By Ronit Pinto and Jaime Lubin
The NAACP Criminal Justice Factsheet states that African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, and as of 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million (34%) of the global correctional population. But we’re finding it is the authorities – policymakers, judges, attorneys, police officers, and others in charge of upholding the law – who are guilty of the worst crimes.
Meet Jermaine Marlow Wright, condemned to over twenty years on Death Row for a murder he didn’t commit, and Tarik “KoolRik” Ali, convicted of a nonviolent charge and sentenced to live with some of Delaware’s most dangerous criminals. Here, both explain how their cases were handled wrongly and the truth of institutional racism.
Like our interviewees, the facts don’t lie. It’s time to speak truth to power.
- JERMAINE MARLOW WRIGHT
Arrested shortly after his 18th birthday, Jermaine Marlow Wright was chained to a desk for thirteen hours until the cops got his confession (first they had bribed neighborhood junkies to get his name). Convicted of second-degree murder in 1992, Wright served 24 years in Delaware’s James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, 19 in solitary confinement. After the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2014, based on a finding that prosecutors had withheld evidence in his first trial, Wright was released… then ordered back to prison in January 2016 when Delaware Superior Court judges overturned that decision. Finally, in September 2016, a Wright’s 24 years were deemed “time served” when he entered a no-contest plea, meaning that he could now live free – with the distinction of being the state’s longest-serving Death Row inmate.
HONEYSUCKLE: As a legal adult who was still a teenager when you were arrested, were you aware of the consequences?
JERMAINE MARLOW WRIGHT: I was in denial the whole time… I was a high school dropout; I didn’t understand the legal process. So basically I went along with everything my lawyer was saying. I always felt that being innocent, I would get out, so I remained hopeful throughout the case and trial. I didn’t learn about how I was wronged [legally] until years later.
HS: When was the moment of “Shit, this is real”?
JERMAINE MARLOW WRIGHT: When they sentenced me to die… [In] the 1990s, executions in Delaware were being done per capita. Even when I got like three death dates… I always said I was getting out. There were times when I wanted to break down and just cry. But I looked at the other guys around me, cutting their wrists, cutting their necks, stringing up… I said, “That will not be me.”
HS: You were in solitary confinement for 19 years, correct?
JERMAINE MARLOW WRIGHTWhen I became incarcerated in 1992, they… shoved me in the population for five years; [there] was no Death Row at the time. By 1997, they created… a so-called Death Row, the maximum security unit, MSU. [Then] they made the SHU – high security unit. That’s where I spent most of the time.
When you have a day that they know they’re going to execute you, every day [they] check your pulse, check your heart rate, make sure you don’t kill yourself, and when the day comes, they bring everybody, videotape it, then they walk the guys out of the chair… That’s the last we’re seeing of them.
HS: How does a human cope with that reality of injustice?
JERMAINE MARLOW WRIGHT: Everybody copes in their own little way… I had to stop thinking [negatively]. But you can’t help it when the guys before you… start losing their cases and the attorneys did nothing…In the early 90s we were all represented by the same attorney. Our appeals were almost identical! Therefore, guys were losing appeals like it was nothing. [Court-appointed] attorneys, they’re good people, but they just didn’t know the law… That’s the injustice in itself. We’re fighting with the state and with our attorneys who had no experience in capital cases.
HS: What should people know about our system?
JERMAINE MARLOW WRIGHT: You can’t always believe those that are in power. The ones in power, supposed to protect our society, are damaging our society by robbing it of innocent people. Putting innocent people in jail, because of their own selfish reasons, and they too are breaking the law!:
If there were some repercussions for prosecutors and cops, then I think society would be a little better. People would not be in jail because of them falsifying evidence, prosecutorial misconduct. They are getting away with all this because they can.
We have to fight the system. Kids like myself, when they go to court, the system does not know where we come from. If the system learns about that person, then they probably would think better about sending innocent people or even people with petty crimes to jail. Our jails are crowded with people where the system makes up stories about who that person is, rather than knowing the facts.
HS: Do you see the prison system as a race issue?
JERMAINE MARLOW WRIGHT: Yes. It’s totally flawed in that respect. A Black guy and a white guy in court for the same crime – if the Black guy gets three or four years, the white guy’s going to get probation. That’s a proven fact. [In a case a] couple months ago, these guys had the same charge; they sent the Black guy to jail for 22 years and the white guy got probation.
Everybody doesn’t belong in prison, whether they’re innocent or not… [But] innocent men will continue to be incarcerated. You have to get people who want to help rather than just punish. Now, those who commit violent crimes, their ass going to jail. But those who don’t should get help rather than going to prison, because that could change their life in a big way.
[Change] has to come from outside… Those on the inside are in a position to create change, so why isn’t that change occurring?
HS: Were there guys on Death Row whom you feel were sentenced wrongly?
JERMAINE MARLOW WRIGHT: Yes. Michael Mayer, Luis Reyes, Greg Zumbrowski, just to name a few… Not all people incarcerated are bad people. You have to give all people a second chance at life. Part of giving people a second chance is getting to know people. And I think that’s important.
