In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, and Myles cover the underreported news of the week — Toni Morrison’s personal materials on exhibit at Princeton University, top A.I. experts warn of the technology’s dangerous consequences, and flawed understanding of the Bystander Effect. DeRay interviews attorney Stephanie Krent of Knight First Amendment Institute about a lawsuit challenging prison’s digitization and destruction of mail.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode it’s me, Kaya, and Myles, talking about the news that you don’t know from the past week. The underreported news with regard to race, justice and equity. But the news that you should know. And then I sit down with Stephanie Krent, an attorney and expert on prison mail digitization. It is wild out here, y’all. Wait till you hear what’s going on? It’s nuts. Here we go.
Kaya Henderson: Hey, family. Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. My name is Kaya Henderson, and you can find me on Twitter at @HendersonKaya
Myles E. Johnson: My name is Myles E. Johnson and you can find me on Instagram and Twitter at @pharaohrapture
DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay @deray on Twitter.
Kaya Henderson: So lots of interesting stuff happened this week. There is a new King of England, the UK, Great Britain. I don’t know what you call that. Anyway, Charles was uh crowned at a big lavish coronation. Did anybody watch it, first of all?
Myles E. Johnson: I saw some clips.
DeRay Mckesson: I saw that Black, that Black choir singing at that–
Kaya Henderson: Honey.
DeRay Mckesson: –that coronation, was I was embarrassed for those people.
Kaya Henderson: How much do you think they paid them? They had to pay them a lot of money, right?
DeRay Mckesson: A lot of money.
Myles E. Johnson: Nothing is worth your soul. [laughter]
Kaya Henderson: It that was I mean, I didn’t watch it either. I just saw clips. And in every clip that I saw, they made sure to show the gospel choir. So we know that there was a gospel choir there. I also saw a meme that was of Camilla being crowned queen consort. And it was it said you I think it said your crown um you win queen of playing the long game, which I thought was pretty funny.
DeRay Mckesson: And she’s not Queen consort–
Kaya Henderson: Given her–
DeRay Mckesson: –remember that uh Charles now that Charles is king, he’s–
Kaya Henderson: What is she?
DeRay Mckesson: –she’s actually queen.
Kaya Henderson: Just Queen Camilla?
DeRay Mckesson: Queen Camilla, yeah because this was they were like, uh this is a take one for the side chicks. The side chicks win. She is now just the queen.
Kaya Henderson: The side chicks win. Mm. Fascinating. Um. We also got there’s also a new Bridgerton out, Shonda Rhimes, Queen Charlotte, the Black queen of England. Um–
DeRay Mckesson: Twitter said Twitter–
Kaya Henderson: That was just released.
DeRay Mckesson: –said Shonda did it again. Twitter was like Shonda did it again.
Myles E. Johnson: I loved it.
Kaya Henderson: Did you? You’ve watched it already?
Myles E. Johnson: I’ve watched it, I’ve watched it two times already.
DeRay Mckesson: [laughing] Don’t give it away.
Kaya Henderson: Oh my god.
DeRay Mckesson: Don’t give it away.
Myles E. Johnson: I watched the whole series yeah, I’m not giving it away. But I watched the whole series two times already. I was in–
Kaya Henderson: Wow.
Myles E. Johnson: I was into it. I have my little critiques, [laughter] but I was able to suspend my. You know, I’m good at that. Holding multiple ideas.
DeRay Mckesson: Did Shonda do it again? Did Shonda do the thing?
Myles E. Johnson: I don’t so she, oh, God. Not us bringing back that. [laughter] Yeah, I think Sho– I think Shonda did it. I think why why Black people need these kind of monarch fantasies is interesting. And and telling a little bit of like fantasy Stockholm syndrome coming out of your writing. So I get why it’s I don’t know why we need that. Like, I’m like, that’s [laughter] not like if you go too deep into it, it’s not empowering. But if you say, just tell them this, digesting this story, you’re like, oh, I loved it. Good entertainment.
Kaya Henderson: I think I think the thing about it that why it’s so important for people is like, you know, we’re erased from these histories. And so to see us in I like there, you don’t see pictures of Black people in Victorian times or, you know, nobody believes that Black people could have been royalty or of the whatever class. And so I think for a lot of young people, like I didn’t grow up seeing anything like that. And so I think for a lot of young people it just shifts what is possible, what could be possible based on what they’re seeing on the screen.
Myles E. Johnson: I guess I just want to know what is [?] and again, I’m I’m I, I may just I want to know what it’s based on. I want to know what it’s based on. Who are the the people that that this is based on. Cause some of it felt more reclaiming like a fantasy, reclaiming a past that like, didn’t really it didn’t happen. But yeah.
Kaya Henderson: She she says she says it’s fiction, she I saw a thing on–
Myles E. Johnson: Right.
Kaya Henderson: –the Today show and she says it is historical fiction, but it is based on real characters. So there was a Queen Charlotte who was Black. You seen the pictures of the lady with the curly hair and the broad nose?
Myles E. Johnson: Well, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah. [?]
Kaya Henderson: But but the story of what happened in the thing which I haven’t yet seen, but I’m going to watch tonight.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah.
Kaya Henderson: I’m so excited. Is fictionalized. She’s super clear about that.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah, well, well, well after everybody’s watched it, we’ll we’ll dig deep.
DeRay Mckesson: I will say, Twitter the my my black Twitter crew were literally was like, Shonda did it again. And I’m like, c’mon Shonda, because Shonda had us wrapped around her fingers with um Kerry Washington and that cry, what was that show? Scandal. We was all watching, you couldn’t tell me Scandal–
Kaya Henderson: Scandal.
DeRay Mckesson: –wasn’t the best thing thing on TV.
Kaya Henderson: Greys Anatomy, um How to Get Away With Murder.
Myles E. Johnson: I even support, you know, some of Shonda’s flop eras because I love I mean, it wasn’t really a flop era because it did really well. But I feel like she got a lot of um, like flack for like Inventing Anna, the Anna Delvey story?
Kaya Henderson: Oh. I didn’t know she did that.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah she did the Inventing Anna and I was like, I love this.
DeRay Mckesson: Oh, I was hooked on it.
Kaya Henderson: Oh that was a good–
DeRay Mckesson: But I watched every moment–
Kaya Henderson: –that was good.
DeRay Mckesson: –of Inventing Anna.
Myles E. Johnson: Okay.
Kaya Henderson: Totally totally.
Myles E. Johnson: Because I just remember a lot of people giving it a lot of push back. And I’m like, well, I just was I was just being quiet. [laughter]
Kaya Henderson: That thing was captivating.
DeRay Mckesson: Shonda can tell a story.
Kaya Henderson: For sure.
DeRay Mckesson: She could tell–
Myles E. Johnson: Listen. Listen.
Kaya Henderson: Um. And then there’s Uncle Clarence, who’s clowning again, it seems like the more they dig into this Harlan Crow story, the more there is. Some people say where there’s smoke, there’s fire. We now found out that Harlon paid for Clarence Thomas’s great nephew or grandnephew or something’s tuition at his private school. Come on, y’all, like for real?
DeRay Mckesson: It is just like the hits keep on coming. You know what I, I was talking to a friend the other day, and they were like, if the Republicans win the presidency, they’re going to kick that man off the court for sure. Like if the Republicans win, they will get him off and appoint a 25 year old who didn’t go to law school and we will be in hell again.
Kaya Henderson: Mm. Um. That is probably right. But but until that time comes and because we even though we have a Democratic president, we still are living in Republican land, they are not going to touch him.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah. And there is, you know, this is a reminder too that the that Congress just doesn’t have as much power over the court as we anticipated that like, what is the check and balance?
Kaya Henderson: Nobody does.
