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There are a number of publications that have been invaluable for me when it comes to finding stories to cover in Hell World but there are very few that I actually trust implicitly and also believe are writing about the abuses of capitalism and the criminal justice system from the necessary perspective required to understand how terrible this country really is. One is ProPublica and the second is a site called The Appeal.
One story of theirs I wrote about in here in March was about a Columbus, Ohio vice squad detective named Andrew Mitchell who had been arrested for kidnapping women and forcing them to perform sexual acts for their freedom and also for murdering a young woman during a prostitution arrest. On top of that he was also a slum landlord who had an exceptionally high number of evictions and allegedly pressured his own tenants into sex.
The U.S. attorney said they had identified “multiple women – some of whom work as prostitutes, most of whom are drug addicts, all of whom are vulnerable members of our community – who were tenants of the defendant’s rental properties and traded sex for free or reduced rent from him.”
“Multiple victims, when asked if they had reported these incidents, consistently responded that they could not ‘report it to the police because it was the police.’ The defendant further instilled these fears by telling them ‘even if you reported me, no one will believe you because you are just a prostitute.’”
Another story from The Appeal I highlighted here was about a Florida sheriff’s deputy named Zachary Wester who caught himself on his own body camera planting drugs on people he had pulled over.
“Wester the friendly cop was eventually caught up on his bullshit in July of this year after a nine month investigation and he was charged with multiple counts of racketeering, false imprisonment, fabricating evidence and possession of controlled substances and other shit leading to officials in Florida reviewing three hundred of his arrests and dropping charges in 120 of them according to the Tallahassee Democrat and it’s good news that a lot of the people he arrested have been released but that sense of relief you might be feeling at the system finally correcting itself doesn’t account for the trauma many of them experienced or the very serious consequences they faced for even being arrested in the first place.”
In short the reporters at The Appeal are doing good work to expose many of the abuses of the criminal justice system happening all over the country right now as we speak and thank you to them for that. It’s not enough of course they’re a small operation but it’s a start. I spoke with Josie Duffy Rice who is the president of The Appeal about the work they do there and about her own story from working at the Bronx Defenders to law school to becoming a writer.
“This system is so far reaching, so opaque, and so cruel, that what is more concerning to me is not just the cruelty we have to wrestle with, but the cruelties we are not,” she said.
Also do not go to law school she said.
Tell us about your background and how you got into this type of work focusing on criminal justice.
I live in Atlanta. I went to New York for college and after that I started working at the Public Defender’s office in the Bronx, the Bronx Defenders. It was kind of a random job I got but a friend who worked there told me about it. I graduated during the recession and it was impossible to find a job. I didn’t really know what defense attorneys did. I didn’t have a good sense of the criminal justice system at all. I couldn’t have told you the difference between a defense attorney and a prosecutor. I was twenty one. But I took this job and it changed the whole trajectory of my future.
I remember the first couple of days going in I would pass by the courthouse. And outside the courthouse in the Bronx in the late fall it was freezing cold outside and there was a line of people around the corner waiting to get in. I remember being blown away by this, partly because the courthouse was new and fancy and they had a lobby inside. You could just have these people sit in the fucking lobby. These are people with kids, it’s cold, but the point was to inconvenience them and humiliate them and torture them basically. The point was for you to be standing outside with your kids in the cold waiting to go to your hearing or your probation meeting or to talk to the DA or whatever.
I did that for a year and half. Public defenders… it’s not like these people are making a ton of money, but especially in the big city defense offices, the people are great lawyers, they’re really dedicated. This is a calling for them. There’s sort of a narrative that the worst lawyers become public defenders, the job no one wants. But that’s not the truth.
I went to law school. That was whatever. I shouldn’t say it was a mistake, because it’s hard to imagine the counterfactual of your life. When I got to law school I thought this is not for me, this is not my skill set. I always felt like I was the dumbest person in the class. I think in hindsight that wasn’t true and that a lot of people that are really good at law school aren’t very smart. … It all felt theoretical to me to me all the time. It didn’t feel logical because it’s not logical.
I couldn’t imagine going to law school.
I do not recommend it. I tell everybody not to go to law school.
Especially if you have to pay for it. I’m a fucking idiot because I went to get an MFA in poetry and I did all the coursework then I didn’t turn in my thesis. So I basically paid for… whatever this is…
I get it. It’s so dumb. So I left there and went to work for a place called the Center for Popular Democracy. I did criminal justice policy work there. A lot of my work was on the local level. Not with the DA exactly, but local elected officials in general, and it became very clear to me that all of politics is local. People say that, but… What defines someone’s political experience is mostly coming from what’s happening with people they probably elected and don’t even know who they are.
Right. If anyone is going to come into contact with the machinations of the political system it’s going to be the local DA or the police chief, or people they didn’t know they voted for or didn’t vote for.
