Incarceration, Justice, and James Baldwin

May 6, 2022 11:46:00 AM / by Jamie McGhee and Adam Hollowell


Paris, 1949. A young Jimmy Baldwin was being dragged to jail, chained to a police officer with cold metal cuffs. As the officer carted him into the Préfecture at the Ile de la Cité, Baldwin looked around the building with his characteristically wide, scoping eyes, feeling his stomach harden with dread, confusion, and fear.

Officers locked him into “a tiny cell, in which it was almost impossible either to sit or lie down,” Baldwin wrote in the 1955 essay “Equal in Paris.” In that cell, his mind began to race. Would he be guillotined? Or would he be released in time for dinner? No one could tell him.

Eventually, officers yanked Baldwin out of the cell and shoved him in front of a camera “behind which stood one of the most completely cruel and indifferent faces I had ever seen.” Someone he couldn’t see read off his transgressions “in a voice from which all human feeling . . . had long since fled.”

The camera flashed. Baldwin stared at the photographer, and the photographer stared back “as though there was murder in our hearts, and then it was over.”

But it was just beginning.

Baldwin spent eight days in the Parisian jail of Fresnes, locked in a cell, shuffled from one courtroom to another, surrounded by strangers speaking a language he was only beginning to understand, and condemned for a crime he did not know he’d committed. The eight days stretched into what felt like a lifetime.

When he did eventually receive word of his impending release, he was surprised “that my hair had not turned white, that my face was clearly not going to bear any marks of tragedy.”

Although the trauma didn’t show on his body, it bared itself in his creative work for the rest of his life. From books like If Beale Street Could Talk to plays like Blues for Mister Charlie, Baldwin pulled readers into prisons, jails, and courtrooms as he worked through themes of innocence and guilt, condemnation and redemption, power and pain.

His work forces us to confront the unjust realities of the legal system and ask: Can justice really be found by locking someone within four walls? If not, how can we join the collective work of providing safe, supportive alternatives to incarceration?

One Goes to the Unprotected

After the photographer captured Baldwin’s mugshot, officers hauled him into an enclosed shed where other male inmates were forced to wait; the prisoners represented, according to Baldwin’s written account of the events, “the very scrapings off the Paris streets.”

Squashed into the shed, the men were forced to huddle together around the common toilet, nearby which a prisoner with white hair ate a piece of camembert cheese. For Baldwin, “I found myself incapable of saying a word, not because I was afraid I would cry but because I was afraid I would vomit.”

The young Baldwin, later renowned for his words, was rendered speechless. He’d traveled thousands of miles to escape the American carceral state, only to realize “my flight from home was the cruelest trick I had ever played on myself, since it had led me here, down to a lower point than any I could ever in my life have imagined—lower, far, than anything I had seen in that Harlem which I had so hated and so loved, the escape from which had soon become the greatest direction of my life.”

He realized that France was like the United States. French social, economic, and justice systems were not designed to accommodate everyone and could only function for the few because they failed for the many. And French citizens, like Americans, actively strove to ignore the hypocrisy. The guards, functionaries, and judges hoped to hide the prisoners far out of sight “because they did not wish to know that their society could be counted on to produce, in greater and greater numbers, a whole body of people for which crime was the only possible career.”

These events seared into Baldwin’s psyche the difference between justice in the mind of the imprisoned and justice in the mind of the society that imprisons. He would later write in No Name in the Street, “If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in this country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected—those, precisely, who need the law’s protection the most!—and listens to their testimony.”

In the novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin reproduced the injustice and helplessness he witnessed in jail by speaking through the character of Fonny. Fonny is arrested for a rape that he could not possibly have committed. Because he is Black, both police and the victim ignore evidence of his innocence and mark the case closed once he’s behind bars.

The only person who could testify to clear Fonny’s name is his friend Daniel, who has also suffered at the hands of the law. After police pinned Daniel for a car theft—despite the fact that Daniel couldn’t drive—and failed to provide him with a lawyer, they intimidated him into agreeing to two years imprisonment in exchange for a confession. When Daniel attempts to testify in Fonny’s defense, the police arrest him, beat him, and discredit him because he’s a “criminal.”

Baldwin was released from jail in Paris without a conviction; through Fonny, he explored what happens to people when the state holds them indefinitely. Fonny’s incarceration in New York harms not only his life but also the lives of everyone around him.

Incarceration leaves his pregnant fiancée, Tish, without means of support. It leads his own father into a spiral of drunken shame and anger that costs him his job. The legal fees bankrupt his family, and Tish considers sex work to address mounting debts. Of course, Fonny remains trapped in prison.

“[Fonny] is not here for anything he has done,” Baldwin wrote in If Beale Street Could Talk. “He has always known that, but now he knows it with a difference. At meals, in the showers, up and down the stairs, in the evening, just before everyone is locked in again, he looks at the others, he listens: what have they done? Not much. To do much is to have the power to place these people where they are, and keep them where they are. These captive men are the hidden price for a hidden lie: the righteous must be able to locate the damned. To do much is to have the power and the necessity to dictate to the damned.”