DeRay Mckesson: Besides adding more seats to the court. And I think that the Republicans have done a good job of making adding more seats sound like this radical thing. I think the Dems need to mainstream, like add two more, three more people and then we wrap this thing up. Like, I think that needs to be a legitimate conversation because that really is like the only avenue that we can do that makes the most sense right now, given that, you know, they’re not going to subpoena them, they’re not going to do anything else to to hold them accountable. And we’re just stuck in these reports being like, this is unethical.
Myles E. Johnson: Everything I could think of has like a curse word in it. [laughter] Clarence Thomas is just the biggest you know, what do the kids say? The one of the biggest ops. I just don’t [laughing] I just do not like him. [laughing] And and I just and I always go to like I know the the newest reports that are out, but I always instantly go to Anita Hill and I always instantly think if we–
Kaya Henderson: –had listened to Black women. Mmm.
Myles E. Johnson: The first time and we listened to them the first time, usually that’s how you treat Black women is usually really like uh it really indicates where your politics are going to go and what’s going to happen and where your morals are. And if we just listened, we wouldn’t be talking about him, you know, 101 years later chile. And why do evil people live so long? That is wild.
DeRay Mckesson: It really is it.
Myles E. Johnson: I’m like, what is going on? What is going on?
Kaya Henderson: And he’s a terrible justice, right? Like all of my legal friends who have been in front of the court say that this man falls asleep through most of the proceedings. He doesn’t actually write, you know, opinions. He’s I mean, and what’s most embarrassing, I mean, it’s just it’s horrible. But it’s even more embarrassing when, like, this is a Black man who literally was bought off. Literally bought off. Right. Like and his wife ah okay. Anyway, what else is going on this week? Um. [laughter] Catastrophe. Sorry, I just can’t with it anymore, catastrophe in New York. Jordan Neely, um I feel like I’m not super. I mean, I know what happened, but I’m not super on top of it because I don’t live in New York anymore, and so I’m not getting all the news. So, friends, what’s going on in New York?
DeRay Mckesson: So Jordan Neely was apparently saying that he was hungry and homeless on the subway, which anybody that’s ridden the subway has experienced before.
Kaya Henderson: Happens all day, every day.
DeRay Mckesson: And a white 24, I think he’s 24 year old uh former Marine put him in a chokehold and for 15 minutes choked him out and he dies while two other white men held him down. And it just is I mean, if not for social media, none of us would even know that this story happened. But somebody filmed it. And um and Eric Adams has all but defended the murder, uh the governor of New York, Kathy, I can never say her last name has also essentially go, how do you say it?
Kaya Henderson: Uh. No I’m good.
DeRay Mckesson: See you don’t know either. Kathy. Kathy has defended it, too. And that’s I don’t remember it like Kathy is what I got. So, you know, it’s been really an embarrassment. We’ll see if the DA presses charges on them. But the guy who killed him released a statement that um that essentially says he was, you know, making obscene gestures and blah blah blah blah blah and you’re like none of this is justification to kill somebody that is wild and I, 15 minutes is such an incredibly long time. And the last thing I’ll say, because this is also my news, but I’m really going to talk about Kitty Genovese, um the story around the bystander effect is that when you look at the transcript of people telling him that he’s going to kill him, it’s very clear that he knew he was going to kill him because one of the witnesses says that he poops on himself and if you keep going, he will die. And the guy holding him down is like, nope, that poop is old. Da da da. And the witness is like, no, no, no. My wife is ex-military. Like this pooping of yourself is the precursor to death, and the man holding him down is like, oh, no, he’s not really squeezing him da da. It’s like you this was not a mistake. This wasn’t a like, oops, he was not attacking anybody. Um. You just wanted to kill him. And let’s be clear if Black people went around on the subway killing every white person who made them feel uncomfortable. The subways would be shut down and we all be in jail.
Kaya Henderson: Mm hmm. It really just defies like, reason and logic that you literally. The man wasn’t doing anything. He didn’t hit anybody. He didn’t. He wasn’t menacing anybody. He was just screaming in the subway and who died and left you in charge and decided to take this man out? And how is it that nobody just knocked him off of the dude like and and no charges. Zero. Like how what when the police come, how do you not charge the people? Somebody is dead. Don’t you have to take somebody away?
DeRay Mckesson: So they do. They do actually put them in custody and then they released him really quickly. Myles, what you got on this?
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah, just really disgusting. Just really um you know, I really I think about like, homelessness and houselessness a lot. I do think about just as far as like what we can do about it, um about mental health crisises and what I have when I have my own experiences. Maybe Jesus, thank God [laugh] like before like four or five years ago with, um, with just like, like mental health services and like asylums and stuff like that and therapists and stuff like that. Um. Luckily. I was lucid and grounded enough to navigate that system. And of course, I had a community um that was helping me navigate it. But I had came so closely to so many people do not have those communities to who you kind of knew the trajectory of their lives were going to be either jail or death. And what I understood was, it’s so easy to become Jordan. It’s so easy to be in these situations. And if we’re actually letting people just exterminate people because of discomfort and not look at this is what this is this is indicative of a mental health crisis. This is indicative of what happens when we have systemic oppressions inside of um one of the richest states and countries in the world. This is indicative of that. But no, this person is this uh menace that can that could be that could be taken away. And and now not only are you being taken away, but you’re actually being kind of like celebrated around it. I think that we should all be really scared because now as the mental health conversations happening even more, we all know this. We all either are dealing with or know somebody who’s dealing with mental health. And we know that one of the main motivations underneath homelessness is mental health. You know, so it just disturbed me that other humans were looking at other humans like a pest problem and not like a person crying out for help. It really it really just kind of shook me to my core because I’ve seen through with my own eyes how close I am and anybody else who I know is to be in situations like that.
DeRay Mckesson: The Jordan Neely stuff. We’ll see what happens this week. I did want to go back Kaya to the coronation and just say very much switching topics and tone is that every meme of Katy Perry was great. Did you all see the memes of Katy Perry? [laughter]
Myles E. Johnson: I didn’t see the [?]. The only thing I saw was um who’s who’s who who’s the Nigerian singer who sung Keys to the Kingdom?
DeRay Mckesson: Tiwa?
Myles E. Johnson: Tiwa, Tiwa [?] do you know who Tiwa is um Auntie Kaya?
DeRay Mckesson: Not–
Kaya Henderson: No I don’t.
DeRay Mckesson: Not [?]. My– [banter]
Kaya Henderson: Tiwa, Tiwa Savage?
DeRay Mckesson: Yes.
Myles E. Johnson: Let me expound.
Kaya Henderson: Tiwa Savage?
DeRay Mckesson: Yes.
Myles E. Johnson: Yes. Tiwa Savage.
Kaya Henderson: Okay. Yes, I do know who Tiwa Savage is.
Myles E. Johnson: So Tiwa Savage. Took her Black tail–
Kaya Henderson: Self.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. You got to you I got to talk out of the I got to tighten up my lips and talk out of the corner of my mouth. All all grimy to talk about this. So she took her tail up there and not only did she sing for this king. And now let me tell you something. I’m 32. I lived in New York, and Atlanta, I’ve lived in the recession and I’ve done strange things for change. So I’m not even going to shame you. I know what it’s like to need your rent paid. [laughter] I get that part. But you have to have your own inner moral compass. The fact that you sat there, stood there and sung Keys to the Kingdom from Beyonce’s Black is King album to this man. Let me tell you something. I said this many times, and I must say it again because it applies. I don’t think that there’s a hell, but I think they will make it for Tiwa Savage. She needs to reflect.
Kaya Henderson: Oooh oooh.
Myles E. Johnson: She needs to reflect. She needs to reflect. That was the wild like absurd– like I just surreal. Surreal!
