Teaching Rights Behind Bars




THE AIRLESS AND DILAPIDATED classroom was empty when I arrived, after a Dantesque journey inward from the prison perimeter. The contents of my pockets had been left behind, including keys, wallet, cell phone. The last thing I surrendered was my driver’s license, exchanged for a visitor’s ID that clipped to my shirt. Three layers of locked gates, with metal detectors, inspections, pat-downs, then an echoing iron staircase up to the “Old School” wing of East Jersey State Prison in Rahway — a building from 1901 that states as emphatically as any you will ever encounter: prison. Here behind the razor wire and the bars, freedom has ended.

The students drifted in gradually, in twos and threes, and came to greet me. My Department of Corrections orientation session had stressed the distance to be maintained between teacher and students: last names only, no touching, keep everything formal, otherwise they will try to manipulate you. Those rules evaporated from the outset, replaced by what I came to recognize as a certain mild chaos. The students came to shake hands, or to high-five me. They gave me the first names and nicknames by which to call them. They hugged each another. They offered to get me coffee from the staff room. They handed out ballpoint pens (explicitly on the contraband list). And then they settled into chairs, and within 20 minutes or so we had a class.

It was visibly different from any other class I’d taught in my many years as a college professor. They were all grown men, of course, mainly in their 40s and 50s. And of the 25 students, only three were obviously white. If you teach at any mainstream college, however progressive its admissions office, this is something you rarely experience. So, I said to myself, you have to go into prison to be able to teach a class of Black men, or is it that Black men in the United States have to go to prison to get a college education?

The racial composition of the course — a BA course, taught under the auspices of the NJ-Step Program administered by Rutgers University — was of particular significance because of the subject matter. Entitled “Clues, Evidence, Detection: Law Stories,” it each week matched a legal text, usually a court opinion, with a fictional text that seemed to speak to similar concerns: how we find clues and make them into narratives that carry “conviction”; how we understand what counts as evidence; how and why suspects confess — and what happens when they do; what occurs in trials and plea bargains; what punishment — including, in the final week of the course, prison — is and means in our society. The focus throughout was on criminal justice, both in the procedures developed and stipulated by the law, and in our cultural understandings. I had taught versions of the course before, on the outside, but this was going to be a different experience.

The course was lively from the start: the students were smart, talkative, respectful of one another, and generous with me, often very well informed about issues of criminal justice, and often, too, really attentive readers of the texts. Yet something of a different order arose when we came to week six, where we read and discussed Miranda v. Arizona, the 1966 Supreme Court opinion that tried to set the rules for the interrogation of criminal suspects and their confessions. I knew the arguments here. On the one hand, Miranda stands as high-water mark in the Warren Court’s attempt to enforce constitutional rights against state and local police practices, and to affirm the dignity of the individual, even when accused of crime, in the face of the state’s need to convict and to protect society. The famous Miranda warnings were designed to give the suspect the right and the power to resist the pressure to incriminate himself: the right to silence, the right to counsel. On the other hand, the more cynical interpretation claims that so long as police follow the formulae set forth in Miranda, courts will certify the resulting confession as “voluntary” without further investigation into its circumstances.

However admirable Chief Justice Earl Warren’s intentions in Miranda may have been, history since 1966 has largely proved the cynics right. Over 80 percent of suspects waive their Miranda rights and talk to the police without counsel, and they incriminate themselves just as much as in the past. Police and the academies that train them have learned to use Miranda against suspects, to suggest that silence is guilt, and that an agreement to talk with interrogators will quickly get you out of the “interview room” and home to your family. A liberal, constitutional solution to a problem rooted in complex psychological and social soil, Miranda has failed to provide the bright-line test between the voluntary and the involuntary or coerced confession, and “voluntariness” remains an elusive ideal.

Our class on Miranda became intense, extraordinary, and, at moments, problematic. For most of my students, Miranda was an abused formula, one more tool for the entrapment of Black Americans. They had all at some point experienced the “administration” of Miranda warnings, as courts like to put it. But they all came to believe there was no way out of the interview room without a confession of guilt. Miranda merely underwrote an outcome that seemed to them fated. We watched two videos: first, Frontline’s “The Confessions,” on the case of the Norfolk Four, young Navy men who confessed to a brutal rape and murder that none of them committed. When the real perpetrator — already behind bars — confessed to the crime, prosecutors continued to insist on the guilt of those from whom they had obtained confessions in grueling (11 hours in one case) and abusive interrogations.

