Jeremy Thomas ’21

March 15, 2019

Jeremy Thomas ’21 took third place with his heartfelt speech about what he learned from the incarcerated people he met during a prison research project. It is titled “…by any other name…” [Transcript]


On my first day as an intern at Georgetown Law School I went to jail. Now I wasn't arrested, but interviewing clients and witnesses were parts of my job as an investigator for the Criminal Justice Clinic there.

Georgetown's law clinics are full of dedicated and brilliant people who provide free legal services to those who otherwise couldn't afford them. And while I learned many things in my time at Georgetown, the most important thing I learned is something that I'm pretty sure we're all familiar with. It's an idea that I didn't learn, like we would here in Amherst, in a classroom with facts or with philosophy, but by experience. I learned that the truth is, people are so much more than the worst things that they've done.

In my time at the D.C. jail I met a man who truly tried stealing from a convenience store. I met a woman who truly drove with an open container of alcohol in her car. And I met a man who truly killed someone. But each and every time that I left the D.C. jail I just became more and more aware of the privilege that it was to leave, that the people who we deem criminals, who we lock up are much more mundane than we care to admit. Nothing pathological or evil about them. They are our grandparents and our mothers, they're our uncles and our brothers.

In the United States, we have rationalized and legalized treating criminals dishonestly as if they don't deserve our empathy. And that, indeed, may be why the United States, with 4% of the world's population, is home to 22% of its criminals. Because we lie to ourselves. We treat social issues, like mental illness, addiction, and poverty, as if they were legal issues. And in doing so we reduce people's lives down to the simple fact of a single act that they may have committed. And we ignore the multitude of their individual truths for the more palatable fiction that they are broken and therefore disposable.

The poet Terrance Hayes says it best when he cautions us to never mistake what it is for what it looks like. And with every time I went to the D.C. jail, I became more and more aware of the chasm that's treacherous between the theoretical desire to punish criminals and actually punishing that person. Because the truth is, people are so much more than the things that they've done.

The man that I met, truly did steal something from a convenience store. I saw a video recording of it. And it's unfortunate but he's one of the nicest people I've met. Every time I went to the jail he greeted me with a smile and two newspapers, one for me and one for himself. And this is because, he says, that the D.C. chairs, they have diseases all over them. And while this is true, it's also true that he was over 50 years old. And that because of the crime he'd been convicted of he was going to spend upward of 180 days in jail. It's also true that it doesn't make any sense that he was fined when he couldn't even afford to feed himself.

The woman that I met truly did drive with an open container of alcohol in her car. It was a beer. But it's also true that she loves Sudoku and that I remind her of her son and that she did not deserve to spend over 150 extra days in jail. Not as a part of her sentence, but just as a pure oversight on behalf of the jail. It's also true that none of her time in jail, deserved or extra, helped her with what was probably an alcohol addiction.

You learn none of these things by calling these people criminals because calling someone a criminal only serves to attempt to remove our obligation for empathy. Because calling someone a criminal reduces them to the worst parts of their past. The man that I mentioned before who killed someone did so as a 16-year-old child. His mother abandoned him and his father abused him. And under pressure from the only adult family members in his life, he took someone else's. But that man is now in his 40s and he's a grandfather. But he's only been able to see his grandchild in photographs and in courtrooms. And while it is true that he did something awful, it is also true that it is just one thing as a part of many things that define who he is.

Calling someone a criminal traps someone with our words just as much as the bars of their cell. I'm not speaking to absolve anyone of the truths of the harms that they may have caused, that's impossible. But I am asking us to interrogate our responses to their actions, particularly in light of the truth of their contexts.

The man who'd been incarcerated for longer than many of us in this room have been alive is so much more than a criminal. He's worked as a tutor and as a mentor, and as he'll probably tell you today, he worked to build the road signs that you see and use in Washington D.C. today. Calling him a criminal erases all of that information.

The reason that I am speaking is simply to get us to think because our thoughts have implications on how we vote and how we act as jury members and employers and as members of our community. Calling someone a criminal is a hollow label, and how it is filled with compassion or with caricature is completely up to us.

The man who'd been incarcerated since before the internet was even a thing called me on the phone a couple of months ago. And when I picked up the phone the first thing he asked me was why I was smiling. Granted, he couldn't see me, and I can't explain how he knew other than that's just the type of person that he is. But as I helped him figure out how to use the internet, something I'm sure we're all familiar with now, I was reminded of the fact that he'd finally been able to do something that I did every time that I went to the D.C. jail, and that's leave.

The truth is, that people are so much more than the worst things that they've done.