Kaya Henderson: Oh, my God. Why didn’t we start with Tiwa Savage? [laughing]
DeRay Mckesson: She looked great though. She looked great.
Kaya Henderson: I love it. I love it.
DeRay Mckesson: So let me just um since you all did not see the wonderful memes. The first was that um Katie couldn’t find her seat at the–
Kaya Henderson: –because she can’t see out of that hat.
DeRay Mckesson: [laughing] At the coronation. So this is the first meme and it just is so great. Because she legitimately can’t find her seat. But her the outfit is so intense. So then she tweets later foun–she tweets found my seat, guys, don’t worry. And then she is dressed uh in honor of Princess Diana at this coronation, which I think is just epic. And then the last meme–
Kaya Henderson: That’s-
DeRay Mckesson: –is that–
Kaya Henderson: –hilarious.
DeRay Mckesson: –she almost falls and it the like, she is the she was the comic relief. Like she just had she was it um at the–
Kaya Henderson: Mmm.
Myles E. Johnson: What how come? How come Meghan didn’t come?
Kaya Henderson: She says that–
Myles E. Johnson: Is that normal?
Kaya Henderson: –because it was it was the it was no because, you know, she and Prince Charles are beefing, but she it’s like the little boy’s birthday. Prince Archie, is that his name? Um. And it was his birthday. And so she stayed behind and Harry sat in the third row chile. This was not a family reunion.
DeRay Mckesson: The end of the monarchy is coming, baby, because even the royalists are struggling in trying to defend this man.
Myles E. Johnson: And everyone looked really goofy, like those hats and stuff. Like, I guess it always looked goofy, but I just think that specifically in modern times, they didn’t even look like, oh, what a I think some of some of the fascination with the royals is that it’s like a throwback and it’s like, oh, you know, time suspends itself. And you’re taking back to a time where, you know royalty was royalty and all the hoopla that goes along with it, but it didn’t look or feel like that. It just looked really silly and really tone–
Kaya Henderson: But part–
Myles E. Johnson: –deaf and and–
Kaya Henderson: Part of it is because nobody likes him, right? Like the Brits still are into the royals as a thing. They are the largest moneymaking attraction in the UK, but like nobody likes Prince Charles. And so ah.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah, I think they should just, you know, reinvest all of that to the Spice Girls. I think that’s a legacy for the UK. [laughter] And actually stand behind. [laughing]
DeRay Mckesson: Shush.
Kaya Henderson: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
DeRay Mckesson: Right.
Kaya Henderson: Because I love it.
DeRay Mckesson: Spicy baby spicy. [laughter]
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere, more Pod Save the People’s coming.
[AD BREAK] [music break]
DeRay Mckesson: So my news is actually about it comes off the heels of Jordan Neely. So once uh once the video comes out, people start saying, well, why didn’t anybody intervene? Like, why didn’t anybody do anything 15 minutes is a really long time. And it brings up the bystander effect, which is supposedly rooted in research, in this idea that when crisis happens, um when people are around other people, it discourages one individual from taking action because you’re around a group of people and everybody’s sort of like well Kaya is going to do it. Or Myles is going to do it so like, I don’t actually do anything. And the bystander effect comes from the story of the story of Kitty Genovese in um mmm in March of 1964, she was brutally raped and murdered in New York City. She was young and uh she was in her twenties. And The New York Times reported that 38 people watched her get killed and do nothing. That’s like the short version of the report and that nobody called the cops and people heard it and people screaming. They heard the screams. The wild part is that she was actually essentially killed in two waves. So she gets attacked, he leaves, comes back, kills her and in that time, people did hear the screams or the the noise. And this is this has always been used as a sign of like urban decay that like this is the danger of cities that when crisis happens, community actually is really loose. People do not reach out to people. And people said the same thing about the Jordan Neely thing. I during the Jordan Neely case and and I bring this here because as with many things we’ve talked about, like the word gap, for instance, that quote, “study” that turned out to be a sham, this is also just not rooted in reality. I’m going to read um the a correction that finally appeared in The New York Times much, much later. The correction said while there was no question that the attack occurred and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they have perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling. There were two attacks, not three. And afterward two people did call the police. A 70 year old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Ms. Genovese died on the way to the hospital. So the idea that 38 people watched and did nothing is just untrue. The idea that nobody called the police. Untrue. People did call the police. 911 wasn’t really the same back then. You know, when they actually did start interviewing people, Kitty was a lesbian and they interviewed her partner even though it was clear a man killed her, but they were so homophobic. So the bystander effect, which becomes this like scientific thing for people and da da da da not rooted in reality. They exploited the death of Kitty Genovese to make this idea that people in urban places don’t care about each other, don’t engage. And when you look at the Jordan Neely video when before I had seen it, I also was like, why didn’t anybody do anything? And then I look at it and I’m like, it was not only one man who killed him. A man did choke Jordan to death. They were three men. Two people hold him down. They like hold his arms down da da da da. People, one person does videotape, another person does say, hey, you’re killing him now. You know, people could have done more. That is true. But the idea that people in cities just do not actually engage in my experience is untrue. And I think about the other day I was at the gym and um and there was an altercation between a guy who seemed to be experiencing some mental health issues and a woman, and they were yelling at each other in the gym. And it was me and another woman who went upstairs like, somebody got to come down and get get, but every man down there was like, okay, we going to watch this happen, but nothing is going to happen to this woman. Like we will we will watch the screaming and yelling like that’ll, you know, the yelling is what it is. But there were so many men who were like, when push comes to shove, we got her and none of them knew her. And that has actually been my experience more than not so I just wanted to bring this here because the bystander effect not rooted in reality. And what is interesting about the death of Kitty, Kitty Genovese is that it was one of the precursors to the modern day 911. That experience was so wild that it created what we understand as 911, like a central repository. But again, one of the key parts of Kitty’s of Kitty’s killing is that people did call the police and they ignored it. They did not come, they did not engage. They were not there.
Myles E. Johnson: This was a really um like interesting story. So the reason why I know about Kitty, uh just weirdly enough, was that one day when I was like very young, I was looking up like on Google, things that happened on my birthday like historical events. And this happened March 13th on 1964. My birthday’s March um 13th, and that’s how I under– that’s when I found out about this incident. And I believed the the bystander effect that in fact I believed in it so much, that it would deter me, kind of uh affect how you how you move in the how you move in a city um how you move in a city, um how you interact with different people, because that’s what’s the information that was given. And then also, as I was reading what DeRay was sending, I was like, oh, and that also disproportionately colors Black people, even though who the [?] you know it it it it changes how you see Black people in cities and changes how you think, how more or helpful Black people are. And I think that’s something that can’t be um that can’t be overstated. And then also the most disturbing part and I know DeRay said it, but I just want to like put exclamation points on on it are that the police were called and they were not interested. The police were called and they were not interested at all. And the fact that this whole story has been twisted in order to make people think that everybody just stood around and really it really is a actual story about the decay and the moral decay of the NYPD and the police. That’s just disgusting. And it’s just disgusting. I really loved this because this is one of those myths that I still held in my mind. You know, it was some one of those disturbing things that fueled um uh ideas of other people’s homophobia, other people’s uh how other people treat others, you know, treat people who are different. And with this new information, it just it just differently shaped how I how I see that [?] forever. Um. So thank you for bringing this DeRay.
