As a member of the Diversity and Inclusion leadership board at my high school, I had the opportunity to attend the Ignatian Family Teach-in for Justice in November. There I met Dewayne Brown, a black man who spent 9 years on Death Row for a murder he did not commit. There was no evidence against him, but the police were desperate to blame someone for the horrific homicide that
occurred. To ensure his conviction, a white police officer hid the phone records which indicated Dewayne was home at the time of the incident. The jury concluded that Dewayne was guilty, and he was sentenced to death. In 2015, 10 years after his conviction, he was freed. However, Dewayne wasn't declared “actually innocent” until March of 2019.
Meeting Dewayne was an eye-opening experience. He was calm, relaxed, funny, and sweet. Dewayne was not angry about what happened to him. Rather than speaking about the injustice done to him, he spoke about how mindful he became during the time he spent incarcerated. On April 15, Netflix will release The Innocence Files docuseries. Each episode will detail the personal stories behind eight cases of wrongful conviction, including Dewayne Brown. I look forward to watching and encourage all of you to look out for it.
Another man that I met on this trip was Abd’Allah Lateef, a black man who was given life without parole as a minor for a robbery that went horribly wrong. After spending thirty years inprison, he was re-sentenced and released due to the Montgomery v. Louisiana Supreme Court decision. Since then, he has been a part of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, located in Philadelphia. Similar to my earlier experience, I was amazed by Abd’Allah’s kindness and love. He was not angry and did not point the blame at anyone. Rather, he explained that he is grateful for being able to do the work that he does and for being able to speak to young people about his life.
We are taught to fear prisoners. We are not taught to care for them or to question the justice system. When I first met Dewayne and Abd’Allah, I did not know what they would be like. However, I did not expect them to be so welcoming and positive. There are plenty of men like Dewayne and Abd’Allah who are in prison for crimes they didn't commit or a crime they were given an excessive sentence for. Most of these sentences are due to racial bias or other prejudices, which is evident when looking at the number of minority and/or low income inmates.
In our society, we like to group and label people. It is important to recognize that we are more than just percentages. Yes, this includes everyone who is and was ever incarcerated. After my experience at the Ignatian Family Teach-in for Justice, I decided that I want to become a lawyer and work towards reforming the United States justice and prison systems. I want to amplify the voices of those who have been negatively affected by these systems and show others that incarcerated people are real people.Alessandra Bielli
Senior, Villa Maria Academy
Member of GirlGov
A drum major for justice, peace and righteousness