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Bryan Stevenson crusades for thousands of young people in America's prisons. (Ethan Hill)

Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society

Bryan Stevenson, the winner of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social justice, has taken his fight all the way to the Supreme Court

It is late in the afternoon in Montgomery. The banks of the Alabama River are largely deserted. Bryan Stevenson and I walk slowly up the cobblestones from the expanse of the river into the city. We pass through a small, gloomy tunnel beneath some railway tracks, climb a slight incline and stand at the head of Commerce Street, which runs into the heart of Alabama’s capital. The walk was one of the most notorious in the antebellum South.

“This street was the most active slave-trading space in America for almost a decade,” Stevenson says. Four slave depots stood nearby. “They would bring people off the boat. They would parade them up the street in chains. White plantation owners and local slave traders would get on the sidewalks. They’d watch them as they went up the street. Then they would follow behind up to the circle. And that is when they would have their slave auctions.

“Anybody they didn’t sell that day they would keep in these slave depots,” he continues.

We walk past a monument to the Confederate flag as we retrace the steps taken by tens of thousands of slaves who were chained together in coffles. The coffles could include 100 or more men, women and children, all herded by traders who carried guns and whips. Once they reached Court Square, the slaves were sold. We stand in the square. A bronze fountain with a statue of the Goddess of Liberty spews jets of water in the plaza.

“Montgomery was notorious for not having rules that required slave traders to prove that the person had been formally enslaved,” Stevenson says. “You could kidnap free black people, bring them to Montgomery and sell them. They also did not have rules that restricted the purchasing of partial families.”

We fall silent. It was here in this square—a square adorned with a historical marker celebrating the presence in Montgomery of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy—that men and women fell to their knees weeping and beseeched slave-holders not to separate them from their husbands, wives or children. It was here that girls and boys screamed as their fathers or mothers were taken from them.

“This whole street is rich with this history,” he says. “But nobody wants to talk about this slavery stuff. Nobody.” He wants to start a campaign to erect monuments to that history, on the sites of lynchings, slave auctions and slave depots. “When we start talking about it, people will be outraged. They will be provoked. They will be angry.”

Stevenson expects anger because he wants to discuss the explosive rise in inmate populations, the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of color and the use of life sentences against minors as part of a continuum running through the South’s ugly history of racial inequality, from slavery to Jim Crow to lynching.

Equating the enslavement of innocents with the imprisonment of convicted criminals is apt to be widely resisted, but he sees it as a natural progression of his work. Over the past quarter-century, Stevenson has become perhaps the most important advocate for death-row inmates in the United States. But this year, his work on behalf of incarcerated minors thrust him into the spotlight. Marshaling scientific and criminological data, he has argued for a new understanding of adolescents and culpability. His efforts culminated this past June in a Supreme Court ruling effectively barring mandatory life sentences without parole for minors. As a result, approximately 2,000 such cases in the United States may be reviewed.

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