Kaya Henderson: Yeah, I me too Myles. This is you know, I lived in in New York. I grew up in New York. And so this was just one of those things that like you, it happened before my before I was born. But everybody knew what happened to Kitty Genovese and that all these people heard her screaming and heard and saw and da da da, and nobody did anything. And to see the actual, like, factual details of this, I mean, they the police didn’t even go after the killer. The people knew that it was a Black man. They saw the man stabbing her and they told the police and the police chose to focus on her lesbian girlfriend, her lover, her girlfriend, um and never looked for the man who killed her. He confessed at some other point when he was arrested for some other crime like it is, it really is about the moral decay of the police force. It is about the um biased slant of the media because The New York Times spun this whole thing into, you know, literally a cultural phenomenon that empowered police in super weird ways that, yes, created 911. But also just I mean, it is it’s it’s in the fabric of generations of New Yorkers um who still believe that this thing happened this particular way. So thank you, DeRay, um for bringing it to the podcast.
DeRay Mckesson: I will say both of you made me think too, about how and Myles you you sparked it in me. This idea that when when science says it, it actually starts to shape our behaviors. So like when you hear that the bystander effect is a real thing, when something happens, you’re like, oh, well, people just don’t and it like it like it disrupts our sense of community in the sense that we grew up where people say things and you call somebody or you get a da da da da da. That’s what I grew up in. I grew up in a community where like when something happened, you might not do something, but you calling somebody, you getting your cousin, you calling grandma like that was what you know, you didn’t just watch chaos. You like you did something. You know, I think about all the instances when I was in school or just being in a city where, like, I might not have. I remember I’ll never forget when I taught in New York City, I was going to school in the morning and I used to get to school at 6am it like a whole thing. I used to be on the 4:40, 4:40 a.m. train from Bay Ridge, and this one morning there was a drunk guy on the train. It was like six guys on the train and one woman. One of the guys is drunk and he is spitting at the woman. And he’s super drunk and she is cussing him out and nobody does anything. He doesn’t spit on her but he’s spitting at her and she’s like cussing him out. At one point she picks up her stiletto heels and starts to beat the [pause] out of this man. And it was one of those moments, I’ll never forget it, because all the rest of the guys, it was we were all guys. Everybody’s looking at each other. Like, if he even touches her, it’s on. Everybody is like, it’s on. But we not going. She is handling herself with this stiletto boot, so we just going, you know, he’s drunk so he barely, you know, he’s wobbling already. But there wasn’t even a question of like whether people would intervene if he actually hit her in this moment. And like, that is what I am used to, this sort of community of like, okay, we not you know, we won’t get in the middle of everything–
Kaya Henderson: We’re not unnecessarily jumping in.
DeRay Mckesson: Right. But–
Kaya Henderson: But if it goes down we got it.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah.
Myles E. Johnson: And I also think you can’t like a lot of these situations are unreal situations you know um not not unreal as in they didn’t happen but I think that being in situ– like uh uh uh just a little thing like um across the street a couple of a few months ago um not even a few like maybe a couple of months ago there was a huge fire in one of the apartment buildings and we witnessed it and stuff and we called we called the fire, you know, called the fire department um called 911. And we got help. But and even in that moment, it was so kind of like scary, and you know, and if almost like surreal. It was um it was very late and we were like in bed and we smelt smoke. It was just one of those things. So I guess what I’m trying to connect is that when you’re in a situation and you’re hearing somebody um be harmed like that, like when I think about Kitty”s situation where you see somebody being harmed and stuff, I think that we can’t we have to give people tools of what to do, though, also. Like I do still believe that. I still believe that we need to give people tools of what to do in those situations, so they become like melted into their basic instincts because that’s all you really have. Um just like since I was, you know four. Fire, police department, like, you know, or excuse me fire uh–
Kaya Henderson: Stop drop and roll.
Myles E. Johnson: You know what I mean? Like, these are the things that I just connect, even if, like, I’m going haywire. So I do think we need more help in those situations because I think in certain environments, specifically in a place like New York City chile, we do run into some things where you’re like now what does one do [laughter] in this moment. In this moment and you know, and they’re and they’re and they’re so strange. And I can only imagine just to bridge it back to Jordan um Jordan Neely. I can only imagine how surreal it feels because if you’re seeing four men do this and they’re not like it and you want to stop it. But you don’t. But you don’t know what to do and you’re like, are you like, I could just only imagine all the things that are like, happening in one’s head that you just need that was basic like, this is what you do in these moments. This is the way. This is what happens. When do we when do you sacrifice like specifically something like a choking it’s not like somebody’s stabbing somebody so it’s like, when do you say that’s enough, you know? Or do you just stop it from ever happening? Like it’s I do have a lot of empathy for the people who are surrounding uh surrounding it because I think it’s really easy to say what you would do when you’re not on the train. You know?
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.
[AD BREAK] [music break]
Kaya Henderson: My news is about uh Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, who is known as the godfather of A.I.. He actually created the technology that became the intellectual foundation for many of the artificial intelligence systems that are in use today. Um. Dr. Hinton quit his job at Google because he felt the need to speak out freely and warn society about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Now, as you know, just in the last few months, right we’re all, you know, super excited about chatGPT and all of the things that it can do and um Lensa is that the thing everybody was doing their artificial intelligence photos online and and and there are so many things that artificial intelligence powers every day like Siri or Bing or whatever you use your um uh Alexa all of the things um artificial intelligence is permeating and saturating our lives in ways that we don’t even realize. And Dr. Hinton was like, listen, I built this thing. And so I’m about to tell y’all that um it is dangerous. And we are basically um hurtling towards the world that Hollywood has has depicted um over and over again where the computers get smarter than us and ultimately take us out. Um. And so it’s fascinating to see this man whose entire life work um he he founded the basically what he founded are neural networks, which are how computers take data, eat it up, and then analyze it to make sense of it. And what he believed a long time ago was maybe the computers would get smarter than us like 50 years from now or 100 years from now or whatever. But when you look at how quickly this tech, these technologies are evolving, he’s actually worried that maybe in ten years we’ll be in a completely different place. And part of the thing that has um exacerbated this is the fact that like previously, people were being pretty responsible in terms of how they developed their technologies. But um basically what’s happening is uh Google and Microsoft are competing and racing to develop faster and faster AI and to beat each other out. And there’s no you know, this is capitalism at its best, right? There is nothing to stop the race for cash. And because of the way the technology is, um you don’t know, unlike the sort of nuclear world, you know, who is developing what nuclear capabilities. You don’t know if countries are developing this tech capability because you can’t see you can’t see it the way you can see other things. And so the real worry is that ultimately you won’t know what is true and what is not true. Um. There’s a worry that jobs will be eliminated. Most of the sort of um they call they refer to them in the article as drudge jobs. Jobs that do repetitive things over and over will be eliminated. And so we’ll have a jobs crisis. Um. And worst of all, that um these tools can be used in war. And this idea of these robot killing, robot killing robots, robots that kill people and things um that can actually develop the capacity um more and more quickly are the things that Dr. Hinton is warning about. Dr. Hinton seems to be a principled kind of dude because he was working at Carnegie Mellon University at one point and quit his job there and moved to Canada because most of the techno– technological research funding was coming out of the Pentagon. So the Department of Defense has fueled a lot of the research, and Dr. Hinton was like, I’m not down with my research being used to create machines of war and that kind of thing. So he hopped out of Carnegie Mellon, moved to Canada and continued his work and uh continuing that moral compass. Myles, right. Like at some point you just got to have your own. This dude quit Google where he’s worked for a decade to say, this is not okay. We need to create a worldwide consortium of scientists who can actually create some accountability. We need a moratorium on how quickly this technology is developing. And I think it is really interesting. I think we we think that AI is cool and we think. Oh my gosh, there are so many amazing things that can happen. But um when you put this stuff in the hands of bad people, there’s also really, really bad stuff that can happen. And I don’t think that we appropriately appreciate the role that technology can play in making the world an unsafer place, a less stable place. And so I brought this to the podcast because I feel like everybody’s talking about chatGPT, and I thought it was courageous, a courageous leadership move for Dr. Hinton to basically eschew his life’s work to warn us about the dangers of this emerging technology.
