This roundup was published in partnership with The News Station, an online news publication that aims to foster dialogue centered on the diversity of the ever-evolving American culture.
Incarcerated people in institutions around the country reacted in many different ways to the verdicts rendered last week against Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. Prison Journalism Project writers interviewed people around them, including corrections officers and other prison staff. Here are comments from inside the walls of several of those facilities.
New Jersey State Prison (Trenton, NJ)
By Kory ”Hussain“ McClary
When the verdict came in, a nurse was just walking into the unit, carrying her medical bag filled with meds to distribute to the inmates who needed it. Inmates were beginning to fill the med line. One inmate was on the JPay tablet kiosk, and others were headed to the mess line. This was one of the busiest times of the day on Unit 3EE inside New Jersey State Prison.
I was just leaving my cell ready to hop in the shower, but I stalled, standing in front of my cell watching CNN. I saw a headline that said something like: “Jury Reaches a Verdict in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial.”
The white officer, from inside the booth, closed my cell door. I figured that if I took a quick shower, I could be out in time to catch the verdict.
Then I heard an emotional ‘Emo’ Blackwell yell, “They’re reading the verdict!” The tier became silent. Every inmate stopped in his tracks. The white officer in the booth was glued to his TV. The nurse and the Black female officer that accompanied her looked up at cell 27, Emo’s cell.
“Count one…” Emo yelled, “Guilty!” The tier erupted in cheers, high fives, and several “They got his ass!”
Through the noise I was straining to hear the rest of the verdict. “Count two… Guilty!” Emo yelled again. “Count Three… Guilty!”
I quickly surveyed the tier. The inmates all seemed happy and victorious, as if they were the prosecutors who convicted Derek Chauvin. The Black officer with the nurse was nodding her head, (just a little) to show her solidarity. The white officer in the booth was poker-faced, but his eyes were still glued to the TV. I wondered what he was feeling.
My feelings pinballed inside of me, bouncing from being happy and thinking, “We finally got justice,” to being angry because the only way we get justice is if we have 10 minutes of footage. I was also surprised that they got him on all charges and even sorry, too. That human being may have to spend the rest of his life in a cell like me.
In the shower, the reality set in deep. I do not wish for a lifer’s cell on my worst enemy. I decided to be the bigger man within, and as a Black man in America I forgave Chauvin.
Do I have this right since I’m not a relative of George Floyd? I do not know.
I asked several prisoners their perspective on the guilty verdict.
Santis “SandMan” Robinson, an inmate with 30 years in on five life sentences, said, “There is no joy in seeing another man being placed in prison, though the verdict was necessary.”
“It was a good thing. But one guilty verdict doesn’t satisfy Breonna Taylor, Eric Gardner and others,” said Alturik Francis, who is serving three life sentences for murder and is appealing his case as a wrongful conviction. “What’s next? We still have injustices taking place all over the country. While the George Floyd trial was taking place, the police killed an unarmed Black man just hours away. We need accountability across the nation.”
Finally, I asked a Black female officer who worked in my unit, “Do I have a right to forgive Derek Chauvin even though I am not a member of George Floyd’s family?”
Her initial response was a curt, “No!” Then she took a moment to think. “Well, I think that it’s beautiful that you did that. But, he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. He intentionally killed that man.”
New Jersey State Prison (Trenton, NJ)
By Tariq MaQbool, contributing writer
Last Tuesday, the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) was buzzing with the news of the former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin being found guilty by a jury in his trial for the murder of George Floyd.
Initially, there were sounds of jubilation that erupted after some fellow prisoners announced each guilty count. Since then, however, the murmuring has been subdued as everyone remembered the actual killing of George Floyd.
To understand the different points of view inside NJSP, I interviewed a few fellow prisoners and officers and also distributed a written questionnaire to others inside. The following is a roundup of some of the reactions:
James Comer, a Black prisoner who has been in NJSP for the past 21 years serving a 30 year sentence, said he “absolutely” believed that justice was done in this case. While he felt more positive about America in the wake of the guilty verdict, he considered policing and judicial reforms to be a must.
Daniel Lawrence, another Black prisoner serving decades behind bars, said he believed America’s future in the near future would still be challenging. “It is going to get worse before it gets better,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done. Too many brothers have been forced into prison based on systemic racism.”
