Get used to the name, ‘cause you’ll be hearing it often. And may it be for touchdowns and commencement addresses rather than gimmicks or Kardashians, because among other things Brain Banks just may be our answer to Michael Vick. Yet how many men with Banks’ spirit and character are deteriorating right now in American prisons?
At 17, Long Beach Polytechnic High School football star Brian Banks was convicted of kidnapping and raping a female classmate. He did just over 5 years in state prison. When his accuser confessed that she wasn’t raped by Banks, a judge exonerated him. Now 27, the athlete once pursued by USC is hopeful he’ll be given a shot in the NFL, allowing him to fund a documentary about his journey.
Prison is like living in a parking structure overseen by the Department of Motor Vehicles and filled with beggars from New Delhi, except these askers don’t want money. They want you to believe they’re innocent. And life behind bars means gettin’ used to these claims: what I call the white noise of innocence. It’s not hard, really, ’cause you tune it out almost immediately. You have to. Before you even hit a real prison yard you’ve heard so many stories of wrongful prosecution you know the idiots from the potentially sincere, the mistaken from the mealy-mouthed. When it comes to inmates’ comprehension of how the court system works and the law in general, you’ve found a bottomless pit of delusion, denial, and distortion.
Looked at optimistically, however, you could take this cheerlessness as sign of your adaptability and improved chances of survival. You’re sharpening an important skill – who to trust – and doing so with minimal effort. The bullshit comes to you!
For instance, you’re bound to catch some fool at breakfast blathering on about how he’s “down” for stabbing his 89 year-old neighbor to death because of an eyewitness who lied on the stand. He’ll say he’s innocent and that his “dump-truck” (lousy lawyer/public defender) is about to get him a retrial. You’ll know to ignore him ‘cause the week before he’ll have said he was convicted of assault once at the Sanger Courthouse in Fresno County. And since your cellmate’s cousin lives in Fresno and swears Sanger is but a lowly traffic court, you’re already aware that Blabbermouth just wants to start his day off with some attention.
See, in the early days, shuffling between pre-trial court appearances and the jail, what else is there to do but read guys’ files, court transcripts, and sentencing dispositions? You sure don’t want to be in your own head, right? So before you know it, the legalese has become easy to decipher and you’ve started crosschecking details from pre-trail probation reports in the background of your own misery.
Once you’ve received your sentence and been shipped up-state to a penitentiary, you’ll see how many apples like Blabbermouth have been shaken from the tree. You’ll marvel at how someone like him, once so convinced of his innocence that he commanded small day room audiences, now just plays dominoes with the fellas all day and hordes sugary treats. Oh, rest assured: the system did screw Blabbermouth, but by now you know it was likely in several smaller ways, such as when his dump-truck advised him to plead guilty instead of facing a jury of FOX News viewers, or failed to bargain on his behalf for a prison assignment closer to his family. Or, for that matter, an assignment in a state facility vs. a private one that Bank of America or Wells Fargo might own. The injustices in Blabbermouth’s case are there, but they’re ones that can be found in nearly every inmate’s Central File. Not all of ‘em are due to negligence, incompetence, treachery, or racism.
But there’s another level of innocent convict: the guy who petitions for time in the law library to review the fine print of his sentencing disposition. He knows he can prove ineptitude: he can point out several areas where the courts failed him and is actively pursuing their resolution. He’s a lot more literate and much less noisy. Spend some time with this guy and your ability to credibly differentiate between willful misconception and prosecutorial negligence will soar. (Warning: he’s also on low level psych meds, so don’t bring up his childhood.)
Inside, there are so many guys with personal property lockers or cells stuffed with case-related documentation –details they swear by– it gets dizzying. Yes, your tolerance for conversations filled with legal terms, judicial Catch-22’s, and complex defense arguments will grow by leaps and bounds but beware: this is only a phase. It’ll get depressing quickly. Of course these men are right to keep fighting, but two years later they’re still around, still furiously expectant of justice (and still in need of your listening skills). There are many like ’em on the yard. Besides, not all the Blabbermouth apples will have fallen to the ground – lotta them still in the mix too. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself saying, “So fuckin’ what?” to the most hopeful eyes you’ve ever seen, those of some newcomer you’ve just met. Gotta keep that in check or you’ll start to live and breathe with distrust and anger for the system. And those things — I promise you — are the roots of institutionalization.
Finally there’s the Brian Banks type – the anti-Blabbermouth. In the cell house or on the yard, it’s doubtful you’ll even know he believes he was falsely accused. Many innocent men in prison learn who’s worth revisiting the specifics with, and it usually ain’t the fellas in the day room.
That’s ‘cause guys like Banks get blown off early on by every character they meet, starting with (in his case) LA County Sheriff’s deputies, their gang task force administrators, Blabbermouths of every stripe, correctional officers, state prison case counselors, old convicts, and jailhouse lawyers, liars, and losers. So they learn to save their breath, to be doers, not talkers. Only their closest allies know what their situation is, and because these friends are only as “like-minded” as you can find behind bars, the Brian Banks type likely doesn’t get much outta’ them.
Besides, either a man is guilty or he’s not. Your opinion has nothing to do with it, so why would a Banks type share shit with you? The cell bars don’t matter, and neither do the gangs or the tattoos or the rules of engagement. A man like Brian Banks knows that to become your own country you have to play with the politics, so to a degree he goes along to get along. He doesn’t broadcast his worries, and he’s mostly personable.
At the same time, he stands his ground when it comes to principles and personal conduct. He’s neither a predator nor a pushover. I’ve known inmates like Banks. I probably would’ve enjoyed his commentary and trusted his words during any prison chow hall breakfast. There’s a big difference between Banks and Blabbermouth — trust me on this.
Every state in this country imprisons too many men like this, some wrongly prosecuted thanks to dishonest informants, false confessions, dump-trucks, careless district attorneys, errant court clerks, or — most shameful of all — your average criminal jury’s inclination to racially profile defendants. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Prison Statistics:
- 1 in every 100 Americans is in jail or prison
- 1 in every 45 White Americans is on parole or probation
- 1 in every 27 Hispanic American adults is in jail or prison
- 1 in every 11 Black American adults is in jail or prison
Since I was correctly prosecuted, I can’t really speak for guys like Banks: I can only describe ‘em as I saw ‘em during my time in the system. But I can urge anyone reading this blog to learn more for one reason: for the sake of not writing people off en masse. Getting it out of our collective consciousness that prison is for “those people” is really the only way we can foster desperately needed reform in this country. It’s also one of the only ways we can reverse the groupthink that represents America’s attempt to incarcerate its way out of crime.
I have high hopes for Brian Banks and for the awareness he’s now building. Please remember that there are other men behind bars to have high hopes for – and no, they sure as hell aren’t all innocent.
BTW, if you believe prison reform and DNA exoneration projects are for crybaby liberals who want to free murderers and give guns to “the queers,” please consider the conservative case for prison reform at Right on Crime (which I like to call, “Right on! Crime!”).