Myles E. Johnson: This was really fas– this was really fascinating. I love this. Um. I think the one thing when I read articles like this specifically, like with this like kind of like AI fear bubble that we like are in, is at the core in the base of it is human greed, evil. Um. And I think the things about the Hollywood AI is that often the technology becomes, you know, it’s the fantasy that the that the technology becomes sentient, does their own thing and comes and kill us. And it’s and oh we just we were we were just friendly scientists in the lab and it just happens it’s like, no, you have people who have terroristic evil minds who are using technology to do terroristic evil things. So in a weird, odd way for me, that calms me because then we’re dealing with the same thing that we’ve always been dealing with. There’s also, you know, I’m a pop culture, you know, just library in here. There’s the episode of Black Mirror called Metal Head that actually was pretty [?] if I could remember correctly, like was a pretty like one of the more popular episodes of Black Mirror. If it’s so scary, but it’s exactly what this is talking about. And that’s when I first thought about this AI technology, because it’s literally it’s called metalhead, and it’s about this dog looking robot that you’ve actually that we’ve actually seen. And it has um weapons on it and it’s basically terrorizing this um, this, this uh this, this person inside of this like building for 30 minutes. Because that’s what entertainment is but like to like basically chasing and terrorizing this person. And I think that that actually grounds it a little bit more. And again, there was somebody who programmed this thing to do this, to do this. There’s somebody whose mission it was to uh or or intention to do that. And I think it’s impor–for for me when I’m bored and I’m hearing all this stuff. It’s important for us to stay grounded in the fact that it’s the human’s proclivity for evil that and and and for and for terror that is always going to be the problem And we can’t just hyper focus on the AI and I think that will be like the misstep as we’re actually addressing this in the real world. Like we we still have the same problem, just different software update.
DeRay Mckesson: The only thing I’ll add is that, you know, I don’t know if you remember when the Black woman got fired from Google on the AI team for calling out–
Kaya Henderson: Oh, yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: –the transparency issues and the language models. And all that stuff. And what frustrates me about this is like, yes, he’s right. And yes, this is principle, but the one white man says it and everybody’s like, whew! We got to look at the ethics. 200 Black people signed that letter and it still was and and the content of the letter wasn’t even what made the news. The news was that she got that one person got fired was really the headline and like that should have been the news I mean, that was that was equally as important as 200 people who, 200 Black people, Black in AI who fi– who signed a letter being like y’all, this ain’t right. You know what I mean? And another just another reminder that Black people called it and said y’all, this is leading down a dangerous path. We are working on it. We see it. One white man does it and the story is, oh my goodness, he now doesn’t believe.
Myles E. Johnson: Not one white like it’s laundry. [laughter]
Kaya Henderson: Oooh, DeRay, you are so right. Thank you for bringing that up. I was just I just re– I just googled it. And Timnit Gebru is her name and I think I think we covered her. I think I think we covered this–
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah yeah.
Kaya Henderson: –on the podcast. And so thank you for now I feel all convicted like damn Kaya why you bring the article when the white man did it but [laughter] but we did cover it [laughing] [laughter] but we did cover it we did cover it in 2018. I’m a go back through the archives and find it for sure. Um. But yes, in fact, she was the co-lead, the technical co-lead of Google’s ethical artificial intelligence team. And she had she wrote a paper focusing on the ethical problems involving the kind of artificial intelligence systems used to understand human language, including the ones that power Google search engines. The the only thing that clearly Dr. Hinton learned from that because he quit before he said, look out. Right. Um. But shout out to Timnit Gebru, who sounded the alarm first. Good golly. Mmm. Yeah.
Myles E. Johnson: But also it’s also it’s an interesting race story, right? Because I think across industries, what I’ve noticed is that when Black people complain, we are just seen as because and it’s weird because we are often like the moral trad– anything morally good that has happened in America specifically. Yeah, anything that is morally good usually Black people are somewhere in the base of starting those movements. So when we do yell and say something is wrong, we’re right. Everybody’s better for it. But I also think that in a weird racial stereotypical way, we kind of get um painted as just overdramatic or um, or oh it’s not that big of a deal. Whereas white men, specifically older white men, are seen as stable where they’re seen as um centered. So if he’s running, then, oh my goodness, it’s really time to run. Whereas if, you know, 200 Black people are running, oh, they always running from something. They’re so dramatic. They’re always they, they, they, they are always making um mountains out of molehills. And I think this is like a really interesting example of that.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
Myles E. Johnson: Ending this in a short and sweet but um bright note. You know, uh one of one of one of my most uh just just like North stars of how to live a life and how to um leave this earth with leaving a having a great legacy. Toni Morrison has a new exhibit at Princeton University. It’s called Sites of Memory. The exhibit um has uh different writings, different articles of um of personal items and uh and from what I’ve been told, I’m I’m I’m planning a trip to go there so I can visit before before it’s done. But what I’ve been told it’s a really beautiful honoring of Toni Morrison’s life. Um. It’s interesting. I don’t know if this if if this worry is just me and paranoia around the intelligence, the intelligence of of of people or maybe just me being a little bit of a um a romantic about uh the past and nostalgia. I know there’s like an actual word for people who are overly romantic and nostalgic about the past. But um even though Toni Morrison is obviously a giant in the literary community, something about me gets scared that we that some of her books and her or her offerings are going to get lost. Um. I think I get scared about that with Black women writers in general. When I think about Bell Hooks and Toni Morrison and the other Black writers that have shaped me and who I love and revere is that uh everything’s going to go so quickly and people are going to want such escapist content that things that Toni Morrison dedicated her life to won’t necessarily be um honored and and remembered in the in the mainstream in the years to come. Uh. Even when I think about. One of the things that I thought about was even like Maya Angelou, which is like an odd thing to I dunno it’s an odd thing to maybe think about, but it kind of feels like she passed away. And of course, she’s still discussed and every now and then somebody might use her voice as a meme. And it just I don’t know, it just feels like when I was growing up, there was uh there was a capacity for a Black woman writer to be a rock star. And I just think that uh I something about it not being a part of the mainstream uh culture anymore scares me. And I think about Oprah’s book club and Toni Morrison being on those things. I just I get a little fearful so anywho. One of the reasons why I love this exhibit is because I love that even though she’s she’s died um a few years ago now, there are still efforts post her um post her death to keep on art, um keep honoring her, keeping her legacy and her memory in the public um imagination. And I think that when it comes to Black women, Black queer writers and artists, specifically, ones who did not necessarily uh do the the mainstream things or who had other types of careers, I think it’s really important, no matter how giant or mammoth you think this person is. I think that as time goes, that that person’s legacy can continue to uh be reduced specifically the more you know, I’m sounding like such a old, old auntie, but as a as a as as the as the entertainment.
Kaya Henderson: There’s nothing wrong with that.
Myles E. Johnson: As the entertainment and our diets and what in our appetite for things get a little bit to me more fast food like and we just like things that are just a more and more low brow and quicker. It just gets me scared about uh where people’s legacies will be, who dedicated their life to the expansion of consciousness and the raising of consciousness and um yeah, yeah, go, go visit and and do as many things as you can and these Black women and artists’ uh honor in your own community. That’s what I’ve been thinking about doing, too.
