CLEVELAND — The aisles of defendants, seated five to a row, staring blankly at the front of the courtroom.
The parade of orange and blue jumpsuits marching through arraignment nine floors below.
The succession of charges read from a sheet of paper at a dizzying speed.
The rows of metal bunk beds at the Bedford Heights City Jail, garnished with tan-colored blankets and thin slabs of green plastic mattresses.
The heroin addict seated next to him, detailing a 30-year battle with a disease that has stolen his life.
All of it felt familiar to Kendall Lamm.
“The man that sat beside me — the drug addict. That hits home for me big time,” the Cleveland Browns’ new offensive tackle told Yahoo Sports during a quiet moment at the jail. “Because that’s what my mother’s gone through.”
On Friday, seven Browns players — Lamm, cornerback T.J. Carrie, tight end Seth DeValve, defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence, wide receivers Derrick Willies and Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi, and offensive tackle Brad Seaton — and members of the organization took part in a “Listen & Learn” tour to get an inside look at the Ohio criminal justice system. The six-hour event — which began with observing bail hearings at the Cleveland Municipal Court downtown before visiting inmates at Bedford, roughly 40 minutes away — was the brainchild of the Players Coalition, a task force comprised of 12 NFL players that aims to impact social justice and racial-equality reform at federal, state and local levels of government.
The tour was designed to educate and encourage players to use their respective platforms to affect bail and policy reform. But for some attendees, conversations with public defenders, inmates and members of non-profit organizations reaffirmed only what they’ve already witnessed first-hand.
A never-ending cycle designed to penalize the poor. Public defenders who are either too overworked or completely disengaged. Racial disparities in jail sentencing. Unjust bail policies that disproportionately affect people of color and keep them incarcerated because they can’t afford bail. A scarcity in resources for non-violent offenders who are eager to succeed post-release.
“I watched my mom go through this and I watched her try to get back into society,” Lamm said of his mother, Candace. “She has a great support system in our family and I will do anything I can for my mother. But from a mental standpoint, it’s about building her up and showing that she can stand on her own two feet and be a different person.
“But in my opinion, the cycle is completely f---ed up. Once you get in here, it’s built for you not to succeed. … I’m new to Cleveland. I don’t know s--- about Cleveland. But I know this system is the same everywhere. Unfortunately.”
A troubled system
The stillness in the Cleveland Municipal Courtroom is disrupted by a cacophony of bustling activity near the judge’s bench. The intermittent squeak of a pressed hole-puncher and the low humming of printers and photo copy machines serve as the backdrop to bail decisions that are doled out in rapid succession.
With each swiftly presented case, the irritation within Lamm builds.
His leg shakes feverishly from his second-to-last row seat in the courtroom known as 3-D. And when the Cuyahoga County judge issues a $40,000 standard bail bond — which requires the individual facing charges to pay the court a deposit of 10 percent of the stated amount — Lamm shakes his head and mutters under his breath: “Terrible.”
“They’re making decisions like that,” Carrie would later say, snapping his fingers for emphasis. “And that’s eye-opening.”
A black man wearing an orange jumpsuit is followed by another black man, and then another. One is an older gentleman in a wheelchair. Another is a young man who is deaf. The assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor insists a sign-language interpreter will arrive soon, but the judge eventually decides to call a recess around 9:21 a.m.
In 2017, blacks represented 12 percent of the adult population in the United States, but 33 percent of the sentenced prison population. Blacks also were imprisoned at a rate six times that of white men, a disparity that often leads to the assumption that one racial group has a higher propensity for violence and an inclination to commit crimes.
“When you see the racial disparity in the criminal justice system you can’t think, ‘This is just the way it is,’” DeValve, the first white NFL player to take a knee during the national anthem, told Yahoo Sports. “It really falls back on systemic oppression, the way our country was founded, the way it has progressed. But it’s progressed imperfectly. And we need to do our best to progress our country forward in a way that redistributes power and voice to people of all races.
“There’s reasons behind why the criminal justice system is incarcerating more racial minorities than others. And those problems need to be addressed.”
The Cuyahoga County Jail is currently under scrutiny for its “inhumane” conditions and the treatment of inmates. In 2018, eight inmates at the county jail died. In response, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and FBI are conducting investigations into civil rights violations, while a Cleveland Municipal judge has called for Cuyahoga County to enter into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure federal oversight of the Cleveland police department — which came under fire during the Tamir Rice shooting — and the county-run jail system.
