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.”