Kaya Henderson: Thanks for bringing this Myles. I um I thought it was interesting just because there were um snippets of Toni Morrison’s life that came out um from her writing process to the fire at her at her home that I just didn’t know about. And so it was it was nice to sort of dig into her in her life um in a little bit of a different way. And I’m excited to go see the exhibit as well. I think um the point that you bring up about preservation of what I would call the classics for classics of Black literature or Black art, it is it’s really important. And shout out to um the professor Amber now, I can’t remember her last name. Let me look for it. Um. Oh, sorry. Autumn Womack, who is an associate professor of English and African-American studies at Princeton, who curated the the exhibit. And I think this is the importance of teachers and professors and universities and schools, right? The way that I learned about the Bluest Eye or the the first time that I read Toni Morrison, it was because I had an English teacher who introduced me to it. And the power that teachers have to expose kids to this kind of stuff, um even in a fast food, commodified sort of, you know, social environment I think is really an underappreciated part of the teaching profession. Of course I’m going here because this is who I am and who I’ve been. Um. But I I think it’s important, I mean, in the work that I do today at Reconstruction, like we we have worked on what we call the Black canon. What are the books that we think all black kids should read before they graduate from high school? And we have to be our own storytellers. We have to be our own archivists. We have to pass on these traditions to our young people so that um they can TikTok all they want to. But you’re going to read a little Toni Morrison up in this house. That’s just how it is. And so shout out to the teachers who are determined whether it’s in the curriculum or not. Shout out to um the advances in what is termed culturally relevant curriculum, where um the research shows that when kids see themselves, their community, their experiences in the things that they’re learning, academic outcomes improve, engagement improves, leadership improves, all kinds of self identity improves. Um. Shout out to the people who are pushing those boundaries in the education space. Shout out to our museum curators. Um. The number of of Blacks in the museum movement is at an all time high and so I think this just sort of goes shout out to us as a podcast for bringing the things to the people that we think are important for our people to know. Storytelling is our birthright. And so telling our own stories is part one of the most important things that we can do for the culture.
DeRay Mckesson: So shout out to Toni Morrison. This made me look up some Toni Morrison quotes that I hadn’t seen before, and I will just share the one that I was like, why haven’t I seen this before? Uh. In an interview, she said, I trust the reader. I think readers have been so mishandled in either schools or the public world, they’ve almost forgotten how much they know. Readers know a lot, but they don’t trust what they know because they think there’s an A-plus or a test somewhere. They’ve forgotten how to just go in. And that’s one of the things that I’ve just like always, like, you’re like, Toni. Toni just got words. She was like the first person I read where I was like, Oh, I get I get how a story can be lyrical, not just good. Not just interesting. But I remember reading Beloved and getting to the last page and I was like, you did that. That was a like I felt the lilt and the tilt and the tug and the pull of the story itself. And I’m like, not everybody can do that. That was and I read Toni before I was a good reader the first time, but I still got something out of it and it was cool to come back to Toni Morrison once I had the tools to get more out of it. And every time, like there’s always something hidden in uh in a Toni story. So thanks for bringing her to the pod.
Myles E. Johnson: Absolutely love that. And just just to reiterate, Toni Morrison is a Black liter– just is a literary mammoth like as far as just literary like go, goes so it’s a the idea that I’m sparking is like what I’m thinking about June Jordan. Pat Parker. Like there are kids who have spoke, not they’re not kids. I’m 32, they’re 20, 23, 24, 25. Like right around my age, just maybe younger. Um. But people do not know who June Jordan is, who do not know who Pat Parker is, Essex Hemphill. Marlon Riggs like, to me, these people who are who just shaped my consciousness and were just Black uh titans. And it, I think it’s just so important [?] my heart that people know that these people’s work exists. And I think that if we’re if we’re losing recipes when it comes to like Maya Angelou or like if that if she’s starting to be a part of the shadows of yesterday’s culture, then I can only imagine what what’s going to happen to these people who um didn’t have a type of like mainstream writing success, but whose work are critical to how Black people um uh think and engage with words.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.
[AD BREAK] [music break]
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: This week we welcome Stephanie Krent of the Knight Institute on the pod to talk about prison mail digitization, surveillance and a recent lawsuit that was brought by free speech organizations. Now, the topic’s come up a few times on the pod, and we know that physical mail is important. It’s a lifeline. It’s a way for people to stay connected to people in their homes and their families who are not incarcerated. We know that digital copies are not a legitimate substitute, but we’ve never had an expert on. So here we go with Stephanie. You’re going to learn stuff. I learned a ton. Now you know. Boom.
DeRay Mckesson: Stephanie, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Stephanie Krent: Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
DeRay Mckesson: I have a million questions. I’m super pumped to talk to you. Uh. But before I ask those questions, can you tell us how you got into this work? Did you always care about privacy issues was it was it like a thing that happened and you were like jails and prisons or did you read an essay and you’re like, this is crazy this is going to be my life’s work. Like, what was the thing that called you to this work?
Stephanie Krent: Yeah, for me, it was uh really a function of finding the organization I currently work for, which is uh the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. And uh the mission of that organization is to defend freedom of speech and of the press in the digital age. And one thing I you know, when I was doing my job search a few years ago, really admired and kind of was drawn to the Knight institute, was that so many times we think about privacy and free speech, we often think about them as kind of rights for the most privileged uh and kind of rights that can help entrench power for the most powerful. But the Knight Institute has done a lot of work, really trying to make sure that those protections also apply to the least privileged. And so that’s why I wanted to work there and kind of take on privacy and free speech really for all, um and to focus on how digital surveillance can impact marginalized communities most. Um. So that’s what kind of drew me to this area. And and this case is kind of a perfect example of the issues that we’ve been focused on over the past couple of years.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Now I got to you because of your work and writings about the digitization of mail and the phasing out of physical mail in jails and prisons, I guess we’re at both at this point.
Stephanie Krent: Yeah yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: Can you help us understand what’s going on, like for people who have never heard of this? I’ve heard of mail guard a little bit, but you’re the first expert that I’m talking to. I did have a chance. I’m on the Council on Criminal Justice. I talked to Colleen, Collette, who uh what’s her, who runs the Bureau of Prisons. We were on a panel together and I was like, come on, why are y’all banning mail? And she was like, DeRay, you know, she just got there and she was like, you know, she was like, she’s open to exploring it. She she was like, the people here had told me that people are mailing in contraband um and you’re the first expert, so I am pumped to talk to you. So like, lead us into it where I’m on the Stephanie trust train today.
Stephanie Krent: Good. Uh. Well, I hope I don’t let you down on that train, um but a little bit of background about how this technology works. So essentially, when a jail or prison, as you say, does mail digitization, what that really means is that it has a policy banning all physical mail. Means that no mail at all is getting into the facility. Instead, mail has to be sent offsite often to a private for profit contractor and offsite that mail gets scanned into a digital copy that could last indefinitely. And then the original is destroyed. It’s shredded. It can never be seen again by the recipient or by the sender who originally wrote the mail. Two major problems with mail digitization that we’ve focused on in our advocacy work and in a lawsuit we recently filed in California. The first is that by losing physical mail, you’re depriving people of meaningful communication. You’re hampering connection between incarcerated people and their loved ones, also their educators, their religious leaders, their support systems, their ability to access post-release programming. The second issue is that by scanning and storing these digital copies of mail, you’re enabling unprecedented surveillance of people who have ties to the justice system because you’re storing their letters and allowing law enforcement to read and search through their mail. You know, typically at any time and for any reason, which makes this a huge risk to the privacy rights of people who are unincarcerated, as well as people who are incarcerated.
DeRay Mckesson: So the idea that this is like a for profit money scheme obviously resonates with me. But what do the proponents say? Like when they’re like, we need to digitize it? They are definitely saying something that is not we’re just trying to scam people. What is that?
