“For Life” is a television series that premiered on ABC on February 11, 2020. The series is based on the true story of Isaac Wright Jr., who was imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit. While incarcerated, he became an attorney and helped overturn the wrongful convictions of twenty of his fellow inmates, before finally proving his own innocence.
I enjoy watching shows that depict the tough reality of jails and prisons, but I have to remind myself that they are primarily for entertainment, not educational purposes. For example, cell phones appear regularly in prison scenes. “Not realistic,” I say. Their possession and use are banned for inmates and prison guards. Cell phones do find their way into prisons however and can pose a security risk. Inmates face up to five more years in prison for having a cell phone.
The Case of Willie Nash
Willie Nash was arrested on a misdemeanor charge and ended up with a twelve-year prison sentence! As he was waiting in a County Jail in Mississippi, he asked a jailer to plug in his smartphone. He was not told no phones were allowed in the jail and was not properly searched when he was booked so the phone was not confiscated. The jailer seized the phone, Nash was indicted under Mississippi’s law barring contraband in jails and prisons and was sentenced to 12 years in state prison.
Attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center appealed the sentence claiming it was grossly disproportionate to the crime. Most states allowed sentences of no more than five years for possessing a cell phone in prison. Furthermore, the only reason Nash had the cell phone was because jail officials violated their own policy by failing to search him. Nash never attempted to conceal the phone. The only reason authorities became aware of the phone was because Nash gave it to a guard.
On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed Nash’s sentence in January 2020, ruling that the prison term fell within the state’s statutory limits. The ruling drew national attention from the media and the legal profession. Despite upholding the court sentence, Justice Leslie D. King wrote a sharply worded concurring opinion, that Nash’s offense was “victimless” and that the case as a whole seemed “to demonstrate a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”
The case highlights the disproportionately tough approaches to crime, depending on who you are and where you live. “It shows how punitive our system is federally and within states,” said Nicole D. Porter, director of state advocacy for the Sentencing Project. “It’s a window into the extreme prison terms that many individuals are subject to regardless of circumstances.”
Mississippi Supreme Court Justice King agrees. He said the trial judge and prosecutors should have used their discretion to seek a lighter sentence or avoid charging Nash altogether. “Nash’s crime was “innocuous,” King said, “and his criminal history showed he had changed his behavior. Nash served his time for his previous convictions and stayed out of trouble with the law for many years. He has a wife and three children who rely on him,” King wrote. “Both the prosecutor and the trial court should have taken a more rehabilitative, rather than punitive, stance.”
Nash, a father of three, is tentatively scheduled for release in February 2029, though he will be eligible for parole after serving a quarter of his term.
Some legal experts have said that a nation’s quality of justice is only as good as what its citizens demand and expect. The case of Willie Nash is a sad commentary on American justice, in a nation where many citizens consider this a “Christian nation.”
“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue….” –Deuteronomy 16:20