Two SXSW Interactive panels on Monday focused on the inner workings and effects of the U.S. justice system. Panelists of “Ex-Prisoners Speak: We Deserve a Second Chance” spoke on the flaws of the country’s prison system, which they said does nothing to help incarcerated men and women reenter society. Later, a couple of blocks away at the Austin Convention Center, the mother of Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of being the kingpin of the Silk Road online marketplace, explained why she sees her son’s trial as unfair and unjust.
Shaka Senghor, who served 19 years for killing a man during a drug-related argument, described the prison system in America as one that “incarcerates more people than anywhere else in the world.” “What we don’t realize,” he said, “is that at some point these men and women will return to our community.” Senghor said he made the choice while in solitary confinement to educate and empower himself. But he recognized that while he and some of his co-panelists loved reading and having deep conversations about literature in prison, spaces that foster such transformation are rare. Prisons, he said, do not honor the humanity of the individuals who are incarcerated, which would enable them to return to society as healthy human beings. And, beginning even earlier, schools in inner-city and minority neighborhoods are sometimes in worse conditions than prisons. Senghor is now a successful writer, mentor, and motivational speaker.
Yusef Shakur, who was in prison for nine years for a crime he didn’t commit, spoke about the prison system having nothing in place to help transform inmates’ behavior because, he said, the focus is on oppressing rather than healing. His moment of transformation came when he met his father for the first time while in prison, which he said affected how he viewed himself. That paired with a love for reading and education gave him liberty and impacted how he saw the world. Shakur led the way, being the first of the panelists to be released from prison, and is an author, educator, entrepreneur, and social activist.
Trabian Shorters, CEO of BMe—a community organization that invests in and supports black men—noted that most of us see ex-prisoners for the very worst thing they’ve ever done in their lives, while we look at others and see whole persons instead of immediately judging them based on their poorest decisions. Everybody, he said, should try to see ex-prisoners for their contributions to society, and businesses and companies should not automatically disregard them as potential employees if they are currently good people.
Chris Wilson, who was 17 years old when he was sentenced to life, spoke of being in prison and having an unexplainable feeling that his life could change. “They told me to just get comfortable but I said, ‘There has to be more to life than this.’” Wilson made a master plan to turn his life around, one that included using no profanity and educating himself while incarcerated. When he was let out, the hardest aspects of life were finding housing, navigating transportation, and catching up with technology. He is now a business owner and leads the Community Workforce Development at Greater Homewood Community Corp.
All men on the panel spoke passionately about how difficult it can be to find employment and voiced support for the Ban the Box campaign, which would remove the requirement to divulge former convictions on job applications. Senghor said that all members of a community can work to address local, state, and federal policies where they go wrong. Wilson suggested that former prisoners consider starting their own companies if they’re having trouble getting hired, noting that business creation by the black community has been growing for a decade. Another point of agreement among the panelists was that education and positive male role models play an imperative role in preventing and reducing incarceration.
At the SXSW Interactive panel “The Silk Road Case: Impacting Our Digital Future,” Lyn Ulbricht spoke passionately about the recent trial that resulted in her son’s conviction for operating the online marketplace Silk Road.
Lyn, who had been at the trial, shared her observations on the prosecution’s actions, the defense’s strategy, and the judge’s decisions. Most outrageous to her was the moment when her son’s defense attorney was "banned" from asking a Department of Homeland Security witness questions that suggested the agent had suspected another individual to be the mastermind of the Silk Road. Lyn recalled how the prosecution objected to this and the judge ruled against the defense, which had cited Brady rules. The court, she said, introduced an “exceptionally restrictive” set of rules for the defense team, while the prosecution objected constantly.
Lyn went on to say that the prosecution failed to grasp the way the Bitcoin system of currency works, and judge didn’t allow the defense to bring expert witnesses to explain this to the jury. The prosecution, meanwhile, did not bring any witnesses who testified to how the Silk Road had harmed them.
Her most important message for the audience was that her son’s conviction could affect all Americans because, if a pending appeal fails, the case will become legal precedent. It brings up important 4th Amendment questions concerning the extent of search warrants for computers, and also the government’s right to access the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland without having a warrant to do so. When the trial was done, Lyn said she had concluded that “justice is just a beautifully crafted hunk of bronze,” referring to a statue standing outside the New York courthouse.
Despite mentioning reasons why she thought an appeal should be successful, Lyn appeared to avoid having naïve hopefulness. When asked how Ross was doing in prison, she told the audience that he’s learning Spanish so that he can talk with some of his fellow prisoners, but that the situation is very hard for him. The conviction, she said, has been devastating for the entire Ulbricht family.