Innocence: Does a Presumption of Guilt Exist in the American Criminal Justice System?
By C. Martin Sterling
Americans are assured, from elementary school civics lessons to the opening montage of popular crime television shows, that every citizen is protected under the Constitution and afforded a presumption of innocence until guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is proven to a jury of peers. As a member of society who had grown up believing in this concept, I was shocked to discover the realities of the American criminal justice system.
Through my recent experiences in two New Jersey county jails, I came to realize that
“innocent until proven guilty” may apply in a legal sense, but it certainly doesn’t apply to the treatment of alleged offenders in our local jails. My goal is not to plead my innocence, nor is it to defend the actions of others whom I became acquainted with in the corrections system, rather, my goal is to examine the treatment of those members of society who have been charged with a crime but not yet been found guilty of that crime and to reveal what “innocent” really looks like in America today.
The first time I had any personal interaction with the criminal justice system was in my late 20s and it resulted in my detention in one of New J ersey’s smaller county jails. I was terriﬁed when I arrived. Before entering the facility, I was patted down by a team of officers.
One of the officers asked me a question from behind. I turned my head to respond and was berated with an expletive-laced tirade; despite never acting in a manner contrary to the instructions I was given.
While being processed, my wallet was inventoried and the officer found a card identifying me as an Eagle Scout. He pulled that out and asked me about it. He then told me that
I should be ashamed of myself. I sat quietly and ignored the remarks. The same ofﬁcer then asked if I felt like I needed to be placed in protective custody. Having no idea at the time what that was, I asked, “I’m not sure, do you think I do?” The officer replied “It’s up to you; you never know what those guys upstairs will do to a guy like you.” Afraid, but not wanting to show it-, I declined the offer of protective custody.
After ﬁve days in a quarantine unit, with no change of clothes, a single shared shower, cold temperatures, and a ragged blanket with dozens of holes, I was moved to a general population unit. One of the guiding principles I learned very quickly in jail was to never share any details of my case with another inmate. One of my fellow detainees in the quarantine unit was a veteran of the criminal justice system and he suggested that I develop a cover story to respond to the inevitable inquiry of “So what’re you in for?” When asked that question in general population, I replied with a ﬁctional account of a drunk driving offense. Other inmates wanted to verify my story and asked an ofﬁcer for my charges. An inmate leader on the tier approached me and let me know that the ofﬁcer had told him I wasn’t there for a DUI and gave the other inmate information about my charges. Even upon posting bail, I was cursed at by ofﬁcers and subjected to an hours—long wait while the officers counting my cash bail took lunch breaks. This didn’t feel like innocence to me.
The psychological impact of this jail experience led me to seek treatment from both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Jail itself wasn’t pleasant, but it was the conduct of the officers that was tantamount to psychological torture. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorder shortly after my first jail experience after a lifetime free from mental health concerns.
Less than one year after my first arrest, new charges related to the same case were ﬁled and I was detained in a different county jail. This facility was signiﬁcantly larger than the first jail I had been held in. It remains one of the busiest county jails in the state. While the physical conditions in this modern facility are vastly more humane than those I had experienced at the other jail, the factor that remained constant between the two was the conduct of the officers.
The sense that the officers enjoyed the opportunity to torment essentially helpless detainees is overwhelming. Officers often research charges against an inmate and make jokes about the charges in front of other inmates. Officers regularly use profanity during interactions with inmates. We are screamed at and punished as a unit for the actions of a single individual.
The impetus for this writing was the locking down of the entire unit of sixty-four men because an officer believed she was “disrespected” by a single inmate.
By no means is this a complete description of the demoralizing, dehumanizing experience of j ail, however, I believe that my experiences form a constellation that gives insight into the justice system and the treatment of those whom our most fundamental laws declare to be innocent. We must take action to resolve the treatment of detainees. Our nation focuses on providing for the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. Detainees in jails across America are literally committed to the care of the state. While food and shelter may be provided, aren’t there other civil rights that should also be assured for inmates, such as the right to be free from mental torment at the hands and voices of corrections ofﬁcers?
There is no silver bullet for this law enforcement issue. The entire culture of the corrections system must evolve. Across the nation, corrections departments face severe stafﬁng shortages and abysmal attrition rates. The demand for ofﬁcers had led to incredibly low standards for new hires. One officer enjoys bragging to our unit that all he needed to be an officer was a high school diploma and no criminal record. In what other setting do we allow individuals with such an absence of qualifications to interact with vulnerable populations?