Criminal justice reform has long been a divisive topic for Americans on all sides of the political spectrum. The pendulum doesn’t only swing between “death penalty” and “abolition,” and even people belonging to the same political parties or ideology will have different ideas on the best way to deal with those in our society who commit crimes. In “Bending the Arc,” Keeda Haynes reframes the topic as a question: Does the justice system encourage reform at all or is it purely punitive?
Part memoir, part testimony and part call to action, Haynes writes with a strong voice and a compelling story. At 19, she was in a relationship with a man several years her senior who asked if he could have cell phones and pagers delivered to her address when he wasn’t able to pick them up. She agreed, and it ended up costing her; she spent four years of her life in federal prison as part of a drug conspiracy.
“Bending the Arc” starts with Haynes’ upbringing in Franklin, Tennessee. Franklin is like many towns in the South: Students take field trips to plantations, and there’s a statue of a Confederate soldier smack dab in the middle of town. It reminds me of my college town, Denton, Texas, where the town square had both a Confederate statue and segregated drinking fountains right below.
In Franklin, there are Black areas and white areas. People don’t need to speak about it because the history is woven into the town and the foundations of where people are allowed to live. In that way, Franklin is the spiritual successor of the Jim Crow era. You can see these sentiments echoed even here in the Seattle area, where affluent and predominantly white areas are separated from the Black and Brown neighborhoods of South Seattle and South King County. I would argue that, in that regard, the Confederacy won.
Haynes then details what happened with her ex whose drug trafficking got her incarcerated and the trial that came after. Haynes’ arrest was only the beginning.
Haynes is unafraid to name names, not just of the people who helped her but of those who participated in her wrongful conviction. She names the officers who worked to intimidate her, everywhere from her school to her job at the local mall. She names the district attorney who called her a whore in front of the jury, invoking the Jezebel stereotype and the adultification of a young and inexperienced Black teenager. He’s still working today. You can find him on LinkedIn. Judge Aleta Trauger, who oversaw her case, was appointed by President Bill Clinton. The judge said that since Haynes grew up in a stable home and went to college, she should have known better. Because Haynes didn’t fit the stereotype of a broken girl in a broken home, Judge Trauger decided to commit Haynes to the broken system. Lori Pridgen, responsible for summarizing the case for the judge, advised that Haynes spend 11 years in jail, even though the jury acquitted her of all but one charge.
Haynes’ writing takes us through all the injustices and hurts of the system we might not know about. How the police used intimidation tactics on her, how plain sneakers from the jail’s commissary cost $70 and how, in transit to her hearing from jail, she was given dirty underwear to put on. All these dehumanizing ways that the criminal system punishes people for being poor, brown or Black. She details the many injustices she faced and her tenacity through it all. Although Haynes was able to eventually get her sentence down to three years and ten months due to a compassionate lawyer and many hours doing her own research, that was time she could never get back. She always reminds the readers that she was very privileged in her re-entry. She had a job offer that paid well above minimum wage waiting for her at a lawyer’s office, she had a family who was willing to help and had paid for her lawyer, and she managed to find housing that didn’t require a background check. All of these are barriers for most people trying to re-enter society.
Haynes had to start at a halfway house, one of many meant for the formerly incarcerated. She reveals how the system is set up so the house takes 25 percent of a tenant’s paycheck away to pay for housing, turning $8 an hour into $6. And even when she moved out, Haynes had to continue paying that 25 percent for three more months. For the average person, that would be too little money to save for anything like a security deposit.
To keep the narrative moving along, Haynes expertly breezes through unimportant events and focuses on the important aspects that lead to her becoming an attorney and a public defender herself. She defended people who were facing punitive charges simply for not having enough money, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when an officer was trying to fulfill a quota. Through all this, Haynes was acutely aware of the barriers being faced by those trying to come back into society and make the best of their lives.
Through her own personal sense of justice and faith, Haynes began working on a prison re-entry program with her church and then eventually ran for a Congressional seat. Although the pandemic ended up impacting her first-time run, she had a solid showing, taking 40 percent of the vote from the incumbent. She continues to receive letters from inmates around the country inspired by her journey.
It is easy to read “Bending the Arc” and find it an inspirational story of a Black woman who faced some of the worst the criminal justice system has to offer and came out triumphant. But it should instead be read as a scathing look at the prison pipeline and how our society encourages recidivism instead of second chances. In order to succeed, Haynes had to navigate a system borne from and maintained by white supremacy, facing racism and sexism along the way from professionals seen as experts in their fields.
The title of the book comes from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” However, as humans, we each have a limited amount of time in the universe, and some of us spend that precious time locked away. Especially Black, brown, and poor people. We should not abide by the timeline of a universe that is billions of light years long, but by the pace and needs of people on Earth today. Our arcs are short, and we must work together to value them all. As Haynes says, “Bending the arc takes effort.”
The arc may bend toward justice, but I cannot do Haynes’s words and experiences right in this review. Bend the arc a little more, and pick up this book for yourself.
Read more of the Dec. 29, 2021-Jan. 4, 2022 issue.