But Michael Doce, a self-identified conservative who lists his race as “other,” did not believe that justice was done in Chauvin’s trial. “How can someone be guilty of three different charges at the same time? Which one is it?” he asked, adding that “charging someone with multiple crimes and hoping one sticks isn’t justice.”
Doce also agreed with other prisoners, saying “I fear the worst is yet to come. There is no cure for hate.” He also questioned the idea of reforms as it seemed hypocritical to him. “How can we fix the judicial system while the same people fighting for reform want Derek Chauvin to die in prison? Unless there is compassion, there will be no reform.”
A Black officer, who only agreed to be identified as Officer A, said, “I was happy that justice was done… I was angry that a (fellow) police officer killed a man like that.” He agreed reforms were necessary and stressed that care should be taken during the hiring process, because “they often hire people who don’t have communication skills.”
He recommended that, “police officers be made to work in (prisons) for at least a month prior to them hitting the streets. This way they will be able to acclimate in deescalating without having guns.” Officer A also said it was important to put the right person at the top “because, usually a police chief will appoint like-minded supervisors and that attitude goes down the chain.” He added that “a lot of times the problem is with the top levels.”
Lastly, I spoke to a white officer, a self proclaimed MAGA supporter. “I feel that it is what it is,” he said. “They wanted him, and they got him. They didn’t care,” he said, adding that “George Floyd was a piece of shit… He pulled a gun on his pregnant wife. How come they cared so much about his trial?”
The common theme I found among the prisoners was that they were relieved and satisfied that Chauvin was held to account, but many are skeptical about Chauvin getting the maximum sentence. Black and Brown prisoners want to see actual changes before celebrating.
In contrast, the custody staff here were more reserved, but there was a considerable difference in opinion among the Black and White officers.
Monroe Correctional Complex (Monroe, Washington)
Reporting by Michael J. Moore, contributing writer
On April 20, the long-awaited verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was finally announced: Guilty on all charges. The reaction amongst my incarcerated neighbors here in Washington’s Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) varied, but in most cases, oddly contrasted with their usual sentiment toward police and criminal justice.
In the free world, the term “convict” carries negative connotations. It has barred them from employment, housing, and other amenities necessary to live any semblance of a normal life.
But in white prison gangs, a convict is somebody who abides by a code of ethics which enables him or her to be considered “solid,” and to be labeled as such is the highest reverence imaginable.
Part of the code is supposed to be a distaste for law enforcement, but many incarcerated whites here in MCC not only expressed disappointment when Chauvin’s guilty verdict was announced, but spoke favorably about him during the course of his trial. Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and his comments about “law and order” in regard to combatting Black Lives Matter, incarcerated white nationalists have changed the way they regard the law.
On the other end of the spectrum, many of us who believe in and fight for criminal-justice reform, police reform, prison reform, and abolition found ourselves edging dangerously far from our own values. More than once over the past month, I’ve had to remind myself that I don’t condone long, drawn-out sentences that do nothing to rehabilitate those on the receiving end. I’ve had to pull back the reins when I’ve found myself hoping to see Chauvin subjected to a system I know is broken.
The video we all saw of George Floyd crying out to his momma during his last minutes of life was tough to watch and undoubtedly egregious. During the trial, we saw it over and over again, from every different angle.
It made me cry each time, yet I kept watching because there’s also something special about it. Not only did it spark worldwide protests, it provided perspective into the types of protest that were effective in today’s social climate. It inspired some genuine reform (though we still have a long way to go). I can’t help but wonder, though, how here in MCC, it managed to turn a generation of white supremacists into police sympathizers, and abolitionists into the party of “law and order.”
Western Missouri Correctional Center (Cameron, Missouri)
By Zachary A. Smith
When the Chauvin trial started, my neighbor Dean and I made predictions. When I saw the split of races on the jury, I predicted Chauvin would get a hung jury. I believe that most white people, especially Republicans, look at people who commit crimes as low-lifes and believe that the degree that the police, judges, and prosecutors impose their ideas of law and order was inconsequential and perfectly OK, even if the other person’s rights were violated. As far as they are concerned, we deserve to be shot, beaten, or thrown in prison for the rest of our lives.
Dean, however, predicted a conviction.