On the same day Browns players and staffers visited Bedford, a ninth county jail inmate died. Nicholas Colbert, a 36-year-old National Guard veteran, hanged himself.
Season 3 of the popular podcast “Serial” also exposes the ongoing institutional injustices within the Ohio criminal justice system. During the Browns' “Listen & Learn” tour, Bedford inmates painted a bleak picture of what life is like inside the county jail and the obstacles they face trying to post bail and build a productive life on the outside.
“You’re really worse off downtown,” said one inmate, while standing in a room filled with bunk beds and as many as 20 other inmates. “… Once you get down there to The Pit, man, it’s over with. That’s what drives most people back in here. That’s how the cycle repeats. But it’s cool with them because it’s keeping them funded and paid for.”
Inmates took turns sharing similar stories of “wrong choices,” time spent with “the wrong people.” Some recounted how they were “did dirty” by disinterested public defenders and judges.
“I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m a kid still,” said one baby-faced inmate, adding that he was charged from a juvenile case. “I’ve got my whole life ahead of me but I’m sitting here in an adult facility like I did something terrible.”
Those who want to make up for lost time and build a life for themselves and their families still face an uphill struggle — even with assistance from programs like Towards Employment, an organization that places individuals with criminal records into the workforce. The obstacles that await them are daunting: securing employment, permanent housing, medical and mental-health care, while navigating the financial debt they’ve accumulated during their incarceration.
The price for past mistakes.
The pleas to be heard.
The hallways filled with dreams deferred.
“We’re all accountable for our own actions,” DeValve said. “But there shouldn’t be a place you can reach where that’s the end for you.”
‘This hits home’
Lamm was 5 when his father was murdered.
Around that same time, he said he realized his mother had an issue with drugs.
“I’m not a dumb kid,” the 26-year-old said, flashing a knowing smile.“There are things in life that I saw at 4 or 5 years old that people 34 years old have never seen.
“I saw what a gun was when I was 5 years old. I saw what cocaine was, I saw weed, I saw people over—,” he said, before interrupting his train of thought. “I’ve seen so much.”
Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, he alternated living with his mother and his grandparents. “My grandmother is the one who held us together,” he said.
Lamm can’t remember the longest stint his mother spent in jail, but he recalled the never-ending cycle of good days and bad.
“For the longest, she was doing very, very well,” he said. “But unfortunately, it’ll go up and down. And in my opinion, it’s on one of the downs. …I’m not trying to paint the picture that she’s been a terrible mother. My mother’s very smart, very independent. She’s just made certain choices that put her where she’s at. But at the end of the day, we all have to stand on the choices we’ve made.”
The empathy Lamm displayed during the tour is rooted in his mother’s struggles. But the hours spent talking to inmates — including over lunch prepared by participants of the jail’s culinary program — gave him a “different perspective” on his mother.
“So many times in life you hear, ‘It’s all about who you know,’” Lamm said. “A lot of people had to be given something for them to be in the position they’re in. …If this gentleman or woman wants to make a change and they’re sincerely trying to do that, and they’re showing me the steps and the goals and they’re going through that process to make that happen, people should do as much as they can to give that person an opportunity.”
Personal experience has also helped shape DeValve’s perspective on social-justice issues. The tipping point, he said, was when he started dating his now-wife Erica, who is black.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” DeValve told Yahoo Sports. “Once you start to spend that much time with somebody who’s lived life in different shoes, you start to see it more from their perspective. And, oftentimes, if you’re never confronted with an issue, you’ll never know there is an issue.”
At the conclusion of the tour, Gabe Diaz, a former public defender and current senior legal counsel for The Justice Collaborative, and Bishara Addison, Towards Employment's senior manager of policy and strategic initiatives, implored Browns players to think broadly about the impact they can have, individually and collectively, in the community. DeValve echoed similar sentiments, adding that once he and his teammates are better educated on bail reform, they can start having meaningful conversations with legislators that lead to change.
“There are certain things you can’t unsee,” said the tight end, “and so once you’ve seen it, once you’ve listened to somebody enough to understand what the world looks like through their eyes and through their shoes, there’s no going back.”
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