My first assignment with the Chicago Innocence Project (ChIP) was to read through the mail inmates from across the country send requesting our assistance. The task seemed straightforward: I needed to read the mail and determine the proper response. Responses more or less fall into two categories. The first group, which is sadly the larger group, contains cases we cannot take for a myriad of reasons. Given ChIP’s limited resources, our case criteria are specific. Even with the incredible and dedicated staff and interns, the Project can only handle so many cases. The smaller group includes those cases that suggest actual innocence. I thought finding these cases would be easy. We give priority to capital cases involving rape and murder, which seemed heavy, but I understood that was ChIP’s mission when I applied. Opening my first letter, however, I realized nothing would be simple or straightforward. The first letter’s most basic elements were shocking—a rape and homicide. In theory, though, this is a story I had read in the news countless times before. While the words and images were difficult to digest, holding the physical paper and reading this man’s handwriting got to me. Something becomes more real when you are holding a letter written in a person’s own words. It is not a news story. There are no lawyers or journalists mediating the words and their meanings. It isn’t a story anymore, and you’re not at all removed. The men and women writing these letters are no longer the courtroom sketches or mug shots you see on television and computer screens, but human beings. It’s not that I hold my breath every time I open a new letter, but each time I brace myself. I brace myself for the story of how the justice system failed this person. I put my faith in the justice system, not to be perfect, but to aspire toward perfection. The more letters I read concerning poor defense tactics and morally reprehensible prosecution techniques, the more frustrated and disillusioned I become. It becomes difficult to have faith in a justice system that actively perpetuates injustice in society. I cannot comprehend how closing a case or a conviction can be more important than the truth. It bothers me to no end that the popular media states the facts—the names, the charges, the convictions—in court cases, but this leaves little room for explorations into an individual’s innocence. I am a sociologist who studies and researches race and inequality. I am acutely aware of the injustice toward Blacks and Latinos in America. Minorities, especially male minorities, are disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system. Each letter I read shows me that it is not only the courts and the media that failed these individuals, but society as a whole. Minorities have significantly more encounters with police than their white counterparts. In Chicago, police brutality against minorities on the South Side is well documented. In addition to being a sociologist, I am a minority woman. It is rare that I do not identify with the individual writing the letter. I connect the writer to someone I know with a similar history or background. The inmate could be my friend, they could be my family, and they could be me. I could be writing letters to an intern at a journalism justice project, hoping that he/she would take the time and care about my story. These men and women crave justice, and it is both my responsibility and privilege to work toward that justice. People often asked me what working for ChIP entails. I explain my various responsibilities, and there is a persistent fascination with the prisoner correspondence aspect. The general response I receive is something along the lines of “That must be hard.” The assertion gives me pause, but the reading is not the most difficult part. The response is the hard part. Every time I choose a response, I pause and ask myself, “What if this isn’t the right response?” Without fail, the moment it becomes most difficult is addressing the envelope. It’s more or less the same protocol as addressing any envelope, but a name and an address are not enough to identify someone in prison. In prison there is also a unique number sequence. Using a number to identify a person, even in addition to a name, is a disconcerting act. We place so much emphasis on the individual and his/her identity, but writing this number demolishes the inmate’s personal identity. A certain helplessness emerges when you realize you cannot provide everyone with assistance. New mail comes in every day requesting our assistance, but we send the majority of these letters responses saying we cannot help. A number of letters request legal assistance, but as investigative journalists, we cannot provide them with legal aid. Many times we cannot help because we can only work on cases in the Chicago area. At the Chicago Innocence Project we strive for truth and justice. We want to provide these to each man and woman who sends us a letter, but we do not have the resources or manpower to accomplish this goal. Just the same, we read every letter, we respond, and we wish them the best in their search for justice.
-Cierra Strawder Strawder is a senior at Northwestern University, where she majors in Sociology and English literature.