Stephanie Krent: That’s right. So the justification we’ve seen most often is that drugs are getting in through the mail and that to deal with the drug problem behind bars, you need to stamp out mail, prevent it as a vector for getting contraband into facilities. The major problem with that argument is twofold. First is that even under systems that allow physical mail, it’s being searched. It can be searched, you know, by doing physical inspections. It can be searched through x-ray scans, it can be searched through drug sniffing dogs. So it’s not the case that it’s kind of a free for all and mail can just get in regardless of what it contains. But the second problem with that argument, and one that I think is more significant, um is that there’s really no evidence that mail is a significant vector for drugs. Right. Most of what we’ve seen in public reporting and in public testimony is that staff are primarily responsible for getting drugs into facilities. That’s kind of borne out by the data, because in states that have adopted mail digitization, what you actually see is that drug use does not go down behind bars. In fact, it often goes up. So uh Pennsylvania adopted mail digitization in 2018. And a new reporting just came out, I think, last week that said at this point, the drug test positivity rate has more than doubled since that time. So there’s just no evidence that mail digitization can do what people think it’s going to do.
DeRay Mckesson: Where did this come from? Was it like a was it [?]? Was it like somebody wrote an essay and people were like, we need to ban all the mail! Was it a company’s lobbyists? Like, you know, I first heard about this when Trump did it at the federal level. Like, did the pilot.
Stephanie Krent: Right.
DeRay Mckesson: I didn’t know anything about Pennsylvania, actually, until you just said that. So how or like I mean, you have written a million things, but until you I didn’t know that this was like not just the Trump moment. Where’d it come from?
Stephanie Krent: So Pennsylvania in 2018 was the first state to adopt this on a statewide basis. Uh. My understanding is that mail digitization and scanning programs have been in the works at smaller facilities kind of county level facilities, um but similar to you, DeRay, I first heard of this also when the Federal Bureau of Prisons was piloting a program. I should mention that program has been–
DeRay Mckesson: Got it.
Stephanie Krent: –paused. Uh but–
DeRay Mckesson: Oh, really? It’s on pause?
Stephanie Krent: Yeah. It was paused. Um. It lasted, I think, 2020 to mid to late 2021. It’s been on pause since not to say that they won’t try to get funding to run another pilot program to expand it. Um. But that was the first time I got really interested in this area, in part because of what happens at the federal level is such a signal to states for what states should do. To counties, for what counties should do, that the threat of adopting mail digitization at the federal level I think was and is remains huge.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, is there one vendor that is like the big player in the space? Is it two? Is it or is it the normal suspects? Is it JPay? And this is like a derivative of JPay? Like what’s the what’s the landscape look like?
Stephanie Krent: JPay does do mail digitization uh and other vendors do too. But the, the vendor that is kind of most known for this technology um that had the contract in Pennsylvania, that had the contract at the federal level, and that now has the contract in San Mateo County where our lawsuit is focused is Smart Communications. Uh. And Smart Communications is a vendor based in Florida that you know focuses on all sorts of telecommunications, but especially mail digitization. Uh. And so it’s a big player and a big threat in this space.
DeRay Mckesson: And do we know any are they are they like a completely new vendor? Like what do we know about them?
Stephanie Krent: I couldn’t tell you when they were founded. I believe that they are less well established than you know JPay, Securus, vendors like that. Um. But one thing we know is that they have really marketed themselves based on their ability to scan mail, based on their ability to store mail and to create searchable files for mail so that law enforcement can search through it, often using keyword searches. We also know that they pledged to store mail for law enforcement in contracts often for up to seven years, not after the mail is sent, but after the person receiving it has been released from jail or prison. So that could be–
DeRay Mckesson: What?
Stephanie Krent: That’s it could be years and years longer and it could be more than double or triple the total amount of time someone was incarcerated. Um. And what we know is that that may not be the outer limit. So a few years ago, the CEO gave an interview saying, actually, we’ve never deleted any records. We keep it all for investigators at any time.
DeRay Mckesson: Shut up.
Stephanie Krent: And so the risk to privacy is so dramatic because if you want to send a letter through Smart Communications, you have to accept that that piece of mail might live on with law enforcement forever.
DeRay Mckesson: That is wild. Now what’s the price? Do we know anything about the pricing? Like, is this do they make it uh really low cost and then lock states into these 20 year contracts? So it looks like it’s not a lot, but it is a lot? Or is it does it just straight up cost a lot of money? Does Smart Communications also sell the tablets or just the software. Like help us understand the the um capitalist ecosystem around this.
Stephanie Krent: The economics are really variable. So in some states, in some contracts, the corrections facility pays Smart Communications to provide its services. Um. I think Pennsylvania is one of those. In other places, Smart Communications will come in and say, we’re going to do everything for free. We’re going to give you these tablets, we’re going to give you the software you can access. It’s all going to be at zero cost to the facility. And the reason they do that is that through other services, they can provide like video visitation, email messaging, uh you know, videos and music that people can stream on the tablets. They will, in many instances receive money from that so they can charge, you know, a dollar to include a photograph on an email message. They can charge, you know, $0.25 per minute for a video visit. Um. So that’s how they make their money through the families and the incarcerated people themselves. In other counties we see a version of that, but they think it’s such a good value proposition for them that they will actually give kind of kickbacks to the correctional facility itself or they’ll offer um the appeal I think reported last year that Smart Communications in many contracts offered free rooms on what they called like a technology training cruise. Uh so like a cruise.
DeRay Mckesson: Not a cruise.
Stephanie Krent: It’s like a cruise that they were offering to people um–
DeRay Mckesson: Shut up.
Stephanie Krent: Through the guise of saying it was training. Um. So that’s the economics, which is trying to make it as easy as possible, as financially feasible as possible to get in the door at these facilities because they know that making money from communicate from communities, excuse me, who are you know dealing with incarceration is so lucrative to them. And I think one of the issues, too, is that because this is such a valuable business model, they are the ones who are telling corrections leaders, you know, you need to protect your mail. You need better solutions because this is how contraband is getting in. And so it can feed into this idea that really has, I think, been publicly debunked that mail is really a threat to security in prisons and jails because it is not.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, is this um do we know if this is being considered somewhere else right now, or is this sort of it’s just in Pennsylvania, it’s on pause in the in the federal government, or is it on the horizon somewhere that we all need to pay attention to?
Stephanie Krent: This is a growing threat. So Prison Policy Initiative did a study that they released, I believe, last year showing that mail digitization or some form of it, which might look as simple as a facility just directly photocopying mail without the use of a contractor is, I think, in place in about 14 states at this point. Uh. And that number is growing because more and more facilities see other facilities adopting it. Um. And that’s part of why we wanted to file this lawsuit, because we wanted to make facilities across the country really second guess what they’re doing when they’re implementing mail digitization, it isn’t a simple and cheap fix. It’s incredibly damaging to the families that are involved. And I think corrections facilities don’t necessarily recognize that at the outset.
DeRay Mckesson: That’s wild. Can you tell me um so this is all wild. I would love to know like what in your research as somebody who both of us sort of got to it from the federal government make an announcement. What’s surprised, what has surprised you as you as you’ve gone through the advocacy around this? Is there any part of it where you’re like? Well, I knew it was bad but whew this even this even surprised me.
Stephanie Krent: You know, one of the things that surprised me um was actually in talking with some of our clients about what it’s like to live in a facility that adopted mail digitization, because, you know, before we had those conversations, I had like you’d read a lot about what this looks like and how people react to it. I had known that people say, you know, I don’t want to send my child’s drawings anymore. I’m uncomfortable with photographs being sent because they could live on. Um. But I wasn’t sure how many people would actually make that decision, because it is such a hugely personal and kind of costly decision to say you’re going to cut yourself off from mail, which has traditionally been a cheap, relatively private and very reliable method of communication throughout incarceration. But in talking to our clients, many of them had decided to tell their families to stop sending mail. Many of our non incarcerated clients eventually made the decision to stop sending mail, and that was a real wake up call to me to see how damaging not just it is in theory, but how it really feels um that it feels so terrible that people make the decision to stop communicating at all, which is, you know, from the perspective of how you support people who are incarcerated, just the absolute worst outcome.
