What Being Incarcerated Taught One Public Defender About the Criminal Justice System
Keeda Haynes was a TSU senior in 2002. She agreed to get multiple packages from her ex-boyfriend. She was informed that the delivery were made for a pager and cell phone company. It turned out that the packages contained marijuana.
Haynes did not know that her boyfriend was being monitored by police. By association, she was too—and because Haynes had signed for his packages, she was arrested.
Haynes, who pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to distribute marijuana during her trial, repeatedly stated that she wasn’t aware of drug shipment. Although she was cleared of conspiring to distribute marijuana, Haynes was found guilty of aiding in a conspiracy. Due to Tennessee’s mandatory minimums for drug possession, she was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Following an appeal, the sentence was reduced. After spending four years in federal jail before she was released in 2006
While in prison, Haynes studied for the LSAT—she had already graduated from TSU with a degree in criminal justice and psychology by the time she was incarcerated—and, after her release, went to law school. Haynes became a public defense attorney after her turbulent journey through the criminal justice systems. Haynes ran for Congress in the summer 2020. She did not win, however. Haynes’ new book, “Bend the Arc”: A Journey from Prison into Politics, details this journey—as well as the steps ahead.
Haynes spoke with TIME to discuss her experience, as well as the criminal and racial justice awakenings of 2020. Haynes also discusses where court reform is headed.
TIME: Bending the arcYou talk about your unique insight on the criminal justice system through sharing stories from your life. What makes you believe this perspective is important?
Haynes: Not many lawyers have had to deal with criminal justice in their own lives. I’ve experienced it being [incarcerated], and I’ve experienced it as a public defender. You can see it from many angles and realize it works in one direction for white, wealthy people and the other for all of us. This system targets Black, brown and low-income people. This system perpetuates poverty and is meant to make you miserable.
Was your imprisonment sentence a change?
Psychology and criminal justice were my majors. A lot of my research on drugs and especially crack cocaine was done. [sentencing] disparities. But it wasn’t until I actually experienced prison myself that I really understood.
I wanted to become a criminal defense attorney. [But when] I was incarcerated and heard the stories of other women and how they felt that their attorneys—most of whom were public defenders or court-appointed attorneys—did not do enough for them, I said I wanted to be a public defender. Overworked public defenders often get underpaid.
I had the good fortune to be able to hire a private attorney as I went through the process. I wanted to be able to provide the same level of representation that I got to people that can’t afford that. My clients were my priority and I did everything I could to help them. I felt as if I had my own personal experience. [being incarcerated]My workspace.
When you look at everything that’s happened after the murder of George Floyd and the reckoning that has occurred around the criminal justice system, what stands out to you the most?
We’ve been talking about these issues for years. These are things that black people have said for many years. Blacks have always sounded the alarm [for years]. The country just pressed the snooze key.
With George Floyd’s murder, [more] people came to the realization that the criminal justice system doesn’t operate in a silo. This is due to redlining, the shortage of affordable housing and Black and Brown people becoming unemployed or underemployed. It also has to do with funding cuts for education and schools in Black communities. This made it clear that all these problems must be addressed.
But in terms of criminal justice legislation, negotiations in Congress over the George Floyd Policing Act—a proposed bill to address policing practices and law enforcement accountability—fell through earlier this year. Which direction does this country need to go?
If we only look at this as a criminal legal issue, then I think that we’re being short-sighted. But in order to pass legislation, we’ve got to have people [in a position to address]This is what we’re seeing in our local communities. If we don’t have the voting power that we need in order to elect people into these positions, then nothing is going to change.
I believe that the best way to suppress voter turnout is through felony disenfranchisement. You have over 5 million people in this country who can’t vote because of a felony conviction on their record. When you break it down, and look at who’s actually affected by the felony voting laws, the majority of those affected are Black and Brown people. It speaks volumes.
How can you stay motivated even when it seems impossible to make a change?
This is a collective thing—a collective fight that we’re in. We can’t give up. I think as long as we continue to stay focused on what we’re trying to do—to reshape the criminal justice system—learn from our setbacks and regroup then I think we will eventually get to where we need to be, which is to move the system towards [actual] justice.
The interview was edited to be more concise and clear.