By Raj Jayadev
When I watched Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army, the HBO-aired documentary on public defenders in the South, it made me think of the irrationality of our court system, mass incarceration, and broken families. But it also made me think of the X-Men.
In the X-Men movie series, the superheroes are misunderstood, even vilified at times by the public, but nonetheless are charged with saving humanity. The budding heroes, who already have the innate abilities within them, develop their skills at a special school to be prepared for the high stakes battles they are charged to engage in.
Gideon’s Army has a similar story line, minus the mind-melds and mutant genetics.
The public defenders from the South profiled in Gideon’s Army — Travis, Brandy, and June — may not have apparent super-powers, but it’s clear that the first requirement of heroism – the internal drive to fight for justice despite all odds — is in their DNA. The title refers to the landmark Supreme court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which cemented the 6th amendment right to counsel for the indigent. In the film, viewers get to shadow them as they scour police reports, meet with clients, give closing arguments at trial, and share personal nerve-shattering moments waiting for jury verdicts. We get the elation of their work resulting in the freedom of a young man, as well as the pain of a client signing a plea deal sending him to a lengthy prison sentence.
The difference of course from the X-Men is that the drama in Gideon’s Army is as real as it gets, and happens everyday in counties across the country — just without a film crew. Over eighty percent of those facing criminal charges will be given a court appointed attorney. And given that roughly 9 out of 10 cases are resolved through a plea deal, the truth is Gideon soldiers rarely get to step on to the battlefield of trial that they train for. That an estimated 2.5 million people are in prison now means there are millions of battles brought to the doorstep of our army, and we are losing ground.
While the defense of the indigent is honorable, it is the enormous challenges the attorneys in Gideon’s Army must face just to do their work that draws out the most admiration, that makes the film so powerful. We see images of attorneys being asked to save someone’s life, but not being able to afford gas. One attorney works in an office that doesn’t have a budget to conduct fingerprints, so he has to get the prosecutor to secure one, then uses the discovery for the defense of his client. And in one of the most poignant moments of the film (don’t read the rest of this sentence if you don’t want me to give the movie away) Travis’s client has to take a plea sending him to prison, largely because the co-defendant rolls on him and sentencing mandates makes going to trial too risky. The co-defendant holds a small baby and cries while telling the camera that he still cares for his best friend who he sent to prison. It’s just a fucked up situation.
While the obstacles faced by the attorneys in Gideon’s Army — the lack of resources, the sentencing mandate that forces pleas, the overwhelming caseloads – give us a dramatic portrayal, they are the exact things we need to challenge if Gideon’s Army is to ever be given a fair shot, and not become Gideon’s martyrs.
Any attempt to seriously challenge mass incarceration actually depends on it.
Improving indigent defense, thus challenging mass incarceration, isn’t necessarily about changing the soldiers. Travis, Brandy, and June evidence the quality of character, intellect, and character filling those roles. It’s about changing the context in which they operate. We can’t be sending an army into a battle without weapons, training, and be outnumbered and expect them to win.
That’s why Gideon’s army deserves back up. Call in the reserves – a broad-based movement that has their back.
To ask, as Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has, “Who wants to stop mass incarceration, and what would it take?” is a question of grand social movement. We imagine marches, system-challenging community organizing, the exertion of large-scale bottom up political power. Anything short of that would seem under-matched to challenge a historically entrenched prison industrial complex. But to ask, “Who wants to reform indigent defense, and what would it take?” is viewed as a more insular question, a technical question discussed among a small fraternity of the legal defense community — a panel topic at some lawyer conference. But as Gideon’s Army shows, asking about indigent defense is a way to ask about mechanics of challenging mass incarceration at the ground level.
What the film highlights is that in terms of the criminal justice system process that sends millions into incarceration, it is when cases get handed to public defenders that the real possibility of stopping the pipeline to prison exists. In terms of scale and potential of impact, there is no other more significant intervention point to stop someone from going to prison, save the actual arrest, than the period when public defenders are asked to mount a defense.
The Travis’s Brandy’s and June’s featured in Gideon’s Army need not be alone. The communities of their clients – their families, churches, unions, neighborhoods – would engage in a heartbeat to assist they knew those attorneys were the only thing between the person they love and prison.
Now magnify the potential movement to ensure indigent clients get the defense they deserve by all the people who watched Gideon’s Army and know the problems they saw still exist even after the credits roll. What if they asked their public defenders in their county what they needed, and provided the political weight and created campaigns to get those needs met? What if those who held the purse strings knew they had to answer not to a singular requesting voice of a public defender, but to a chorus of a community they are accountable to?
In one scene where the attorneys are at their X-men school called Gideon’s Promise, the head of the school Jon Rapping (the Professor X of this scenario) compares public defenders’ work to the students who would come together during the origins of the civil rights movements.
The comparison is an apt one in terms of the model of frontline justice workers coming together to build their skills and community. But it is also appropriate in the longer arch of justice. The freedom summers he is comparing the modern day Gideon’s Promise gatherings to were couched in a historic, broad-based, social movement that eventually reshaped the political direction of the country. Gideon’s Army has the same potential to do the same in today’s time – if we can build a movement to allow them to do it.