“No one in Virginia believes you can confess to a murder you haven’t committed,” one of the defense attorneys in the case declares to Frontline’s Ofra Bikel. That belief remains widespread despite the analytic work on false confessions that has proliferated over the past 30 years. Confession is the most personal of statements. It issues from your own lips. How, why would you say something that was not true, that nailed you for a crime you didn’t commit? My students weren’t sure that they could articulate the reasons, but they knew, and many had experienced, the admission of guilt as the only way out of an unbearable interrogatory pressure, badgering, and abuse. They were already branded as criminal material before they entered the interview room. As Mack put it during our class discussion, “A suspect is presumed guilty because he is being interrogated.” A truth neglected by the courts is the overwhelming power of the institutionalized presumption of guilt.

This presumption became clearer still in the next video we watched, Scenes of a Crime, created by Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock in 2012, about Adrian Thomas, an overweight, unemployed, depressed Black man, who was accused of having murdered his infant son by throwing him hard onto a bed. The film uses video from the interview room of the Troy, New York, police station, plus interviews with the detectives who conducted the interrogation, prosecutors and defense attorneys on the case, medical experts, and jurors. Throughout the agonizing interrogation — over nine hours — Thomas is told by the two detectives, first, that what happened to the infant was an accident and they have no intention of arresting him; second, that either he or his wife must have caused the infant’s injuries, and if he won’t confess to them, they will bring in and charge his wife; third, that they need to know just what he did to the infant in order for the doctors to save his life. All lies. The infant, as they well know, is already dead. And it will turn out that he died not of trauma but of sepsis — not injury but infection. Their hectoring of Thomas, who continues to assert his innocence, goes on and on. Another detective comes in by prearrangement and screams at Thomas that he has to stop lying. Eventually, he agrees to take the fall to spare his wife. He is convicted at trial in 2009 and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Two years after the release of Scenes of a Crime, the New York State Court of Appeals handed down an opinion, written by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, vacating Thomas’s conviction and ordering a new trial — at which Thomas was exonerated. Judge Lippman reverses on three grounds: the threat to arrest and charge Thomas’s wife if he won’t confess; the claim that confession was necessary to save the infant’s life; and the constant promises that because it was a matter of an accident they were not going to arrest Thomas. In class, we all agreed that Lippman’s is a fine and just opinion, but that it does nothing to put a stop to the kinds of deceptive, manipulative interrogations routinely carried out by police detectives. Lippman argues that “the choice to speak” cannot be eliminated by “any coercive device,” but interrogation is inherently coercive given the unequal power of interrogators and suspects. Lippman notes that Thomas’s interrogation “had as its object obtaining a statement that would confirm the hypothesis that the infant had been murdered through physical abuse.” Yet this is almost always the case: the interrogator’s goal is to have the suspect confirm a story they already “know.”

Scenes of a Crime intersperses Thomas’s interrogation with excerpts from a video outlining the “Reid Technique,” a video widely used in training police interrogators for their job. Like the training manuals cited by Warren in Miranda, the seminars taught by John E. Reid & Associates start from the assumption of the suspect’s guilt and describe how to craft a “monologue” to establish the narrative that the suspect will eventually assent to. It’s called, in the video, controlling the narrative. One can only assume, given how widespread this understanding of police procedure is, that Judge Lippman knew all this, but felt constrained by the precedent of prior cases that do not disallow police deception and coercion.

Every member of our class had been ground in that machinery. The voices were eloquent. As Stan put it: “The relationship between an interrogator and a suspect is one of power, manipulation, torture, coercion, and psychological warfare that most people do not see, which produces confessions that consequently destroy people’s lives whether they are true or untrue.” Jamie said the interrogation setting is “contrived to create a situation of intimidation, isolation, and subjugation,” forcing the suspect to relinquish his rights, submitting him to the will of the interrogator. Danny, ever the reformist, said, “A criminal conviction should not be allowed to stand on a confession alone.” All the class believed in the ideals of Miranda, but they saw them violated as routinely as they were administered. Their rights were an abstraction quickly trampled on by reality. Many understood their constitutional rights to be a powerful definition of what it is to be an American, and so the way their rights had been voided merely confirmed their lack of full citizenship. Here we were in the heart of darkness: they understood — and who could argue with them — that they were less than full partakers of American freedoms.

Sitting in that claustrophobic classroom watching the interrogation of Adrian Thomas in an even more claustrophobic — stark and windowless — room became more than I could bear. The walls seemed to close in on all of us, as in a Poe story. By the time it was clear Adrian Thomas had reached a point of despair from which he could only escape, at the moment, by a confession — whatever its future consequences — I turned the video off. No one asked for more.

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Peter Brooks is the author of several books, including Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature, The Melodramatic Imagination, Reading for the Plot, and most recently, Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris.

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Feature image by Jackie Finn-Irwin.


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