DeRay Mckesson: That makes sense. That makes sense. What would you say to people who are like, you know, if this just stops a little bit of contraband coming in, it’s worth it?
Stephanie Krent: I would tell those people to think about the costs and benefits, right? Because the costs here are really great. There is evidence that shows that increased communication with loved ones and community on the outside supports all kinds of really good post-release outcomes that everyone wants to support. There’s evidence that mail in particular is really effective at doing that because it can allow people to kind of think, reflect, go deeper before they respond. And in that way, it creates a kind of deeper emotional bond and connection with the outside world. Beyond that, there are all sorts of reasons why mail is just crucial for people incarcerated, because it is often cheaper, because it’s easier for you know organizations like our plaintiff, A.B.O. Comix, to stay in touch through mail rather than individual phone calls. So the loss is really great. On the other side of the ledger, it’s true that prisons and jails need to protect the people inside them you know from the threat that rampant drug use can pose. But on that front, I’d say let’s look at the other alternatives, right? Let’s look at the kind of proven effects that increased staff security would have, the effects that using other forms of drug interception, like drug sniffing dogs, like X-ray scanners. Let’s look at the effects that better health care, right? Physical, mental health care, addiction treatment that those would have on reducing drug use within facilities. So I think you can accomplish these goals at once, but mail digitization actually accomplishes neither, and that’s why it’s so problematic.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Now, you know, one of the things that I always find interesting as an advocate myself is when you’re talking to policymakers or legislators, about this, what comes up is it, are they repeating the tried and true things? Do you find that they don’t even know the difference between prison and jail? Like, what is what are you dealing with as you do the advocacy around this?
Stephanie Krent: You know, in New York City I think we’ve been really lucky for two reasons. First is that there have been advocates working in this space you know for longer than I have who have really focused on the rights of people incarcerated throughout the city. You also have lawmakers who have been very keyed in so, you know, I testified before a city council last fall when the New York City Department of Corrections was trying to propose adopting mail digitization. And I was really impressed by the questioning that councilmembers asked, by the way they reacted to comments and the direct questions they were asking the D.O.C. because they were really keyed in. Um. I and many other activists were also involved at the Board of Corrections level, which is kind of the supervisory entity over the D.O.C., um and there the reaction was more mixed. But advocates really pressed and pressed on these issues, explained why it was so damaging, why it wouldn’t serve the city’s goals. And, you know, last month, the county, the city excuse me, decided not to go forward with mail digitization. So it shows that the more you talk about this, the more you explain it over and over. You know, people do listen.
DeRay Mckesson: Is there any hope with Pennsylvania, like given the report that just came out, that’s like, hey, not doesn’t work?
Stephanie Krent: Yeah, I mean, I’m I’m less in the activism in Pennsylvania right now, but three amazing organizations, um the Abolition Law Center, Amistad Legal Project and the ACLU of Pennsylvania were all involved right away in 2018, they challenged mail digitization, not as a whole, but they challenged it um with respect to legal mail. So at that time, Pennsylvania was trying to adopt this for legal mail, too, which is dangerous for a whole host of other reasons. And since that time, local activists have really been trying to kind of bang the floor to talk about the fact that the drug rates were not going down. I believe that contract is extended through towards the end of this year, I think this fall. Um. So there is an opportunity for Pennsylvania legislators to make a different choice. And certainly the facts on the ground would support that.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Well, we covered a lot. What else should we know about as we close out?
Stephanie Krent: Well, I will talk a little bit about some of the other work that I do. But one thing that I think is so exciting about the work that you know we do around mail digitization and a lawsuit we filed is that we’re working with other organizations who similarly you know do a whole host of other work. So in the case we filed recently, the Knight Institute is working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has really been at the forefront of digital issues and has been speaking out against mail digitization as a form of digital surveillance for many years now. Um. We’re also working with the Social Justice Legal Foundation, which is an organization that really focuses on civil rights for marginalized communities, especially around the carceral system. And through them, we’ve been working with local activists, especially Silicon Valley De-Bug, which is really kind of a boots on the ground advocacy organization that’s based in San Mateo and in the Bay Area. Um. So working with these different organizations has kind of made me appreciate just how overlapping these circles of interest are um that you can find really close allies, you know public defender organizations as well, um who all come to this issue through a different lens but see it for the threat it really is. Um. So that’s that’s kind of a high level answer to thinking about all the different ways that this pokes up in um different sorts of organizations. But for me in particular, um so I do you know work in this space. I’m also involved in some of our work protecting journalists from spyware, some of our work protecting travelers from very intrusive electronic device searches at the border. Those are kind of the primary uh areas I focus on.
DeRay Mckesson: Now there are two questions we ask everybody. The first is, what do you say to people whose hope is challenged in moments like this, people who are like, they read your articles, read the books, they protested, they emailed, they voted, they watched the news, they told their mom and dad, they did all the things and it’s still not great. What do you say to those people?
Stephanie Krent: Well, first, I would say I count myself among you, so I understand. Um. But I would say two things. I think the first is that. And when you look around, there’s no question that things are getting worse. I mean, just take this as an example. Mail digitization was something that was in its infancy five years ago, and it’s really well established around the country now, and that’s growing. Um. So things are getting worse, but in other ways, things are also always getting better, right? So New York City pushed back against mail digitization after a lots of sustained effort. Um. There are many other states that have started to move towards free communication for people who are behind bars, which is a huge win. Um. And incredible kudos to the state advocates that are working on things like free phone calls. So I think you can find places where things are getting better just as much as you can find places where things are getting worse. And the second thing I would say is just that if you are kind of despairing of the outcomes, right, that you you don’t see outcomes getting better. Try to focus your hope and your faith in something else. Right? So maybe that’s just showing up for the people you love who are also doing the work. Maybe it’s showing up because it makes you feel like a better person. It makes your perspective better. I think there are other things to focus on besides just whether or not things are moving in the direction you want them to be moving in.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. And the last question is um, what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten that you’ll never forget?
Stephanie Krent: One really good piece of advice that I got was love the people you work with. I think it’s very common to hear the advice, love what you do. But many years ago when I was starting my career, someone told me to focus on who you’re working with as well. And I think this applies to, you know, like career work, but also to you know social justice work, work you do in your communities. It’s really important to care about the work you do. It’s like how I wake up in the morning, but I think it’s just as important to care about the people that you’re doing the work with because no matter where you are, like, things are going to get sticky. They’re going to be moments that feel overwhelming or frustrating moments where you know you do lose hope, right? And you are um thinking about things getting worse and despairing. And I think that if you’re in a community with people you value, people you love, the hard times become so much more bearable. You can be more honest and vulnerable. You can take things in good faith and you find so much more resilience that way. So I would encourage people to think about what they do and who they do it with.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom.How do people stay in touch with you? How do people make sure they will always know the next article you write or follow this issue? How what do they do? Where do they go? Is it Twitter or Facebook? Is it a website? What’s the what?
Stephanie Krent: Yeah, I you know, I don’t know what’s happening with Twitter on a day to day basis. So–
DeRay Mckesson: I mean that’s fair.
Stephanie Krent: I’m I’m nervous about suggesting it, but Twitter is the best way to get in touch with me. My handle is @StephanieKrent. Um. You can also go to the Knight Institute’s website, which is KnightColumbia.org. And a lot of our advocacy work and you know our writings, including my writings on this topic, are housed there.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom well we consider you a friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you back.
Stephanie Krent: Thanks so much, DeRay. This was a great conversation. [music break]
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out and make sure you rate it wherever you get your podcasts. Whether it’s Apple podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media, it’s produced by AJ Moultrié and mixed by Evan Sutton. Executive produced by me and special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Myles E. Johnson. [music break]