When Issac J. Bailey was nine, he watched his brother taken away in handcuffs for the crime of murder. Now a veteran journalist, Bailey explored the mixed feelings of guilt and shame experienced by his family in My Brother Moochie, a very personal account of the long-term impact of incarceration in the racially polarized climate of the American South.
In a conversation with The Crime Report, Bailey, a 2014 Nieman Fellow at Harvard and a veteran reporter at the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C. whose work has been published in Vice, Politico, and the Washington Post, discusses what it was like to grow up with a brother he saw as a “hero” behind bars for a heinous crime, what the experience revealed about the distrust between black communities and police in America, and why he subtitled his book, “Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.”
The Crime Report: You talk about the pressure black people face in America, and not wanting to validate stereotypes when you or someone you care about in the black community commits a crime or does something that’s reprehensible. That sounds like a difficult thing to constantly have to deal with
Issac Bailey: It’s a huge piece of it, and what it does, is it constantly shames you. I’ve been a journalist for the past 20 years, and have actually written for white, conservative audiences. What made it even more difficult is when I’m trying to humanize characters who do awful things, one pushback that I get is this idea that black people are more violent, and therefore we should be in prison more, etc. Some of them have brought up my own families’ problems, and that stings. So that’s been one of the reasons why it has been so difficult to try to shake some of this black shame.
TCR: Your brother Moochie faced decades of prison time, can you talk about his experience in jail, things he and other inmates face in jail, how he stayed mentally healthy, and how he coped?
Bailey: One of the things that stood out to me first, when initially during his sentence we were still young and still visiting every weekend and the holidays, he mentioned having to stuff things under his doors just to keep the rats out of his cell. He actually talked about how he would do anything necessary not to get raped, but at the same time he wouldn’t carry a shank because he said it would be too tempting to use it. He said there were constant physical threats daily.
For him, though, the mental part was even more difficult, especially when he had to spend seven years in solitary. He became a new person in prison; he actually came to see himself as a kind of African warrior. Stuff like that helped him to serve those decades in prison. Also, lots of reading and meditation helped him to try to hold on to some of his sanity.
TCR: Can you elaborate on his time in solitary?
Bailey: Once he became a Rasta he grew his dreadlocks out. In 1995 or so, the prison adopted a new grooming policy, where each inmate needed a short haircut, and he actually said no to that. He held out for seven years, but then once he cut it he got out of solitary.
TCR: Your mother is another huge character in your book, she seemed like the main force keeping your family together through tough times, and she grew up under tough circumstances as well. Where do you think she got her inspiration from?
Bailey: I do think she’s naturally tough, and even though she only had a fifth-grade education and didn’t get her GED until she was 65, she was the smartest person in the family. But her faith is her foundation for everything.
TCR: You talk about southern Christianity, and it seems to take this dual nature in your book. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian, but there are white supremacists who also say they’re Christian advancing racist ideologies. How do you currently view Christianity in light of your experience and the current social and political climate?
Bailey: My views on Christianity have really changed and been challenged over the last couple of decades. What I’m finding too often, especially when it comes to race, is that there are so many white Christians who would pray for your soul, but don’t want to fight for racial justice. In 2016, many of them whom I knew and went to church with for about 17 years or so, constantly made excuses for (President) Trump’s bigotry and still are.
That makes me wonder is it really a good faith to have? I’m still struggling with that. I have seen this faith strengthen my mom through really tough times, so I can definitely see the good in it, but on the other hand, I’m seeing it used for bigotry, and that has been a massive disappointment.
TCR: You say in the book that “punishing crime is a necessary evil but building stronger communities and families require no longer mistaking punishment for justice.” Would you elaborate?
Bailey: Too many of us think justice means actually locking somebody away for doing something awful. But if we don’t actually fight to end all the sort of ripple effects of it, then all that we’re doing is actually sort of making more problems. When someone does something wrong, they must face some sort of real consequence, but if you don’t account for the effects on vulnerable families, then I think you are seeding the ground for more awful things to happen later.
TCR: You talk about attending Moochie’s first parole hearing. It sounded very cold; you were speaking to people through a TV for example. What was that like?
Bailey: It just felt really belittling. Especially because you have no real control or no real say in it, even though they let you speak. You get the sense that they’ve made up their minds long before you walk into that room. Also, what makes it such a tough thing is that you actually know going in that most people are turned down. You try to balance having some hope and trying to be realistic at the same time. You’re trying to convince yourself that you can actually say something during that hearing that will actually make a difference, even though you know that’s not true.
