Sean’s nickname in jail was Shaggy, like the character from Scooby Do. He looked like Shaggy, the prison soap at Rikers made his hair curly hair stiff and unkempt. He was very overdue for a haircut. I barely recognized him that hot July day when I saw him, for the first time in four long months.
Sean was one of few Caucasian faces in jail in New York. He would joke ” the only white people here are named Sean or Patrick”, the luck of the Irish. Sean stayed for three months at Rikers, partly because he wanted to stay on Methadone, partly because the public defender’s in Manhattan were quick to accept the DA’s terms. There wasn’t much justice happening.
Sean was well aware of the racial disparity. He was quick to note how he was able to shoplift because of his blond hair and blue eyes. He sold his goods to Bodegas in the Bronx. His “gang” made him the gofer, he could get away with what they couldn’t, and (according to Sean) protected him when he did go to jail
One of Sean’s best friends, from jail in Vermont, noted that Sean was a unifying force in the jail. He was able to traverse the racial divides that are so common in our prisons. He truly was friends with everyone.
Visiting Riker’s was a jarring display of structural racism. The numbers of prisoner’s of color far exceeded the number of “White, Non-Hispanics”. This was not a representation of the population. It was probably about 90-95% people of color. Biased policing, prosecution and sentencing are all to blame.
Even in Vermont, where the population is lacking in diversity,African Americans in Vermont are incarcerated at a disparity that is 10 to 1 that of whites (Burlington Free Press 6/19/20) Even with the hard work of Vermont Public Defender’s who, in my opinion, like the “Bronx Defender’s”, the Bronx counterparts, made an effort to actually obtain justice for their clients.
Imagine the outrage if so many white, middle class youth were imprisoned?
If hundreds of kids like Sean were sentenced for stealing soap and toothpaste from CVS, there would be change.
As a physician, I am often frustrated by racial disparities in healthcare. The criminal justice system makes healthcare look like a beacon of racial equity……… (which it certainly is not).
Many of our institutions are in need of an overhaul. Racial equity is long overdue. The prisons are a great place to start, as are our schools, healthcare organizations. I would like to see some changes happen in our criminal justice system, just as much as Sean did.