Stevenson writes about the history of the mentally ill and disabled in in the American prison system. Up to the nineteenth century, mentally ill individuals often ended up incarcerated. In the late 1900’s, activist efforts helped to move the mentally ill population from prisons to state and private hospitals. However, mass institutionalization became problematic because of forced hospitalization, mistreatment, over-drugging, and hospitalization of “socially deviant” individuals such as homosexuals. In the middle of the twentieth century, activist efforts again worked to establish rights for the mentally ill and move from hospitalization to community programs. However, mass incarceration, poverty, and drug epidemics, along with lack of access to treatment, again led to mass incarceration and criminalization of the mentally ill. Stevenson writes that prisons are often unprepared to treat and deal with mentally ill people, and so they end up punishing the mentally ill for behavior related to their illness, which worsens their condition.
Through the story of how different activist efforts have shaped America’s solutions for the mentally ill, Stevenson suggests that social problems and their solutions require continued reevaluation and new efforts over time. He illustrates not only the unintended consequences of previous solutions, but also the way that new social, legal, and economic conditions can intersect to create new problems for disadvantaged populations. He further reinforces his argument that increasing harshness in the criminal justice system has a more dramatic impact on populations that are already the most vulnerable. He argues that criminalization of the mentally ill is illogical and cruel.
George Daniel was a man who developed hallucinations and nonsensical speech after incurring brain damage during a car accident. Before his family could get him medical help, George left town on a bus. He was kicked off for making strange noises, and he entered strangers’ homes until police were called. An officer pulled his gun, and in the ensuing scuffle George shot him. The state psychiatrist, Dr. Seger, reported that George was “faking” psychosis. George’s lawyers were busy fighting over the limited compensation offered to them by the court. When George’s mother asked the lawyers to collect George’s paycheck (hoping the fact that a poor man hadn’t picked up his money could serve as evidence of his condition), the lawyers instead cashed it for themselves. George was sentenced to death. EJI got involved years later, and got George’s conviction overturned after discovering that “Dr. Seger” was a charlatan. Stevenson remarks on the many others evaluated by Seger whose convictions hadn’t been reconsidered.
Through the story of George Daniel, Stevenson demonstrates how incompetent, selfish, or dishonest members of the criminal justice system can misuse and abuse their positions. This can have a fatal impact on the accused. Though there are provisions that are meant to provide justice for the poor, such as court-appointed lawyers, and for the mentally ill, such as psychiatric evaluations, Stevenson illustrates how these provisions can fail and become corrupt, with dramatic consequences for vulnerable individuals. Through this story, Stevenson offers evidence for the need for accountability measures for the criminal justice system.
A man on death row, Avery Jenkins, reaches out to EJI. Stevenson writes that the inscrutable letters Avery sent him suggested serious mental illness. Stevenson finds out that Avery was convicted for killing an older man through repeated stabbing. Stevenson goes to visit Avery. In the prison parking lot, he sees a truck decorated with Confederate symbols and threatening racist bumper stickers. He explains how, since the post-Reconstruction era, confederate pride has been inseparably linked with violence toward and subordination of black people. He writes that every small victory for the rights of African Americans is met with an angry response of increased political oppression and sometimes violence, all accompanied by confederate symbols. Inside, the tall white guard forces Stevenson into a strip search, which is never required for attorneys. Afterward, the guard tells Stevenson that he “want[s him] to know” the truck outside is his.
By interrupting his story to explain the historical link between confederate symbols and racial violence and oppression, Stevenson intensifies the meaning of his experience with the prison guard. The fact that the guard tells Stevenson that he “wants him to know” that the truck is his ties together the image as a scene of racial aggression and humiliation. The guard attempts to derail and dehumanize Stevenson, a black man that the guard doesn’t even know. Stevenson’s argument that any progress for black people is met with an angry white response suggests that the guard’s actions are a reaction to seeing a black man in a position of power, particularly since Stevenson fights for justice on behalf of other vulnerable people.
