What can we do?

Today’s post is going to be one of the more serious ones I have written so far.

Sunday night, I had the distinct privilege of attending “Making a Murderer’s Dean Strang and Jerry Buting: A Conversation on Justice.” Like many across the nation this past winter, I was enraptured by the Netflix series Making a Murderer, fascinated by the many twists and turns of the story of Steven Avery, the man who was sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit, released, and then sent back under suspicious circumstances after a shocking murder investigation. Though Strang and Buting didn’t get into the juicy details of the case, as I had hoped, they gave me so much more – a deeper understanding of the flaws of our criminal justice system – and caused me to reflect a bit more about the roles our libraries can and do play in helping right systemic wrongs.

We have a prison library within my library system. Though the security measures in place have prevented me from visiting it firsthand, I hope and believe that the library is making a positive difference for at least a few inmates who may use it as a space to improve their situation, pass their time productively, or possibly even study the law to help get themselves freed, as I have heard Avery is doing at his prison library in Wisconsin. I am glad that the inmates have the powerful tool of information at their disposal.

But involvement with the criminal justice system starts long before a prison sentence. I remember when I first heard about Black Lives Matter, sometime in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death. I heard black parents talk about the conversation they have to have with their children when they reach a certain age, to teach them how to talk to a police officer so they don’t get killed. I was stunned. I am privileged enough to have never had to have that conversation with my family, my safety as a white woman in the hands of police officers never a question. The presentation I saw Sunday night brought back my memory of that moment of realization, but also reminded me just how vulnerable so many Americans are in the criminal justice system simply for being uneducated, or poor, or underprivileged.

I think of what libraries could do to prevent people, and especially young people, from ever getting to the prison in the first place. To me, the saddest part of Making a Murderer is not what happened to Stephen Avery, but what happened to Brendan Dassey. Dassey, a juvenile with very low IQ, was subjected to intense, misleading questioning by two professionals which led him to admit to a crime I’m almost 100% positive he did not commit. Never was Dassey granted his right of having his lawyer and legal guardian present or even told that he had that right. Never was he told he had the right to remain silent and abstain from self-incrimination. He was even at the mercy of the court just to be granted a lawyer who wasn’t actively working against him.  He was manipulated repeatedly, tried as an adult, and has spent his life in a jail cell ever since. From Strang and Buting, I learned that police often pluck juveniles out of school for questioning without their parents, and that many are trapped by lying and manipulative questioning tactics that they are simply not smart or mature enough to outmaneuver. Stunningly, these practices are mostly legal.

There are so many things libraries can and already do to help. Simply providing a space for teens to go after school so they don’t end up on the street causing trouble. Helping build upon their education so they have a means for success. Trying to develop that important link to their community so kids don’t get lost in the cracks. Providing legal resources to help get them understand their rights. I remember one of the most impressive programs I saw at Atlanta Public Library was a “Know Your Rights” workshop for kids, recognizing that it is never too early to start talking about this stuff, sadly never too soon to realize that not everyone will be working in your best interest.

I know there are many systemic problems within the criminal justice system that go far beyond what one person, one library or one community can do. But I think the library is an excellent place to start. Every day I work with young people, many of whom are part of the most vulnerable populations in this country. I hope they know the library is a place they can go for resources in a time of crisis but more than that, I hope the library can lead the charge in educating and preventing the crisis from ever happening.

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