“Just Mercy” panel asks audience to think about mass incarceration, racial injustice

Dr. Anthony Donaldson Jr. Michelle Benjamin, Khalil Cumberbatch, and Kuntrell Jackson. Photo by Colton Williams (C’21)

By Colton Williams

For the past two years, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, has been the University’s common book. After a screening of the movie adaptation Just Mercy on Wednesday, February 26, a panel discussion took place on February 26 in Guerry Auditorium to discuss the themes of the movie and memoir. 

The panel included Kuntrell Jackson, founder of the organization Preventing Adolescents from Incarceration Nationwide (P.A.I.N.), Khalil Cumberbatch, an advocate for criminal justice policy change, and Michelle Benjamin, an attorney and activist from Winchester, Tennessee. The panel was moderated by assistant professor of history Dr. Anthony Donaldson Jr., and was put on by the Sewanee NAACP and the 213-A Leaders Program. 

Klarke Stricklen (C’22), said that she and her peers organized the event because “we needed more than the museum trips, more than the casual conversations, and more than the slight acknowledgement of just how powerful Just Mercy, which has been our University’s common book for the past two years, really is… Most importantly, we wanted to have deeper conversations with our peers about how close these injustices really are.”

Donaldson began the event by “a part of what we’re going to do tonight is try to arrive at some form of humanity, right?… We’re going to try to come together and have this conversation in an honest way about mass incarceration and how we can have mercy for the humanity of individuals.”

Donaldson then played a video from the Equal Justice Initiative — which Stevenson founded — that briefly explained the history of mass incarceration in the United States, beginning with slavery and the Reconstruction-era practice of convict leasing. The video emphasized the conflation between blackness and criminality in American society after emancipation. 

“We’re going to pursue justice in this dialogue,” Donaldson said, “and then we’re going to get justice by finding ways in which you can get involved.”

Kuntrell Jackson, one of the panelists, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life without parole when he was fourteen-years-old. Jackson was one of the lead plaintiffs in the consolidated case Miller v. Alabama, which went to the Supreme Court of the United States, with the court ruling that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. 

Jackson said that while incarcerated, he found himself asking “what is justice? I hear people hollering justice a lot, but what is it?… I got into this work because I don’t want to see another child, nor person, experience what I did.”

Khalil Cumberbatch, who currently serves as chief strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice, is an advocate for criminal justice reform and for reentry of those previously incarcerated. He served almost seven years in the New York State prison system. “The pursuit of justice is a personal and professional passion,” he said. 

Benjamin, recounting how she became passionate about justice, recalled her brothers’ being wrongfully accused of stealing a bike as well as her integral role in integrating her high school in North Carolina.

The panelists discussed the school-to-prison pipeline, and the systemic factors at play in incarceration.

“The junior high school I went to wasn’t bad from my perspective, but they say that the last one to learn about the water is the fish,” Cumberbatch said, “so when you’re in that environment, fights happen, things happen, and so it really hadn’t impacted me until I got to high school. In high school, the enforcement of this ideology that you are somehow always doing something wrong was enforced in a way that was overt.”

After his incarceration, Cumberbatch said that he began to hear the stories of other people who had similar experiences and almost always came from the same few neighborhoods and faced the same circumstances, largely crimes that happened because of a physical human need. 

Cumberbatch reiterated that mass incarceration and racial injustice are not issues that can be wholly solved at the criminal justice level.

“We should stop thinking about criminal justice reform within the criminal justice system,” he said. “The reality is that if we want to see true criminal justice reform where prison and jail are the last resort, we really do need to focus on things like early childhood education.”

When asked if it was possible to achieve reform and rethink the prison system, Jackson said, “It’s possible… the reason I created my organization P.A.I.N. is to focus on the youth because I believe if my organization and everybody around me focuses on the youth, how to be benevolent, how to be holy… then they will become our police officers, they will become our judges, they will become our government. So I feel like once we start doing that, we’ll get change.”