Avery is very happy to meet Stevenson, and Avery unexpectedly asks if Stevenson brought him a chocolate milkshake. Stevenson goes on with discussing Avery’s case, but after a while he realizes that Avery is still thinking about the milkshake. Stevenson pauses to tell Avery that he didn’t know Avery was hoping for a milkshake, and that next time he will try to bring him one. Research into Avery’s past reveals that he grew up in foster homes. He suffered abuse and neglect, including from a foster mother who tied him to a tree and left him there. The abuse exacerbated his existing intellectual and emotional disabilities. As a teenager, he became homeless, abused substances, and had symptoms of psychosis. He was charged with murder after killing an elderly man he believed was a demon. His lawyers offered no evidence regarding Avery’s past or mental state, and he was sentenced to death.
Stevenson’s interaction with Avery, as well as his background and the circumstances of his crime, suggest that his mental illness and disabilities should have been more obvious to his lawyers. It seems that Avery’s lawyers, like George Daniel’s lawyers, were either uninterested in the outcome of the case or incompetent. Through Avery’s story, Stevenson demonstrates how failures of the child welfare system can lead to homelessness, exacerbated mental illness, and threats to public safety, thereby suggesting the need for improvement in social programs.
The guards refuse to let Stevenson bring Avery a milkshake, though Avery continues to ask for one during each visit. EJI arranges a postconviction hearing for Avery. In the courtroom at the hearing, Stevenson sees the guard who had strip-searched him. During the hearing, EJI calls on mental health experts to testify regarding Avery’s condition. They present evidence that several of Avery’s former foster parents have since faced allegations of sexual and physical abuse, and they interview other former foster parents who confirm Avery’s history of mental and emotional illness. Avery is disturbed to see them and to hear about his past trauma. Stevenson argues that the physically disabled are usually treated with compassion, and that they aren’t expected to navigate impossible physical tasks without help. He argues that mental illness deserves the same understanding and that, while communities deserve protection from those who are dangerous, sentencing should be empathetic.
EJI makes an effort to find proof of Avery’s illness, argue the importance of considering his disabilities, and present evidence regarding his past trauma. Their efforts contrast with the lack of effort on the part of Avery’s trial lawyers. This contrast serves to reinforce the importance of dedicated advocacy in order to achieve justice. Stevenson’s speech before the court supports the book’s attitude of empathy for the circumstances, disadvantages, and humanity of the accused. Stevenson attempts to show the disparity between visible and less visible disabilities and the importance of balancing compassionate treatment with public safety.
After the hearing, Stevenson visits Avery out of concern for how the hearing affected him. In the parking lot, Stevenson again sees the truck with the Confederate symbols. Inside, the same white guard is now exceptionally kind, which takes Stevenson by surprise. The guard tells Stevenson that, like Avery, he grew up in several foster care homes. The guard was moved by Stevenson’s arguments in court and by the realization that others shared his experience. He explains how his past made him angry and how he has never addressed that hurt. Stevenson thanks the guard for speaking with him and he reminds the guard that, “we all need mitigation at some point.” The guard tells Stevenson that while driving back from court, he bought Avery a chocolate milkshake. Stevenson writes that Avery never mentioned the milkshake again. The guard resigned very shortly after, and EJI eventually succeeded in having Avery moved to a mental health facility.
The transformation of the guard’s attitude strongly supports the book’s message of redemption. Stevenson suggests that those who hurt others may be paying forward their own unmanaged hurt. The guard’s example illustrates that those who abuse power are capable of change if they are willing to identify shared emotional experiences and recognize the humanity of others. “Mitigation” refers to reducing painful circumstances, and the use of the word as the chapter title suggests the importance of easing suffering. This connects to Stevenson’s advocacy and relates to the repeated symbol of the milkshake, which represents a small way of soothing Avery.