Saturday, June 10, 2017

Richmond Justice Exhibit Opens in Newly Restored John Marshall House Justice Gallery

The Richmond Justice exhibit is officially open for public viewing in the newly restored John Marshall House Justice Gallery. The exhibit will run through the month of September.

Richmond Justice started in 2016 as a year-long project produced by Field Studio to share portraits and stories of Richmonders whose lives have been shaped in some way by the justice system.

The project grew from years of co-directors, Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren making media about incarceration. The duo’s experience led them to discover that the number of people touched by the justice system is greater than what people tend to imagine and the stories of those affected by the justice system are profound and must be told.

Check out our Q&A with Hannah and Lance:  

Can you discuss the importance of providing a platform for those affected by the justice system to tell their stories?

Lance: The justice system is hard to see. If you're not inside of it—and often, even if you are—the reasons why people are jailed or freed, prosecuted or merely warned, tend to be shrouded in legal jargon and bureaucracy. Not only that, the very nature of arrest and incarceration separates those charged, and those doing the charging, from the rest of the community. And yet, this hard-to-see system makes decisions that transform our community, one life at a time, and often not for the better. 

We believe that a sensible, fair justice system could serve Richmond as it should. But first, we need to understand the people in our justice system in their own words. We couldn't find a platform that enabled Richmonders whose lives are shaped by the justice system to share their wildly varying experiences and perspectives, and so, we decided to create one.

What were some common experiences that you all discovered that Richmonders face when it comes to interacting with the justice system?

Hannah: One thing that’s easy to forget is that in many cases, families interacting with the justice system are doing so for the first time. And unless you’re a lawyer or an advocate, you’re thrust into a system that’s immensely complicated and requires a steep learning curve. So it’s not uncommon for Richmonders to feel completely lost, or worse, neglected as they navigate hearings and trials.

We also discovered that a lot of community members are interacting with the justice system because they struggle with a substance use disorder. They need treatment, but due to the way that our laws and institutions are set up, many of them end up in jail. Some get treatment there, but treatment through jail is a counterintuitive way to address treatment for a disease.

Which organizations are spearheading reform efforts within Richmond’s justice system and where has progress been made?

: This was the most heartening thing we found as part of this project: Richmond is fortunate to have progressive people who are deeply committed to broadening access to justice and seeking reform. The Legal Aid Justice Center has done tremendous work on a number of fronts, especially when it comes to juvenile justice and the school-to-prison pipeline.

There is good work being done as part of the REAL Program at the Richmond City Justice Center. The REAL Program works to address addictive behavior through classes and workshops, and we’ve met graduates whose lives were transformed because they finally learned about their addiction and what to do about it. Some of the change is coming from the state policy level; Governor McAuliffe signed a bill last month to reform the Virginia Board of Corrections, strengthening their oversight of jails and tasking them with investigating the deaths that occur with frightening frequency.

There are also promising partnerships among foundations, nonprofits, arts groups, and legal organizations working to address problems from multiple angles. All of these changes are positive, but it’s hard to feel hopeful when some of the problems are so vast: the poverty that drives people to desperate situations and desperate decisions; the opioids and guns that are too readily available; the laws that criminalize drug use, homelessness, and mental illness; the corrections facilities that do little to rehabilitate.  There’s an overwhelming amount to do, but we’re grateful for the folks who are committing their time and expertise to move Richmond in a positive direction.

Can you all describe the significance of featuring the exhibit at the John Marshall House?

: John Marshall was a child of the American Revolution, schooled and shaped by the struggle's many strategies to secure self-government rooted in the will of a united people. This very unity, this common sense pursuit of common purpose—this is one key force we found often missing in the way justice is measured in Richmond. "We're arresting the wrong people," the Sheriff told us. "You could do 12 months in jail on a littering charge," noted a public defender, explaining that homelessness itself has been criminalized and locks those without shelter into a destructive cycle of incarceration and vulnerability.

The Commonwealth's Attorney for Richmond told us that he wouldn't want his post in "any other jurisdiction in the state," because voters here "are at least willing to entertain non-traditional approaches to criminal justice." But too often, he told us, his office and other reformers haven't been enabled to bring good ideas to scale. The result is injustice done to those convicted as well as to the welfare and public safety of the city: "Most of the people we’ve convicted for felonies, we will see again—not because they’re inherently bad, as we've told ourselves, but because of the consequences of the felony in terms of difficulties in securing stable housing, employment, and recovery. Forgotten felons come back again and again."

John Marshall understood the need for fairness and logic in the prosecution of law. It's impossible to know what he would've thought of today's challenges to justice in Richmond. But his example makes clear to us that the place where we can begin to study his legacy today is exactly the place to consider how to do justice to those in Richmond in a way that treats them as they are—our neighbors, our fellow Americans, sometimes our family members, and hopefully our friends.

What’s next for the Richmond Justice project?

: Through exhibits like the one we're fortunate for the chance to launch at the John Marshall House, we hope to give more Richmonders the chance to hear the voices that so captured us over the last year.  We started with a family-and-friends mailing list of 129 people and grew the project to an audience of more than 20,000 by the end of 2016. We were active in-person, too, hosting in October the only mayoral debate focused squarely on the justice system, and then convening hundreds more at UR Downtown during the inaugural First Fridays gallery opening this year. We pledge to keep the site accessible indefinitely, so that an unlimited number of people may read and learn from these stories. And we look forward to welcoming attorneys, visitors, and supporters of all sorts to the John Marshall House in the coming months.

Visit to learn more about the project and like the Richmond Justice Facebook page to keep up with their latest updates.