TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves

We are doing it wrong: nightmares and the criminal justice system


About Isaac 

Isaac Bryan is a second year Masters of Public Policy Candidate in the Luskin School of Public Affairs. He studies public safety and criminal justice policy, and has worked on projects with the U.S. Department of Justice, ACLU, Children’s Defense Fund and National Center for Youth Law. He currently serves as a Bohnett Policy Fellow in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office of Reentry.


I don’t sleep very well.

I often find myself having nightmares. Sometimes they are irrational, full of fantasy. And other times they are so real, so vivid, that I have to lay motionless for a few moments before I can contemplate falling back to sleep.

It’s been like that for me since I was a child. Eight of my siblings and I represent the discarded, the forgotten, society’s blindspot. We’re the diaspora of the American child welfare system.

Some of us were conceived in unspeakable violence, others abused since birth, neglected, malnourished, and all eventually adopted one at a time into the Bryant family. Growing up, we collectively longed for the days where we could escape the darkness of our origins and move into the light of the dreams we aspired to chase.

When I was a kid, and I used to have nightmares, I used to open my fearful eyes and looking down upon me would be my older brother. His unwavering support always helped me transition from pain back to peace.

One night I asked him, “Big brother, why do you always stay up with me when I’m having a nightmare?” He looked at me and he said, “It’s my duty to. It’s my responsibility. It’s wrong for me to sleep peacefully knowing that you are unable to do the same.”

The deeper meaning behind his words has stayed with me ever since. In fact, it’s become a critical lens by which I evaluate, critique, and design public policy.

The criminal justice system is a nightmare. I know this far too well.

I’ve been published as an academic scholar. I’ve advised policymakers. I’ve written legislation. I’ve been interviewed as an expert. But more importantly — most importantly — I remember.

I remember the day one of my brothers came home from a juvenile detention center. I remember the day one of my brothers was sentenced to jail time. I remember the day one of my brothers was sentenced to prison. I remember that Christmas Eve looking at my brother, my hand pressed against the thick glass, my soul crying, my eyes unable to do the same because in this country black men aren’t allowed to cry.

The culmination of these personal and professional experiences have left in me a resounding perpetual thought: We. Must. Do. Better.

Nationally, 2.2 million people are incarcerated at this very moment, a rate far and away exceeding all other industrialized nations. In my home state of California, we have compromised pieces of our humanity in the name of fear.

In a 20-year span beginning in 1980, we built 22 prisons and only one University of California institution of higher learning. We spend $75,000 a year to incarcerate individuals and 11 billion dollars annually in state corrections expenditures.

Money I would argue would be better used to improve public safety if it were invested in affordable housing, homelessness prevention, reentry efforts. Imagine for a second if we diverted 11 billion dollars to early childhood education. How might that impact our society?

Still, there is one facet of the criminal justice system that is especially inequitable: our money bail system. The money bail system exacerbates poverty. It bifurcates freedom: those who can afford it, and those who can’t.

It’s really simple how it works: if you are rich, and you are alleged to commit a crime, you can pay your bill in full to the courts and have it returned to you at the conclusion of your court proceedings.

And if you are poor, you don’t have that option and you are left with two alternatives. The first: you can pay a percentage of your total bail in the form of a non-refundable bail bond deposit. And the other, more common for the least of us: you remain incarcerated pre-trial having never been convicted of any wrongdoing.

I firmly believe that if we know the injustices of the criminal justice system, we are called to move. Called to act. To look at what we’re doing and redesign, reform, abolish if need be.

As part of my work for the Mayor of Los Angeles I was fortunate to tour Lancaster State Prison a few months ago. With the artist, the activist, Common. And while we toured that prison yard, we looked at each other and I was hit with a deep, deep sense of responsibility. A black man free to walk around the yard, the guards moving when I asked them to.

And as he performed that night in front of the crowd, thousands in attendance, I looked around and I didn’t see inmates. I saw people. I saw human beings worthy of love, compassion, forgiveness. I saw my brothers.

The criminal justice system is a complicated social phenomenon. But in our efforts to improve society, to head towards the ideal, we must never compromise pieces of our humanity. We have to remember our solemn duty: to fight for justice, to combat injustice.

And like my big brother taught me so many years ago, with so many suffering from nightmares all around us, those of us who have the option to sleep peacefully have the duty to remain woke until we are all free to chase the dreams we aspired as children. Thank you.