Fonny is young—legally, he is barely an adult—and prison, a system purportedly meant to reform, only steals his future. He suffers physical, emotional, and psychological pain. He is unable to receive an education or proper job training during formative years of his life, and if he’s ever released, stigma associated with the prison system will hinder his job prospects. His experiences echo the same realities felt all across the carceral system, from youth prisons to maximum-security penitentiaries:

Incarceration does not lead to justice.

Victoria, a young Puerto Rican woman, truly believes that Fonny is the man who attacked her. She succeeds in having him arrested, although his arrest does little to bring her peace or closure. When presented with evidence of his innocence, she refuses to consider it. Someone must pay for the crime, even if it’s an innocent man. Fonny’s mistaken arrest ensures that the real perpetrator never faces justice. The community is not restored to wholeness, and the cycles of violence continue.

Incarceration does not lead to safety.

In jail, although the officers believe him to be a criminal, they do not offer Fonny any paths or programs to better himself. There is no counseling. There is no formal education. There is no personal accounting of what he has done, there are no options for the victim to request mediation, and there are no circles of support and accountability. There is no healing; there is no growth. If anything, Fonny grows gaunter and colder; he is physically assaulted; he is nearly sexually assaulted. The system turns him into a shadow of his former self—the type of person who, like those Baldwin was imprisoned with, would be forced to return to crime upon his release, lacking social support and viable avenues to employment.

Incarceration does not lead to reformation.

Nearly fifty years after the publication of If Beale Street Could Talk and nearly seventy-five years after Baldwin’s arrest, the realities of incarceration in the United States have only worsened. Over a thirty-five-year period between 1980 and 2016, the number of people incarcerated in the country rose sharply, from roughly 500,000 to more than 2.2 million.

This stunning rise is often called mass incarceration, and it has positioned the United States as among the most punitive, carceral, and over-policed countries in the world. Five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, while 25 percent of the world’s prison population is incarcerated here. Today, the United States spends around $270 billion per year on our criminal justice system, although “justice” is the wrong word for what all of that money buys.

In addition to being wildly expensive, the system is massively discriminatory: Black Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, arrested, detained before trial, and given harsher sentences than white Americans, as noted in the Brennan Center for Justice’s 2019 report Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today’s Leaders (available at Black Americans are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of white Americans, and in some states the imprisonment disparity is more than ten to one. Wrongful convictions are common, and Black prisoners convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers. Innocent Black people in the United States are about twelve times more likely to be convicted of drug-related crimes than innocent white people.

Black people who are multiply marginalized—meaning that anti-Black discrimination is intertwined with anti-LGBTQIA2-S+, misogynist, and/or anti-disability discrimination, among many other discriminated identities—can face even more oppressive conditions. Black women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population in the United States. Most prisons and jails ignore disability access needs, and some violate the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Poverty is both a predictor of incarceration and an outcome of an encounter with the criminal legal system.

“The incarceration of the prisoner reveals nothing about the prisoner, but reveals volumes concerning those who hold the keys,” Baldwin wrote in 1983. Mass incarceration unmasks our inhumanity. It reveals not our justice but our injustice. Mass incarceration lies in the hands of “those who hold the keys.” Once we understand this, we can begin to change.

Act: Work to End Mass Incarceration

Unraveling the knot of mass incarceration begins with reuniting families, lobbying policymakers, and learning alternative practices of justice, accountability, and restoration. We will discuss two movements—restorative justice and transformative justice—later in this chapter. For now, begin by asking how you can better understand mass incarceration in the United States. Learn about your local community bail fund, call your elected representatives, and educate yourself with resources from trusted movement leaders.

How can you begin to work to end mass incarceration?

Contribute to a bail fund in your local community, which can help free people from jails and advance advocacy work to end money bail and pretrial detention.

Call your US Senate representatives and ask them to support the Next Step Act of 2019, S.697, introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). The bill would reform police encounters, sentencing, prison conditions, and reentry efforts. It is currently stuck in referral to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

  • Call the US Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, and an operator will direct you to your Senate representatives.

Learn more about mass incarceration.

  • Listen to Justice in America, a podcast series hosted by Josie Duffy Rice.
  • Read Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Jonathan Miller.
  • Watch The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, a documentary film by Brett Story.

Join decarceration efforts in your local community. The Digital Abolitionist has a database for organizing efforts in the United States at


This is an excerpt from You Mean It or You Don’t chapter 2: “Christmas in Jail.”

Topics: Excerpt

Jamie McGhee and Adam Hollowell

Written by Jamie McGhee and Adam Hollowell

Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright, and essayist. For her fiction, she was named a James Baldwin Fellow in Saint-Paul de Vence, France, and a Sacatar Fellow in Itaparica, Brazil. She has also been awarded artist residencies at Blue Mountain Center in New York, Zentrum für Kunst Urbanistik in Germany, and Sa Taronja Associació Cultural in Spain. With ties to the eastern US, she is now based in Berlin, Germany. Adam Hollowell teaches ethics and inequality studies at Duke University, where he directs the Global Inequality Research Initiative at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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