel 2031).
Margot Roosevelt did a great job of introducing the heaviness of the books to be discussed: "Sometimes I just had to stop and take deep breaths just to recover from the shock and shame of what I was reading."
Leslie Klinger, on the board of the Mystery Writers of America, is a Sherlock Holmes expert. With Laura Caldwell, he edited Anatomy of Innocence, a book that presents true stories of wrongly convicted persons, each alongside a matching story taken from murder mystery fiction.
"Estimates are that 5-10% of the people in prison have been wrongfully convicted," he said. "That comes to about 200,000 people."
If police investigators or prosecutors don't have enough evidence to convict, they still press charges. They're "certain [the accused] are guilty of something," Klinger said, "If not this crime, they've done something else," they reason, excusing themselves for fudging on facts or testimony.
"America leads the world in the number of people in prison," he reported. "One third of the women in prison in the whole world are in the US."
"We have such faith in the system. "If people go to jail, there must have been a reason,'" they say.
"The book reads beautifully like fiction, only it's entirely factual," one panelist commented.
Heather Ann Thompson won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in history for Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. She was also nominated in history at the LA Book Prizes, but the award went to Benjamin Madley for his book on the planned genocide of California Indians 1846-1873. She's a professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
She revealed how the State of New York refused to release documents about the deaths in Attica Prison in 1971 and claimed that inmates had killed 39 and injured 138. Actually, she learned, it was guards and sheriffs who killed the 39--but treatment of prisoners became harsher because of the widespread claim that inmates had done the killing.
She wrote from documents exclusively, not interviews. In fact, she found a whole cache of documents that NY State didn't know existed, and now they have all disappeared again, except for her photocopies.
"We have the most mass incarceration in the world. In most cases people never see a jury. They are forced to take a plea deal because public defenders are overworked."
"How many days a year does the criminal justice system in the US keep people in solitary confinement? It's not known--no records are kept."
Gary Younge was educated in England and lives in London. He wrote Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives. Using the fact that an average of 7 children and teens are killed every day in the US, he chose November 23, 2013, and researched the lives of the ten young Americans shot on that day. He interviewed families and friends as well as reading the brief notices in local newspapers.
"None of them gets much press attention," he charged. "It's just the collateral damage of another day in America."
When he asked journalists why a particular death did not get a full article about the person and the situation, they answer, "It's just not so surprising that a kid would be shot in that area. It's just not news."
"If a killing doesn't challenge the way America thinks about itself," he concluded, "It's not news." Some killings do, especially those in white neighborhoods.
"In no other country in the developed world would this be possible," he said. "Americans see guns the way they see traffic. It's here. They can't imagine a world without them."
"Everywhere I go in promoting this book, people have asked me two questions about Americans," Younge said. "The first was about health care: why wouldn't they want it? The second was guns: why would they want them?"
"Gun violence is seen as essentially American, but there's nothing natural or essential about it. These deaths are the result of policy decisions."
Younge also pointed out the chronic lack of empathy he hears in comments like "They must have had it coming" or "The kids are ______ (whatever)" or "The parents are negligent--that's why they die."
"It's shocking how achingly normal these kids are," he said. "They go to school, have friends, use Facebook. What they have in common is that they live in areas where they've been used to people being killed."
Victor M. Rios spoke about his new book Human Targets: Schools, Police, and the Criminalization of Latino Youth.
He's now a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, but at age 15 he was dealing drugs and found himself with a gun placed against his head. At this point ..."he turned to a teacher, who mentored him and helped him find a job. That job would alter the course of his whole life--putting him on the road to college and eventually a Ph.D," his book jacket reports.
"Instead of heart-breaking stories, we need to tell heart-making stories," he said. "We have to change people's hearts. If there's a change of heart in authority figures, there will be a change of outcomes."
Right now we often see "a significant stripping away of dignity."
"We see them as at-risk, so the solution is from a risk-based perspective. Let's see them as at-promise and implement an asset-based perspective. Instead of seeing him as a gang member, see him as a son, an employee, a student. He may be gang-associated, but he's also a person with other worlds in which he moves."
All the panelists except Rios were angry, and their urgency about gun violence in the US was contagious. After vowing to buy no more books, I bought all except Klinger's.