By Paige Laver
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin this week released a new episode of his popular podcast, Chasing Justice, with guests from Ear Hustle—Earlonne Woods and John Johnson (also known as Yahya).
In the season finale episode, Chesa and the speakers discussed individuals’ experiences being touched by the process of incarceration. Boudin himself gave personal insight on this topic, noting he was 14 months old when his mother and father went to prison for felony murder convictions.
Boudin said on the episode “Too often prosecutors stop thinking of someone once a prison sentence has been posed.” These lengthy sentences that are being posed on individuals are a result of prosecutors using “tough on crime” policies, which have fueled mass incarceration and affected the communities surrounding individuals.
Earlonne Woods and Yahya Johnson were personally impacted by their prison sentences, which they both served at San Quentin State Prison. Johnson spoke about his conviction, and how trauma played a major role early in his life, but no reform was part of the prosecution process.
He said he made the decision when he was inside prison to have self-discovery and start recovering from his trauma when he was incarcerated and eventually reached a point where he understood the ways that trauma has impacted him, as a child witnessing the domestic abuse that his mother faced.
Gaining this understanding, he explained he became passionate about social activism and the ways that incarceration impacts each individual and the roles of trauma that play into incarcerated lives.
Boudin asked Yhaya and Earlonne if people move on with their lives while being in prison or if they stay focused on their case, trying to have an understanding if people find future aspirations while being incarcerated and move on from their case.
Earlonne answered, “You have a segment of people who are in the library who are focused on their case until they are blue in the face. They are obsessed with their case all day hoping that something would change. Individuals continue to talk about their case until the end.
“There’s this grand irony where there’s this hope, but there’s this reality that exists and kills a lot of people from prison because of the lack of success when you can’t turn over the case. There’s some people who never give up the fight, who refuse to get broken down by the system,” he said.
He added that it is “clear that people’s cases become emotionally consuming, taking up so much space and time in prison, while at the same time, the system tries to bring you down and break you if you don’t fight for yourself, and even when you fight for yourself, the system will continue to reject you.”
Earlonne said that there’s power in fighting and gaining knowledge by researching information on cases in the prison library, because at the end of the day knowledge is power and that’s the resources that are available when someone is confined to a prison.
Yahya talked about his case and how the prosecutors and legal team never had the right intentions to begin with. He expressed his experiences with childhood trauma, and in his own personal case the prosecutor knew he had childhood trauma and had counseling at a young age but wanted to paint him as a monster to the court of law.
“There was nobody there to mitigate the situation. Nobody was on my side. We were the first ones who were convicted under the three strike policy and there was a total disregard of societal factors and trauma factors and the prosecutors totally disregarded that. My experience with the prosecutor was traumatic,” he said.
He maintained trauma is a direct result of incarcerated individuals, where many people experienced traumatic events in their childhood and it comes out in their teens and adult life. The experiences had as a child can carry through one’s adult life unless they are treated with new ways to cope through these emotions and experiences.
Then, Boudin spent time talking about the three strikes policy, stating, “One of the first policies I put in place when I took office was not being able to use the three strike policy and sentence people to life in prison. These laws have been abused and have tremendous fiscal costs and community costs.”
He discussed the perspective each lawyer needs to have.
“The mentality that each lawyer needs to have is that every decision that needs to be made, you have to think about the individual, the victims, the community, and the people impacted by the crime,” he said.
Boudin looks at the bigger picture of people who commit crimes as someone who’s been personally impacted by it, and sees how it’s not just an individual, it’s a community of people who are personally impacted, including the victim and the victim’s family.
Boudin then asked about the defense lawyers and if they thought that the defenders really got to know Yahya and Earlonne, not just the outcome of their unfortunate cases.
Yahya said, “My case was not taken at heart and wasn’t taken seriously. The lawyers always had a different strategy that would contradict mine. It conflicted so much that I had to hire a personal attorney, where the personal attorney was drinking during the trial and didn’t care for my case.”
Yahya mentioned how he was presenting himself more for the case than his own lawyer was, which is not just a loss of time, but the money spent on hiring personal lawyers is an expense.
“What are some of the harms that prison causes to incarcerated people?” Boudin posed.
“In prison, it’s a dark environment. If you talk to the wrong person about the trauma that you are around, you are now a victim. I had to deal with a lot of my own demons on my own. We need a different model and we need to look at a perspective of restorative justice,” Yahya answered.
Boudin discussed a policy he is working on for parents who are incarcerated to be housed in a facility that’s near where the family lives, which will hopefully work to improve visitation.
“My dad has been in prison for 39 years of my entire life and mom was in there for 22 years of my life and I know what that’s like. Sometimes we don’t have better options and don’t have the tools that we need as prosecutors or as a criminal justice system to intervene,” Boudin said.
Yahya Johnson and Earlonne Woods spoke about the importance of community based solutions and how we have to establish a sense of community with law enforcement and authorities.
“We need to acknowledge that if we put a system in place that can radically transform and you see it working, what worked was the compassionate workers, we need people like that. We need people who look at us and don’t just see us as criminals. Our crimes were just a small part of our lives. Empathy is what we need,” Yahya stated.
When asked what could be done to improve the system, Yahya said “resources, resources, and resources.”
To wrap up the episode, Boudin asked one last question: “If you could snap your fingers and make one change in the system, what would you make?”
To that, Earlonne said he would end the death penalty and life sentences in prison, and Yahya said that he would love to establish relationships with officials in the criminal justice system.
“We want to be friends and have these relationships, we don’t want police to come into the communities and think we are under scrutiny or suspicion. We want to reimagine relationships and have these conversations about racial justice. We want to have relationships about racial inequality and have positive programs and systems in place where we don’t have to rely on training,” Yahya said.
Chesa, Earlonne, and Yahya dove into their personal experiences of being involved with the criminal justice system and how it impacts not just the individual but the communities in between for generations to come.