Mele-Ane Havea on Bryan Stevenson
The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
One out of three black men aged 18 to 30 is in prison, on probation or parole. The US is the only country in the world that has life imprisonment without parole for minors.
For every nine people who have been executed, one is later found to be innocent.
Bryan Stevenson refers to these statistics when he speaks. It’s a reality that has driven him to devote almost 30 years to working with people on death row. At the time of our conversation, I am halfway through his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The pages contain story after story of injustice and I am filled with frustration and confusion. How can this be happening? What is wrong with the justice system? How can the colour of a person’s skin still determine their opportunities (or lack thereof)? I expected Bryan to be similarly frustrated—he’s faced this on a daily basis for almost three decades. Instead I find the opposite. He is a quietly spoken, thoughtful man who listens as intently as he speaks and whose presence is immediately calming. And, more than anything, he is hopeful.
We meet during the Perth Writers Festival at the University of Western Australia and sit in the Sunken Gardens, a natural amphitheatre that I am told has been the stage for many Shakespearean dramas. It seems fitting to be in this quiet enclave with Bryan whose work and life have explored the truth of our human drama: the darkness of the soul and our capacity for redemption. He first came face-to-face with this as a law student volunteering at a legal aid clinic, where he met people who were imprisoned and on death row. He maintains that he has never met someone beyond redemption, beyond hope—a belief that inspired him to set up the Equal Justice Initiative, an organisation that fights to improve a system in which, he says, “It is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.”
Wherever you are, be it in the States or Australia, Bryan’s message is deeply moving. I tear up almost every time I hear or read one of his stories. It goes to a place in all of us, to our capacity to be just, to act with compassion and kindness, and to truly believe that others also have the ability to do the same. Sometimes it seems too hard, too overwhelming and then other times—like when I spoke to Bryan—I believe it is possible.