In This Moment Of Reckoning Around Police Violence, Don’t Forget The Unseen Abuses Of People Who Are Incarcerated
Excessive force against people being arrested, falsification of evidence against suspects, and brutality by guards against prisoners — these are all just different forms of the same problem.
This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
When I saw the video of the Minneapolis police murdering George Floyd with a knee on his neck, I thought about the two white law enforcement officers who once sat on my back while I was lying handcuffed on the floor.
I know how it feels to be unable to breathe because your face is pressed into the ground and your chest is being crushed. It is terrifying. You feel helpless. You feel like you are going to die. I believe that I would have died when it happened to me if a nurse hadn’t intervened.
In addition to the fact that I was blessed to survive, there is an important way my experience as a victim of violence by law enforcement is different from George Floyd’s experience. You would never know about what happened to me if I didn’t tell you about it, because it happened in prison.
More and more, Americans are waking up to the mistreatment of Black people by police in this country. Cell phone videos are an important reason why. You can now see things from your couch that you only used to see on street corners in poor neighborhoods. It is encouraging to see so many people of different backgrounds out in the streets demanding change.
But there are no cell phone cameras behind bars. As we debate how to reform the police in the future, I am afraid that we are overlooking people in prison right now, particularly those who were wrongfully convicted based upon lies by the police. For those people — people like me — justice delayed is justice denied.
When I was 17 years old, I was convicted of a murder in New Haven, Connecticut that I did not commit. I went on to serve almost two decades in prison. I tried my best to clear my name. I even went on a hunger strike that was very difficult. I was exonerated in 2018 when cell tower data proved that I could not have stolen a phone from the crime scene as the police claimed. An investigation by the federal public defender found 137 pages of hidden phone records pointing to other suspects in the basement of a police detective’s house.
Over the past month and a half, Americans have gotten a taste of the kind of lying by police that robbed me of my freedom and was rampant in neighborhoods like mine. The Buffalo police said an elderly man “tripped and fell” when the video showed they pushed him to the ground. The National Park Police said it had not used tear gas against prosecutors when it had. The Philadelphia police said that a protester had assaulted officers, when the video showed a high-ranking official hitting the protester with a baton.
If this happens on the national stage when everyone is paying attention, imagine what happens on a normal day in the streets. In my case, among other things, a witness kept insisting that I had not called him from the stolen cell phone, but the police forced him to say I had by threatening to take away his children. In other cases, the police say there was “resistance” or “furtive movements” or “a strong odor of marijuana coming from the car.” Any reform of the system cannot forget the thousands of people in prison who were sent there based on lies by the police.
Whether innocent or guilty, people in prison are also subjected to at least as much violence by law enforcement as people on the outside. When I was incarcerated, I routinely saw guards use the kind of unnecessary force that people are now protesting in the streets. If a prisoner got in a fight or refused to leave his cell, guards would often use that as an opportunity to dole out violent punishment. That’s how I ended up being sat on, face-down, handcuffed on the floor. I got in an altercation, and the guards decided to take revenge.
Excessive force against people being arrested, falsification of evidence against suspects, and brutality by guards against prisoners — these are all just different forms of the same problem. They are examples of how our criminal justice system treats people, especially Black people, as disposable. The dehumanization of people like George Floyd and me isn’t just an injustice against individuals. It’s an injustice against all of humanity.
I hope Americans expressing their outrage at what they have seen will remember the people they cannot see. There are many George Floyds behind bars, and we cannot have justice without them.
Vernon Horn lives in Connecticut. He was incarcerated for 17 years for a homicide he did not commit before being exonerated and released in 2018.