Exactly. That’s the depressing thing about American politics, but also the opportunity. When I was at this job the mood was different for progressives. We felt like we were on the offense not defense. What we were trying to do was make people understand you can make something happen in like five or six localities and then it’s a national movement. If you can get $15 minimum wage in five places and at least three are big cities in different states, all of a sudden $15 minimum wage is a real conversation. You don’t have to get federal minimum wage to make it “normal.”
Then I found a job at Daily Kos to write about prosecutors. In my dreams I had wanted to be a writer. My husband is a writer. I had been talking about prosecutors ad nauseam for so long it felt like, and ended up being, the perfect job. I found it to be an interesting place to write about criminal justice reform. The people who are on it are really engaged, older, suburban, probably all registered to vote. Many of them are middle class white people. I think the audience is changing now, but at the time I thought if you wanted to organize voters Daily Kos is 100% a place you should be doing that….
Then after a year or two I came to the Justice Collaborative, which is the umbrella organization of The Appeal. We started The Appeal as it stands right now in May of 2018.
I think maybe you have a similar thing that I have. People ask me about writing Hell World, and The Appeal does a lot of great work, but it’s not exactly life-affirming. It’s not generally happy stories you guys cover.
No. This work is depressing. Working on criminal justice stuff is deeply life-questioning and depressing. If you don’t watch yourself it can get really dark. I used to think about palliative care doctors and how I could not do that job. I’m not built for it. I’m too emotional. I can’t even watch the end of competition shows, Chopped or something. I hate watching the end of sports events. Sometimes I feel like I’m more emotional than the person who actually lost. And that’s what this is. It’s a constant state of people losing and being tortured. Even more than that, what gets me is these are stories about people that have been forgotten. You go to prison, even if it’s just a few years, but especially if you’re going for ten years or more, and life moves on without you. Your kids grow up, your marriage ends probably, your parents die. Things happen without you there.
Being alive and being forgotten, or not having been hugged or touched by someone in ten years… Being in prison and not having had a visitor in a decade is deeply, deeply sad. So the work is harrowing. The scary thing about that though, I also feel myself… It’s less and less… I feel each injustice is still an injustice, but it doesn’t keep me up at night the way it used to with every individual story. You have to get used to it. Otherwise how do I raise my kid?
But I don’t like that either. It’s not like I care less. It’s just not at the top of my emotional register the way it has been in the past.
Yeah if we were to walk around holding onto all of the injustices of the world in our hearts constantly we wouldn’t be able to function. I can barely function as it is. Sometimes it does overwhelm me. It can be very easy to tip over into the side of despair. And of course that feeling is nothing compared to the people who are actually imprisoned.
No! But to your point it’s all on the same spectrum. Yes, being physically in prison is its own kind of thing. But this is all deeply related. Bruce Western talks about human frailty. Human frailty is real. A lot of us are constantly teetering on the brink of some deep, deep unhappiness. In that way it’s kind of a miracle every day that everyone gets up and keeps doing this. Everybody makes it work.
I think a lot about writers I know, and this job, it’s not even close to being in prison, I’m not making a comparison, but all of these ways we’re trying to get through the day…. Writing is its own particular brain fuck. It’s like a stamina test kind of. I think that’s the reason I am especially called to this work. It both threatens my own mental health daily, but helps me maintain it, because it is a constant sense of perspective. Even though mental health doesn’t work that way, it’s not like you remember other people have it worse and you’re not depressed anymore.
There’s an infinite well of distress for us to all pull from. It’s not zero sum.
Exactly. So that’s all to say that the way that we treat people in prison, anybody, from the minute they get arrested, disproportionately black, brown and poor people… there’s just an enormous amount of constant cruelty that is happening from beginning to end.
The Appeal stuff is so depressing, but the other thing that’s depressing is we haven’t even scratched the surface. We have about seven people who write for us, we try to post twelve to fifteen things a week. We have two newsletters, two podcasts, we have people that are putting their all into this. But there are things happening this very second as we speak that we’re not going to be able to get to. We’re not going to hear about. It’s happening in some random courtroom. Nobody is going to cover it and it is a human injustice. This system is so far reaching, so opaque, and so cruel, that what is more concerning to me is not just the cruelty we have to wrestle with, but the cruelties we are not.
My initial thought was that as newspapers all continue to shrink and be pushed out of business and fucked with by big money it’s only going to get worse. But the sad thing is the people who are fucked up by the criminal justice system never really got a fair shake when there was more local reporting in the first place. Too many local newspapers have always basically reported what the police say happened. That’s what I like about The Appeal and ProPublica, two of the only outlets I think are doing anything that really matters lately, is that you don’t take the word of the police like they do in the local news. Something I always say about local TV news reporters is that these people are basically cops. The public defender and prosecutor model, those are the two jobs in journalism too. Reporters maybe don’t think about it like that but either you’re a public defender or you’re a prosecutor. You’re either punishing or helping.
