Exceptional, but not an Exception

Posted in: Criminal Law

Darnell Epps. Remember that name. If I were a betting man, I would wager good money you will hear it many times in the years to come. You will see it in print and hear it on the radio and television, as admiring journalists marvel at the intellect and commitment of the soft-spoken civil rights and criminal defense lawyer he will become. Today, he is just another college student. But on campus, no one mistakes Darnell for the typical Cornellian. There is, for instance, the matter of his age. At a time when many young people are worrying about entrance exams and application essays, Darnell was, in his words, “away.” He transferred to Cornell from maximum security.

Darnell was born and raised in Brooklyn. His mother was an officer with the NYPD; his father was a dealer. When he was 15, his parents separated and the family split up. His two younger brothers stayed at the family home with their mother, who pressed them to stay in school. Today, one is an officer with the New York Police Department who is about to get his B.A. from John Jay College. The other is a fireguard taking classes at a local community college. But Darnell and his older brother went to live in the projects with their father, whose struggle with addiction pushed them into the drug trade. When their parents were still together, Darnell and his older brother had attended Catholic school, where they thrived in the safe and structured environment. But their father squandered the tuition money and the two started junior high in the public schools.

“It was crazy. Kids were fighting, stabbing. Bringing guns to school. Teachers couldn’t do anything. I went from wearing a uniform every day to worrying about the colors I wore.” These two kids from Catholic school were frequent targets and before long, they dropped out of school and were running in the streets. They attracted the unwanted attention of local gang members and Darnell started to carry a gun. “I’m not saying I didn’t make stupid choices,” he told me. When he was 20, a gang member raped his brother’s girlfriend. His brother confronted the man in a store and shot him while Darnell, armed, stood nearby. “I never should’ve let him go in that store. I knew something bad was going to happen.” Both were convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to serve from 17 years to life in prison. It was Darnell’s first and only conviction.

I met Darnell at the Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York not far from Cornell. At Five Points, he was a student in the Cornell Prison Education Program, which allowed him to take college courses taught by Cornell faculty. Acceptance into this program is exceedingly competitive and there is a long waiting list. And these are not watered down versions of Cornell classes. The faculty I know who teach in the prison present the same material (subject to approval by the prison), and apply the same standards as they do in their “regular” classes. Almost without exception, the faculty find that the guys inside are more mature, more dedicated, and more rigorously engaged with the material than their students at Cornell. Darnell graduated from the program with a 4.0 GPA. When we met, he was nervously awaiting his first parole hearing. Here’s something that never happens, at least in New York: nobody serving time for murder gets out at their first parole hearing. But Darnell did. He was released in March 2017, after serving 17 and a half years. He was admitted to Cornell last winter and just finished his first semester, where he is majoring in government. He made the Dean’s List and has his sights set on law school.

Darnell richly deserves the accolades he has received. He turned his life around in prison and, after spending a long time “away,” has a bright future. And yet, there is something about the reaction so many people have to Darnell that has always made me (and him) uncomfortable. People react so strongly to stories about guys like Darnell precisely because these accounts confound the readers’ deeply held beliefs about how the world is and ought to be. It is this sense of surprise—of a world turned on its head—that makes the story so compelling. “What?! A prisoner—a guy doing time for murder—is on the Dean’s List at an Ivy League university? Wow.”

But here’s the thing. Though Darnell is indeed an exceptional young man, he is not an exception. Darnell and I have chatted about this often, and he is the first to say he was imprisoned with scores of men who were equally committed, equally determined, and equally prepared to make a positive contribution to society. I am obviously not suggesting that maximum security prisons in New York or anywhere else are chock full of men and women who could be on the Dean’s List at Cornell, if only they had the chance. But it is even more obvious that you don’t need to be an honors student at an Ivy League institution in order to be a valued member of society. You don’t need to go to college to be a doting parent and loving child. You don’t need a degree to be a productive contributor to a healthy, viable community. You only need the chance, and that is all that many thousands of men and women lack.

It’s easy to come up with impressive statistics about punishment in this country. We know many of them by heart—the size of the prison population, its growth over time, the extent to which the US is an outlier, etc. But here are some of the stats that have always struck me as particularly obscene. Between 1984 and 2005, a new state or federal prison opened in the United States every eight and a half days. Roughly 160,000 prisoners are serving a life sentence, or about one of every nine people in prison. Between 1984 and 2012, the number of lifers in this country increased by 500%. Unlike Darnell, a third of these men and women have no chance for parole; they will die in prison. And none of this counts the tens of thousands of men and women sentenced to serve decades in prison—a term that exceeds their natural life span, despite the abundant evidence that sentences of this length serve no purpose other than punishment.

The explosion of the US prison population is a story often told, and I have written about it many times. It is a story about fear-mongering politicians, over-zealous prosecutors, and a weak-kneed judiciary. But fundamentally, it happened because we insist on believing that Darnell Epps is not only exceptional, but aberrational. We indulge the myth that a system thoroughly prone to error and ossified by a risk-averse bureaucracy somehow still managed to identify and release the only person who didn’t belong there—to put it simply, that the system worked. Ironically, therefore, our astonishment at Darnell’s story—our sense of relief that he is out and doing so well—reinforces our faith in the system as a whole. Having correctly identified Darnell and having pulled him out of prison (and his brother, by the way, who is also excelling), we need not worry about anyone else. If they are still there, it is because they are not Darnell and thus not deserving of our attention. They must be the monster we imagine. Darnell is the exception; they are the rule.

Darnell Epps. Remember his name. But do not forget the many thousand like him who do not share his good fortune. He is exceptional, but not an exception.

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