While America was quaking in the shadow of the ‘Great Depression’, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the podium in 42°F cloudy weather to give his 1933 inaugural address. He famously declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” before leading our nation through one of humanities’ greatest wars.
FDR died before WWII ended. The America that followed would be like none he had ever known. From the Soviet Union and nuclear bombs to crack cocaine and terrorist attacks, our nation has faced very real fears.
Yet, Roosevelt’s words are today as (if not more) important than ever.
For what it’s worth, I believe that the key to strong and adaptable societies is, in a word, empathy. When we empathize with that which we fear, we begin to understand it. Only then can we truly move forward.
Today I find myself smothered beneath a project far bigger than I can fully comprehend. The California criminal justice system is a massive and complex beast. It is simultaneously terribly flawed and incredibly inspired.
As I begin to unfold Voices of Justice, I’m faced with a series of difficult questions. I’m finding interviewees opinions vary greatly. Statistics fluctuate and twist rapidly. I’m struggling to tell the story cleanly without taking words out of context and making generalizations. I’m feeling I need a new approach.
One thing, however, remains clear. The reason we misunderstand prisons, the reason we paint hard working correctional officers as knuckle-dragging guards and the reason we pass laws that strip inmates of any fresh chance, has a lot to do with fear.
Our sense of humanity and understanding is lost in the complexity of the prison system; clouded in numbers, security protocols and sensationalized journalism. What remains is a perfect breeding ground for fear. And if there is one thing Voices of Justice can contribute to moving California criminal justice forward, it is small moments of empathy and clarity between the public, the people we place behind bars and the people we pay to keep them there.
Of all people, it was Joseph Stalin who said that, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to redirect my focus for Voices of Justice. Instead of interviewing a wide-variety of correctional professionals, I’m going to focus on a choice few.
I will work with just one or two correctional officers, one or two administrators, one or two police officers, one or two parolees and so forth, covering each color of the spectrum. In total, I’ll focus in on about 8-14 people, telling their stories in full, using a variety of mediums and coupling them with a variety of data visualizations.
For we can always scrutinize numbers, we can question logic and we can rebut claims. But we cannot deny the honesty that is one human being explaining to another human being their reasons why.
Voices of Justice will be going underground for a week or two. When it returns, it will not be just about what’s inside our prison system, but about what’s inside its people.