Fighting for Equity in a Flawed Criminal Justice System
While sitting at a friend’s house in Columbus, Ohio, Arizona attorney and former law professor Shirley Mays received a phone call that would transform her life. Mays answered the phone and heard an unknown man speaking on the other line.
“Your son asked me to call you because he has been incarcerated in Cuyahoga County Community Jail,” the man said.
Mays’ heart immediately sank. Her hands began shaking and her heart was beating quickly. Mays felt shocked and helpless. There was no way for her to contact her son so there was nothing for her to do but wait.
Mays eventually received a call from her son and discovered he had been arrested for selling heroin in Cleveland, Ohio and pled guilty because he had committed the crime. He received three years on a three to ten year sentence.
Mass incarceration is a strategic and calculated system in the United States that has impacted Black and brown communities significantly. People of color have been ostracized in the American justice system without the means to defend themselves and struggle to readjust to life after incarceration.
Her at son’s sentencing, Mays looked around and noticed all of the people there to be sentenced were Black men and she was the only family member present. Her experience dealing with her son’s incarceration completely changed Mays’ view of the criminal justice system and the racial inequities it presents.
“I was knocked off my pedestal about what I thought about the criminal justice system, about criminals and about the commission of crime,” Mays said.
Like many Black families, working through and living in the criminal justice system was a struggle for Mays and her son. When interacting with parole officers and other individuals in administrative positions, Mays felt neglected and unheard.
“I acknowledge that they are extremely overworked, my guess is that they are underpaid,” Mays said, “but my experience was also that their presentation, the way they presented themselves to me as the mother of an inmate, was just one of being overworked and not really caring. Not attempting to help when it was necessary to try to put money on books and on an account or to try to find out when his parole hearing was or try to provide information to assist him in supporting his quest to be able to move out of state once he was released.”
Mays faced this challenge of feeling pushed aside by those tasked to help her son, throughout his sentencing and even after he was released. Many times Mays would try to get information about her son’s release or contact his parole officer and would be left with no response and nowhere to turn.
“I really do not want to demonize the folks who work in these positions because I acknowledge that they have tough jobs and I’m sure that they have heard everything and seen everything. However, as a person with a J.D. degree who is also unfamiliar with the criminal justice system It was truly a challenge,” Mays said.
Mays’ son was incarcerated in Ohio but wanted to move to Arizona to be closer to his family. He also suffers from adult ADHD and was struggling to complete paperwork and other items that were given to him from inside prison. When Mays tried to get information on these issues regarding her son, she was left ignored and disregarded.
Her son’s parole officer would never return her calls and her voicemail box was full so Mays was unable to leave messages. Mays notified prison authorities of her struggle and was told to attempt to text the parole officer. When trying to text her, a message would appear saying “this is a landline, you can’t text on this number.” Mays felt helpless.
“There was just no way to communicate, there was no reciprocal communication for my attempts to find out information with respect to when his hearing was going to be and the date of his release and etcetera, etcetera,” Mays said.
Mays and her son’s tribulations continued even after he was released. Mays’ son was stripped of many rights and freedoms, including his right to vote.
This struggle for political freedom is deeply connected to voting rights of incarcerated people. Although many states have implemented laws to allow people with felony convictions access to voting rights, many Americans are still having their votes suppressed.
According to a report by the Sentencing Project, 5.2 million Americans have lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction. The report also states that one out of 16 African Americans have lost their right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement, while only one out of 59 non-black Americans have lost their vote.
Mays’ son is still dealing with social, professional and familial struggles regarding reintegrating into society after being released. Because he is an ex-felon, he was unable to gain custody of his son, causing Mays to take custody and raise him. He deals with issues of self esteem and self image due to negative experiences with the way society looks down on those who were formerly incarcerated. He also suffers from depression and has been diagnosed with PTSD because of his prison experience.
Getting a job and receiving employment was a difficulty in Mays’ son’s journey to rebuilding his life. Although in many states, legislation has been passed preventing employers from asking whether or not a person has been incarcerated in an initial job application, the process is still daunting.
“This sounds good in its attempt but the reality of that is even though it may not be on the initial application, the second round they ask the question,” Mays said. “That’s one of the negative consequences of finding a job because if you answer the question correctly, and say yes, you generally don’t get a callback. And if you answer the question inaccurately, if you lie, and you say no, and you get hired, then once they find out and they always do, because they run something or your probation officer comes to work to see whether or not you are actually there, then you get fired.”
Mays’ son also dealt with harassment from members of law enforcement. He would frequently get pulled over for no reason and with no valid explanation.
“You get stopped and they pull up your record. And then you continue to get stopped. No reason, no tickets, no nothing. It’s just, to me, stopping in order to harass. They probably would say they want to make sure that you’re doing ok or something but the impact on the individual, it doesn’t feel as though it is a wellcheck to make sure you are doing great,” Mays said.
According to a report by New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson, statistics show Black men serve prison sentences almost six times as much as white men and Black women are incarcerated at double the rate of white women.
Although watching her son endure these hardships was heartbreaking and distressing, it also gave Mays an even clearer understanding of the many flaws within the criminal justice system. During her fight for her son’s rights, Mays connected with other families dealing with similar situations.
These connections and her own experience made her more understanding and less judgemental toward incarcerated individuals and their families. Sharing these experiences with other families also relieved Mays of some of the shame and guilt she felt being a mother of a formerly incarcerated person.
While Mays’ and her son are still dealing with many adversities, Mays is pushing on with strength and resiliency. She is choosing to not give up and move forward with gratitude, change of mind and change of heart.
“I thank God that I had the opportunity to have that experience, because it gave me greater understanding and much more empathy as an attorney when I’m dealing with folks who are in similar situations,” Mays said.