Battling for women caught up in mass incarceration

Paul Butler

THE WASHINGTON POST – For a young lawyer, Brittany Barnett has a lot of war stories. In A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom, Barnett’s engrossing memoir, most of the stories involve Black women who are casualties of the war on drugs.

Barnett’s mother Evelyn Fulbright suffered from a drug addiction and served two years in prison. She was, Barnett wants us to know, a great mother until her disease robbed her of that ability. Eventually Fulbright got clean, but that was despite getting locked up, not because of it. Prison provided, in abundance, the punishment she did not need but little of the treatment that she did.

Meanwhile, Barnett and her younger sister did their mom’s time “on the outside” in the phrase of the anthropologist Donald Braman. Barnett’s critique of mass incarceration is most persuasive when it reveals the ways that both crime and punishment disrupt families and intimate relationships: the missed graduations, the four-hour drives for a two-hour visit, the prison guards who time the hugs between inmates and family members so they do not go on a second longer than permitted, the anger and shame that sometimes erupt out of nowhere. A Knock at Midnight is not preachy in any sense, but its vignettes about the lives of women in the New Jim Crow era are powerful and devastating.

In law school, Barnett learns of another woman, Sharanda Jones, who was sentenced to life without parole for a relatively minor role in a drug-selling criminal enterprise. Barnett becomes Jones’ champion and lawyer, and their quest for Jones’ freedom is the book’s longest story and its most affecting. The reader is left with a profound disenchantment, if she was ever enchanted in the first place, with the United States (US) criminal legal process. Many academics and activists use that phrase rather than “criminal justice system” because, in the words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, US criminal justice is “anything but”.

Jones’ case demonstrates how this is so. The idea that someone can be sentenced to prison for the rest of her life, with no hope of release, for a first-time drug offence is grotesque, but lax evidence and strict punishment are so embedded in our legal system that Barnett does not have a prayer of persuading a court to intervene. All hope ends up being vested in getting President Barack Obama to grant clemency. No spoiler here, other than the reader should make sure she has a handkerchief handy when she reaches the part of the book where she learns what Obama decides.

Barnett is a consummate networker. In her quests for her clients and causes she cold-calls former attorney general Eric Holder, hangs with Kim Kardashian and texts back and forth with Sean “Diddy” Combs. Those kinds of celebrity interlopers make activists roll their eyes, but in a book that is a ferocious indictment of law, Barnett does not have a negative word to say about many individuals, not even the judges and jailers responsible for the injustices she describes. Barnett is mad at systems and gives most of the people who carry them out a pass.

The same glass-half-full approach applies to her engagement with Obama, who granted clemency petitions for seven of her clients, and whom she appropriately credits with doing more for prisoners than any president before him. Barnett’s description of a White House reception for former inmates is touching. She glosses over the view through the glass-half-empty lens: that Obama did not go nearly far enough, which caused his pardon attorney to resign in disappointment.

Barnett cites Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy as inspirations, but in terms of insightful analysis and new policy prescriptions, A Knock at Midnight has little to add; it reads instead like the women-centred version of those other works. This is still a significant intervention because, until recently, Black women’s experiences in the criminal legal system have not received anywhere near the attention of their male counterparts. The interest in Breonna Taylor’s case is hopefully a sign that this is changing; indeed, the first thing I thought of when I saw the title A Knock at Midnight was the knock on Taylor’s door at half past midnight, which resulted in her death at the hands of police officers executing a search warrant – for drugs. Taylor is yet another Black female victim of a failed and catastrophic war.