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

Bryan Stevenson crusades for thousands of young people in America's prisons. (Ethan Hill)
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He then walked with Richardson to the execution chamber.

“Bryan, it has been so strange,” the condemned man said. “All day long people have been saying to me, ‘What can I do to help you?’ I got up this morning, ‘What can I get you for breakfast? What can I get you for lunch? What can I get you for dinner? Can I get you some stamps to mail your last letters? Do you need the phone? Do you need water? Do you need coffee? How can we help you?’ More people have said what can they do to help me in the last 14 hours of my life than they ever did” before.

“You never got the help you needed,” Stevenson told him. And he made Richardson a promise: “I will try and keep as many people out of this situation as possible.”

Richardson had asked the guards to play “The Old Rugged Cross” before he died. As he was strapped into the electric chair and hooded, the hymn began to blare out from a cassette player. Then the warden pulled the switch.

“Do you think we should rape people who rape?” Stevenson asks. “We don’t rape rapists, because we think about the person who would have to commit the rape. Should we assault people who have committed assault? We can’t imagine replicating a rape or an assault and hold onto our dignity, integrity and civility. But because we think we have found a way to kill people that is civilized and decent, we are comfortable.”


Stevenson made good on his promise by founding EJI, whose work has reversed the death sentences of more than 75 inmates in Alabama. Only in the last year has he put an EJI sign on the building, he says, “because of concerns about hostility to what we do.”

His friend Paul Farmer, the physi- cian and international health specialist (and a member of EJI’s board), says Stevenson is “running against an undercurrent of censorious opinion that we don’t face in health care. But this is his life’s work. He’s very compassionate, and he’s very tough-minded. That’s a rare combination.”

Eva Ansley, who has been Stevenson’s operations manager for over 25 years, says the two most striking things about him are his kindness and constancy of purpose. “I have never known Bryan to get off track, to lose sight of the clients we serve or to have an agenda that is about anything other than standing with people who stand alone,” she says. “After all these years, I keep expecting to see him become fed up or impatient or something with all the requests put to him or the demands placed on him, but he never does. Never.”

EJI’s office is in a building that once housed a school for whites seeking to defy integration. The building is in the same neighborhood as Montgomery’s slave depots. For Stevenson, that history matters.


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