We Are Witnesses: Others: A Portrait of Crime and Punishment in America Today

witnessesThe impact of America’s punishment policies is often measured in numbers: there are now 2.2 million people in our jails and prisons; one in a hundred and fifteen adults is confined behind bars; our inmate population is four times larger than it was in 1980. “We Are Witnesses,” a collection of short videos, offers a very different sort of calculation: the human cost of locking up so many citizens for so many years. The project comprises nineteen videos, each between two and six minutes long. Taken together, they present a rare 360-degree portrait of the state of crime and punishment in the United States.

“We Are Witnesses” eschews politicians and professors in favor of other kinds of experts: people who have had firsthand experience with the criminal-justice system. Two police officers, a prison guard, two judges, two parents of a murder victim, four ex-prisoners—each one stares straight at the camera, recounting his or her story. Created and produced by the Marshall Project, a newsroom covering the criminal-justice system, “We Are Witnesses” delivers first-person testimonials that are intimate, honest, and revelatory.

Erica Garner remembers arriving at the scene of the death of her father, Eric, seeing police tape and news trucks. Later, she saw cell-phone-video footage of police officers pinning her father to a sidewalk. “I was just yelling at the screen, like, ‘Get off of him! Stop it!’ ” she says. “My head was spinning. I was hot. Throwing up. That’s how we found out.” Tyrrell Muhammad recounts how he spent so many days in solitary confinement, staring at the walls of his cell, that, eventually, he began to see “figurines” in the paint patterns that “look like Abraham Lincoln.” “Then you’re saying to yourself, ‘That’s not Abraham Lincoln. Stop it. Cut it out,’” he says. “You’re battling yourself for your sanity. And it’s a hell of a battle.”

In other videos, insiders detail how the system works—and how it doesn’t. A veteran judge describes a day in his courtroom: “You hear the district attorney make their pitch; you hear the defense attorney make their pitch; and then, within literally a minute, you basically have to make up your mind so that you can move on to the next case.” A sense of complacency has long infected our justice system, and “We Are Witnesses” strives to extinguish it by injecting new insights into the public debate. Among them is the one suggested by the project’s name. These testimonials inevitably prompt questions of culpability—as well as the uncomfortable realization that the “we” in “We Are Witnesses” may apply not only to the individuals speaking here but to us all.

Jennifer Gonnerman
The New Yorker


Interviews were conducted in 2016.