That’s such an interesting way to think about it. It is really true that historically local journalism has facilitated criminal injustice, certainly not fixed it. But there are two things I would say about that. Local reporters, even ten years ago, you aren’t an expert in what you’re covering. Even if you’re a good writer and a smart person and you know how to get the story, you don’t know what you don’t know. And you’re also hearing the news, so you’re hearing that all these people got out of jail too early or whatever, so you’re repeating that.
One of the benefits The Appeal has is we cover local jurisdictions, but I don’t fucking need that DA the next day. I’m not going to have to report on a robbery that happened or whatever, so our reporters can afford to push them and anger them in a way that a lot of reporters at local news can’t.
It’s all a set up! It’s a set up for everybody. It’s a set up for the public. The only group it’s not a set up for is the criminal justice system because they can control the information that goes out and comes in.
I wonder if we had the same journalism infrastructure we had fifteen years ago, and we were having the same discussions about the criminal justice system we have today… I don’t know what would happen.. But can you imagine how great it would be if we had people looking into who needs to be held accountable and doing it? It would be so remarkable.
The Appeal is grateful that we get to tell these stories, but I do wish we were unnecessary. But we’re not. We’re not even close to irrelevant. It’s such a reminder that the forces we’re fighting are still winning. They might be getting a tougher run for their money in some places, and I’m not saying there hasn’t been progress, but this is a big ass beast and it doesn’t get taken down easily. It’s structured to push down whatever comes for it.
That’s something that I feel. I constantly talk shit about the cops in here, and whenever I encounter one now -- and some of my stuff has gone viral around here with right wing people where I live in the Boston area -- I wonder if this is a guy who saw some post about me on whatever right wing site and he fucking hates me already. It’s almost like that fear is built into it to make us think twice before questioning power.
Totally. I think all the time if they want you they can get you. I don’t mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist. I don’t mean the Deep State. People are constantly being accused or punished for things they didn’t do. Right now the local police get annoyed about me writing about them… We were talking about that story about cops planting drugs in Florida. The ability to be able to talk freely about people in power is tenuous. A major thing keeping people in law enforcement from trying to bully a lot of reporters is if they have a public platform. There are other people who just don’t have the same thing and it makes a big difference.
That was a big thing that shifted for me when I had my kid. It was like, shit, I’m responsible for you, and if someone came to the door and said that I did something there is nothing that I can do. They can accuse you of anything. If you find people who are willing to be malicious and lie, they can.
Now, not every single person in law enforcement is that kind of person. I would never claim that. I think a lot of the system is unjust through inertia. It’s unjust even when kind of decent people are in office. But there are people in the system who are not decent people. It’s not everybody, but they do exist. And when you find one they have the entire power of the state behind them. It’s terrifying.
The story you guys did on the guy down in Florida planting drugs on dozens of people. He actually got in trouble for it! Think about how bad a job the police do holding themselves to account. Take into account how few local reporters there are looking into this stuff. And the brazenness with which this guy did that. This must happen so much more than we will ever hear about.
Oh yeah. In a lot of places the incentive is to punish. There’s also this confirmation bias things that happens. I don’t know this guy personally, but I genuinely believe in a lot of places, when law enforcement plant drugs on you or lie on a police report or whatever, in their head you actually are a drug dealer, and they just got unlucky and you didn’t have it on you that time. They’re not actually lying. I think there’s so much self-justification that happens in these jobs. And I think that being a police officer is fucked up. I think it’s a tough life. Separate from a person’s moral leanings, when we ask people to police neighborhoods, and do stop and frisk, and be responsible for people’s mental health… Basically when we ask the criminal justice system to make up on the back end everything that’s gone wrong on the front end, it’s no wonder that people become really awful and jaded. It’s like when you send people to go fight a war. It’s very hard to go and come back the person that you were with the same kind of belief and trust in humanity. We ask too much of everybody.
I think sometimes, even in some of the most horrific police murders, that I’m sure this guy, and maybe some of them did, but they probably didn’t wake up and think I’m gonna go murder a black guy today. I’m not trying to let them off the hook though!
No, I don’t think you are. In the same way we have to talk about what people have done wrong without ascribing the worst possible motives to them, I try to remember that about police too.
Another thing we often talk about is how you can’t go out and shoot people that are unarmed. But you also shouldn’t be able to shoot somebody who is armed either. This is a country that constantly talks about the 2nd Amendment. The mere fact that people are regularly getting shot by the cops is so wild to process. And being let off the hook. It’s so scary.