- TARIK “KOOLRIK” ALI
Born in Germany, raised in Delaware and New Jersey, KoolRik was arrested on a nonviolent gun possession charge in 1991 and sentenced to two years in James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. While incarcerated, after getting into a fight with a corrections officer, he was transferred from the general compound to the MSU and housed with Death Row inmates. That year, KoolRik and his cellmates made headlines for their in-prison protest against the policy of housing three men in a single cell. He was released in 1993 and is today a respected community leader and business owner in New Jersey.
Honeysuckle: Why was 1991 in Delaware was a crazy time for convictions?
TARIK “KOOLRIK” ALI: 1991 in Delaware was a very volatile year. If you look at the prison records, they were arresting 17-year-old kids up through [age] 45 like it was nothing… They changed a lot of laws [that year] and [restored] the death penalty… Under the old law, say you got a year and you might do four or five months. If you went to school [or did community service], you could get time off. Joe Biden’s law, Truth in Sentencing, shut that down… Now you’ve got 16 year olds being charged as adults…
In there, it’s eat or be eaten. Especially if you’re a young kid and don’t know what’s going on, but these grown men want to do something to you. They want your money or they want you to hold stuff for them or they want your ass. It’s easy to get caught up. Somebody says they’re going to beat you up and you can’t go tell the CO, ‘cause then you get labeled a snitch, which is the worst thing you can be in prison, or you can take a knife and stab this guy in the heart.
HS: It seems like a lot of people are being mistreated.
TARIK “KOOLRIK” ALI: I had two years for a nonviolent charge. So why was I around cellmates who were on Death Row being executed? I’ve seen people hang themselves, get stabbed. But I think on some level I’ve got to thank the Delaware system. They showed me a fast track. If I would have just gotten out, I probably would’ve gone right back again. Being on that side of things made me say, “When I get out of here, I’m not getting in trouble.”
When I went to prison, there was a guy who was in there because he had messed around with little kids. He got a three-year sentence… Now you got a guy who gets busted for an eighth of crack. He gets five years mandatory. I think the guy who messed with the kids should get the [worse] punishment! Those kids he bothered are never going to be the same. I’m not trying to justify people selling drugs, but this guy selling drugs gets busted once and his life is over. Meanwhile you got this guy in jail three years, they’re going to put his name on the sex offender list, but he’s going to offend again.
HS: How does race play into this?
TARIK “KOOLRIK” ALI: Race plays into it a lot… [although] now it’s more or less class. Economically, if you’re a poor white kid or Black kid who doesn’t have any money to get a lawyer or get bailed out, the justice system is indifferent. The guy who comes in with money might get probation. The guy who doesn’t come in with money might get five years for the same exact thing…
In my [prison] tier, out of 20 inmates I would say we had four white guys, one Hispanic guy, and all the rest African Americans… Race plays a part, but economics plays a bigger part. With the state of the economy, everybody’s in the same boat.
HS: Can the system be changed from the inside, or does it have to come from the outside?
TARIK “KOOLRIK” ALI: It definitely has to come from the outside because the inside, they’re making too much money [off of us]. It’s just like Big Pharmacy. If everybody’s rehabilitated, where’s the money coming from? … There’s no reason for a guy to be in jail 20, 30 years and still can’t read after being a ward of the state all that time. Knowledge is power… They’re not going to teach you any skills that you can make a meaningful living [with] for your family. They’re going to let you out after 25 years and give you $75 in your pocket.
HS: What could we do to improve things?
TARIK “KOOLRIK” ALI: Conflict resolution is the biggest thing in the urban community. People don’t know how to communicate with each other. “I’m embarrassed, and if you embarrass me, I’ve gotta kill you.” With conflict resolution, if you can deal with people in the way you want to be dealt with, that could make things a lot smoother. You don’t [often] learn that ‘cause you’re growing up in a community where… from the time you walk out your door, it’s on. Somebody robs you for your sneakers, coat, lunch money. And you can either be the one who gets your lunch money taken, or you can be one of the ones taking. There’s not a lot of options. They’re taking away all the community centers, the kids’ programs for after school. What will the kids do after school? Even if they do have a community center, it’s closed after 5 or 7 o’clock. All the drama starts after 8:30.
And when you don’t have any resources, you turn to the streets… ‘Cause if you’re in a neighborhood, and all you see is the drug dealer with the car, you’re looking at the [small business owner] like he’s a nerd. We sensationalize the guy who got out of prison more than the guy who got out of college… What happened to me, is it stopped being cool to be smart. My teachers used to be upset with me because I [acted] up and [didn’t] do the homework, and then I would take the test and get 100… I just wanted to be cool and now that I think about it, that was dumb as hell…
I took my GED test in 1988. At that time, I had the third highest score ever [in the state]. So all these people were coming to talk to me; they wanted to give me a scholarship to the University of Delaware [with a] $250 monthly stipend. That’s when I was stupid… I just didn’t go. I wanted to do all these crimes and I could’ve been in college.
The beginning of conflict resolution is for people to see one another as themselves. You have to think that way – “I don’t want to die because of an argument.” … Now with cannabis, we can just smoke a joint and talk about it… Being in a fight builds character, but you can’t win every fight.
One of my daughters was born while I was in jail. I was locked up in November; she was born in December. So just by being mindful of things like that, that’s what kept me straight…
Conflict resolution could solve so many things. It has to start somewhere… Well, I guess it has to start with the kids.