MY FRIEND and New York attorney Beena Ahmad – who worked for nearly a year with the Wits Justice Project – had a quirky habit. In her neighborhood in Brooklyn she picked up books that people left out on the street with great enthusiasm (an aside: you can furnish your entire house with the stuff people discard; from baby shoes, to antique cupboards, to electronics). Sometimes I would share her joy, like when she picked up a battered copy of ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, placed on a garden wall. At other times though, ‘Form Your Own Limited Liability Company’, for example, didn’t seem quite as riveting a read.
IT IS A natural human reaction to look away when confronted with injury or suffering. I grab a cushion or duck away behind the closest body when there is blood and gore on television. In this era of mass media where drowned refugee children wash up ashore and onto your screen and where ISIS decapitations flood the internet, this reflex can translate into ‘misery fatigue’, the feeling one wants a break from the constant stream of human misery the media feeds us. But it’s not only the consumers of mass media that feel the need to look away; also those who have been injured often want to escape the memory of the pain.
A FEW DAYS after I arrived in New York, to start a criminal justice reporting fellowship, I emailed Johnny Perez, who works at the Urban Justice Center. Johnny is an advocate for their mental health project. Not only does he do a lot of work at the troubled Rikers Island prison complex in New York, he also spent a fair amount of time in prison himself. He spoke about the three years he spent in solitary confinement at an event I attended and I was struck by the suffocating intensity of his experience.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM is a hot topic in the United States. Not only did pop stars such as Beyonce and Kendric Lamar take a vocal stance on the issue, presidential candidates from both the Republican and the Democratic party have spoken about the issue or have been prompted to do so by the Black Lives Matter movement. President Obama was the first president in American history to actually set foot in a prison.
Congratulations to Ruth Hopkins, Senior Journalist at the Wits Justice Project, who was awarded the Sylvester Stein Fellowship for 2016.
Ruth will be spending two and a half months in the United States, visiting the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems.
Congratulations to Paul McNally, radio journalist at the Wits Justice Project and Wits Radio Academy, and founder of the Citizen Justice Network (CJN), who was selected as a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University for 2016.
The fellowship, which will run for six week later this year, provides short term research opportunities to journalists working on innovative and original projects committed to fostering progress in the field of international journalism.
The United Nations (UN) General Assembly is convening today in New York, where its 193 member states are expected to formally adopt the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Global Goals, and 169 accompanying targets. This new set of goals, following in the footsteps of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aims to end extreme poverty and hunger, address the impact of climate change and reduce inequality by 2030.
Justice Edwin Cameron has recently published a report on his visit to Pollsmoor Prison in April. He said he was “deeply shocked” by the “extent of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, sickness, emaciated physical appearance of detainees”, and that the “overall deplorable living conditions were profoundly disturbing”.
In a series of blogposts, entitled “We the People”, the Wits Justice Project will be focusing on a comparison of policing, criminal justice, and incarceration in South Africa and the United States. This body of work grows out of contributions by journalists, lawyers, and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic, and seeks to understand these issues in light of the similar histories of racial oppression and the current high rates of incarceration in both countries.
Given that South African courts regularly turn to international jurisprudence, including American law, for guidance, we believe that this study will provide a useful basis to examine the development of criminal law and procedure here in South Africa with a critical lens. While American courts give less weight to jurisprudence from other countries, we hope that these posts will provide insight into the way that the role of human dignity, recognized by the South African Constitution, should be a consideration in any search for justice.