But I agree I don’t think any of these people wanted to go kill a black dude. I think this job deeply screws you up. I think about Amber Guyger. I believe, yes, she was a racist. I don’t think you freak out and kill someone like that if there’s not something in you that tells you black people are scary. I also think she didn’t want to be a murderer. I think she most likely is a product of her environment. That environment is dark. It is cruel. It asks for a lot from people who aren’t getting therapy for it. It asks for a lot from what we consider the worst parts of masculinity in this country. It’s just set up to fucking fail.
I get that but there’s two issues there. One I don’t understand why police everywhere aren’t heavily in favor of significant gun reform. If we’re making their lives so hard because they’re scared they’re going to get shot all the time, they don’t seem to be doing much to reduce the guns. Unless it’s in the inner city or whatever then they’re all for it.
The other thing is that police who tend to be conservative, and their fans, the Blue Lives Matter types, they are also the first people to not want to materially improve the conditions of everyone’s lives. People aren’t robbing people because they want to, they’re doing it because the conditions of capitalism have put them in a position where they have nothing.
Right. There was an article I keep thinking about in the New York Times written by a woman who had moved back to Arkansas. I thought it was going to be another one of those I went to West Virginia to see why people vote for Trump things... But it was actually fascinating. She was talking about the local library. Basically there’s one local library for a lot of people compared to a better funded place. There were two librarians I think and one was leaving. They were going to pay the second woman enough to do both jobs. The local community flipped out.
What the reporter was trying to highlight is that in so many of these places it’s not that we don’t want to spend our tax dollars on them, it’s often we don’t want to spend tax dollars on us. The belief that we spend too much on taxes is so intrinsic in people’s perspective that given the option to have better schools or more parks for their kids, they don’t even do that. That was kind of shocking to me. I understand that people don’t want to help the guy over there, but they also often don’t want to help the people around them including themselves.
This is not an unsolvable problem. With the gun problem, on the left, I tend to think we think it’s too easy to solve. More gun control! But what does that mean? Are we going to go into people’s houses? Are we going to stop the manufacturing? But then who has guns already now? The gun problem in this country is insane, and the gun culture thing is also deeply entrenched and real. I ultimately think, and I don’t mean this about all cops, the history of protecting the state in this country has a lot to do with being on a power trip, and a lot to do with race. A lot of kids from my high school are cops now, and they’re all like people I know. I know prosecutors who are good people inherently…
I would like to get a minute by minute record of what cops in like two hundred cities do day by day. The stuff that they do that’s bad is so horrible and so impactful, and there’s so much of it, but I don’t know how that plays in proportionally.
Well yeah I think they probably sit on their ass for eight hours and then they go and ruin someone’s life for ten minutes, then they go sit on their ass for eight hours.
Right. Let’s say every day a cop encounters five situations. Four of them are probably [innocuous] and they come look around and there’s nothing there. In those situations a lot of the time it’s not confrontational. They leave and people say thanks for coming by. Then there’s one situation where they’re displaying more hostility….
Well just their presence is violence in a way though.
Their non-violent encounters they may be thinking, well, we’re the good guys here, we’re helping. I had a thing recently where a friend had a health thing and the ambulance came and the police have to show up when you call 911. Just like the presence of these dudes standing there with their guns… I’m a white man so I’m not quite as scared as people of color might be. But it’s just implied violence.
Exactly. That is the thing. You have an entire group of people in this country that think police eradicate violence. But policing is violence. The best person who is a cop, that uniform is violent to so many people. Them showing up in a situation escalates it. I had an experience many years ago, before I had an understanding of mental health issues at all, where someone I was close to had kind of a breakdown. This was in New York. For me I was terrified because here was someone who yesterday was talking to me normally, and today seemed to be imagining voices and people. I was scared for my safety and the safety of others, and I had no fucking idea who to call. There was nothing to do. I can’t get the police involved with this black man who seems to be losing his mind, who actually does seem dangerous to me right now. There’s nothing I can do. There was no question that if I brought in like the Mother Teresa of cops, although I guess it turns out Mother Teresa was kind of an asshole, that would’ve escalated the situation regardless. There’s no world where you can call the cops and not heighten the stress of a situation. I think about that a lot with parenting, how we criminalize parenting, especially for black parents, is crazy. …
There’s so much that happens in black and poor households, especially people who live in government housing, where your kids can be taken from you in the blink of an eye. The same way we don’t think people in the criminal justice system are “real people.” People think they don’t really miss their kids, they weren’t really good parents, they weren’t really trying to get clean... We think that same way of poor brown and black parents. If you were really a good parent then you wouldn’t be living in government housing…
We tend to think people deserve what they have coming. We have a punishment culture here in America. Everyone else who gets punished must have earned it. But once people get ensnared in the jaws of the criminal justice system they wake up a little bit themselves.
Check out The Appeal here.