After the verdict, there was no reaction in my housing unit, no clapping like people do during Chiefs’ games, no nothing. Most of the guys who heard about it didn’t care, Black or white. They were mostly focused on how they were going to spend their COVID-19 stimulus checks, playing card games, or whose turn it was to use the phones (there are only three phones for 52 prisoners to share).
A few guys I asked about it just expressed a “fuck the police” attitude. Prisoners are numb to a lot of what’s been going on in society. We are not a part of it and most likely will never be. A lot of us have been in prison for decades already and feel society doesn’t care about us. We were sentenced to die in prison, and there was no second chance.
One prisoner, who requested not to be named, said, “Hope Chauvin likes gay sex, because he’s going to have a lot of it where they’re sending him. You touch me, I touch you.”
I say don’t stop with one verdict, put 13 judges on the Supreme Court and reform the police and prison at the same time. Everyone deserves a second chance, especially those of us who were sentenced to life without parole when we were under 21 years of age. I feel there is more injustice than George Floyd, and society should be put on trial for its cruelty to those it incarcerates.
Southeast Correctional Center (Charleston, Missouri)
By Patricia Elane Trimble, contributing writer
On April 20, the world watched in anticipation as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin became a convicted murderer.
I spent a day and a half talking with fellow prisoners as well as some people in the free world about their reactions and what they see for the future. My expectation was that I would hear the same story about how it was about time people of color and all those living in marginalised communities finally got justice. Much to my surprise, I got little of that.
One prisoner in my unit, who did not wish to be identified, gave me one of the most surprising interviews. When I asked him what his reaction was, he told me at first he was elated, but on further reflection he said the conviction was a travesty, a token offering to appease the crowd.
He explained by saying that you could celebrate tragedy and loss. The tragedy felt by George Floyd’s daughter, brother, and other grieving family members. He spoke about how we should not forget the other victims of this tragedy, including Chauvin’s family, who have to try to rebuild their lives around this senseless and brutal act.
He went on to explain how he hopes society will come away with the recognition that there has to be accountability, and they cannot simply turn a blind eye to injustice. He said that we have to stop looking at race in terms of color and begin displaying a more humanistic nature.
I found it remarkable that this state prisoner came up with a view we hear nothing about. Everyone, including all of the news outlets, spent much time consoling the victim’s family, rightfully so. But what of the other victims? His family may be in hiding, may be unemployed, certainly suffering feelings of undeserved shame and embarrassment. Yet, like so many other families of convicted felons, they did nothing to deserve the pain and ridicule brought on them by Chauvin’s actions.
Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (Lucasville, Ohio)
By Quentin Elder
Most people in my unit felt that Derek Chauvin deserved the guilty verdict. Personally I still have doubt about this system truly providing justice. What truly is just anyway?
Every day around the world Black and Brown individuals partake in violence amongst each other and that culture, along with other underlying circumstances causes us to see one of two things – early death or incarceration. This is not as widely publicized as White versus Black violence.
This is by no means justification for the wrong doings of Derek Chauvin. But within our culture as Black and Brown individuals, we aren’t quick to trust the police and usually don’t.
Actions like Chauvin’s on that day instill fear of the police within us and will have an everlasting effect on the relationship between Black and Brown people and the police for many many years.
As we’ve seen over a short period of time, more cases of police misconduct and unnecessary uses of force have arisen, and people are terrified of the police. I believe that Derek Chauvin happened to be a cop whose actions weren’t able to be covered up and overlooked like they were in Breonna Taylor’s case, and that is the sole reason why he is being prosecuted.
Being incarcerated, I’m able to see how the injustice continues between us and the police. Inside we are beaten, mistreated and killed, but no attention is brought to this problem.
I have zero faith in this unjust justice system. The verdict in the George Floyd case doesn’t account for all of the wrongful imprisonments of Black and Brown people or the deaths of Black and Brown people at the hands of the police.
While it is a start, there is work that needs to be done not just within policing but within our own race as a whole.
I lost faith in this system after being sentenced to 11 years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit. It’s sad that before people pay attention to what’s been going on, we have to continue to die or be incarcerated.
I pray for both George Floyd and Derek Chauvin’s families, and that one day the hate that people possess within their hearts dwindles and ceases to exist. Every human should be treated fairly, equally and with compassion.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.