TCR: What do you think they’re really looking for in those parole hearings?
Bailey: That’s a great question, I got the sense that what they want to be able to say later on is that you apologized and showed real remorse. If you do that and if something bad happens later on, they can at least say that you said the right words. But really, they look at your record beforehand and decide then.
TCR: I’m guessing those years he spent in solitary did not help his chances.
Bailey: Yes, during that time he couldn’t take any classes or do any sort of training etc., which they also use to evaluate your progress inside.
TCR: Switching gears here, how do you think the media in general covers race today? Do you think it could be improved?
Bailey: I think we have a lot of problems with the coverage, with mainstream media in general. When I got into the business, I was told not to write about certain kinds of people because the audience would not be able to relate to them. So they were talking about families like mine essentially. Many journalists today actually don’t have a rounded view of race or crime. On the other side, some journalists are so sympathetic they write in misleading ways, and sometimes they write people into these caricatures that always need to be protected. We need more rounded coverage of the criminal justice system itself so we can actually deal with the truth as it is.
TCR: You talk about police brutality and young black men getting shot in the U.S. While abuse has likely decreased since previous decades, I assume you would agree there’s still major problems with police brutality and institutional racism?
Bailey: Yes, even right now, I meet young black dudes who tell me they’ve been beaten by cops or harassed etc., and they actually still don’t report it because they don’t trust the system enough that these cops will be held accountable. I think it’s still being under-counted. Many black dudes just take it in stride and don’t tell anyone about it, even now.
TCR: In the book, one of your younger brothers says, “Real men go to prison.” I found that pretty shocking.
Bailey: Yeah, they had gotten so deep into this prison and street mindset, they really believed you cannot actually be a real man until you have gone to prison and survived it. For them, any man who hasn’t gone to prison can’t be a really strong man. They don’t think that way any more, fortunately.
TCR: You write that former President Barack Obama was making some good steps towards criminal justice reform. Can you expand on that?
Bailey: I would say he got the ball rolling again, in addition to his record number of commutations which were also huge. But the biggest thing was the Department of Justice’s strong oversight of police departments. If you can get more accountability there, than you can try to reestablish trust, at least between the cops and those affected neighborhoods. For me that was a major move. Given time, that would have benefited everybody. That’s why Trump’s move to pull back from that is one of my major disappointments in this era.
TCR: What do you think of neighborhood policing strategies that try to build more trust between police and the communities they serve?
Bailey: I think it’s good in theory at least, where you are actually trying to establish bonds between the cops and the residents. I actually think that breaks down, once you see a cop who does something wrong and not get punished for it. That kind of law enforcement is seen as a Trojan horse where they’re more out to get you than help you. As long as that distrust is there between the cops and the residents, it’s going to be difficult for these programs to really take hold. If accountability is not there, then these attitudes and distrust will fester.
TCR: Have you seen any accountability when a cop kills a black man unjustifiably?
Bailey: At least from what I’ve seen, most often no. It is rare for officers to face any criminal charges at all, and when they do, juries will find them not guilty anyway. In 2015 or so, there was a drug unit who broke into a guy’s house, shot him nine times, paralyzed him for life, and then lied about the details of it, saying they knocked first. At the end of it, none of the cops faced any charges or any kind of discipline. Once you have those kinds of situations, I can’t stress enough how much distrust that generates.
TCR: Are there any organizations or people you like to follow in terms of criminal justice reform?
Bailey: I’m actually focused on something that doesn’t feel like criminal justice reform but it really is. My wife founded a nonprofit called Freedom Readers, where she’s just trying to improve literacy in really tough neighborhoods. She’s been able to bring in all sorts of volunteers in terms of educators like teachers, cops, and business men and women, all kinds of folks. What she’s been able to do is let outsiders see a more rounded view of these kids and their neighborhoods. That will go a long way in making it easier to have deeper conversations as to why criminal justice reform is so important.
TCR: Finally, how is Moochie doing?
Bailey: He’s been out for almost four years now. And he is getting better day by day, even though there are tougher days than others, which I can trace back to his time in solitary honestly. At least for us, we have a pretty large family, so he’s been able to call on each one of us at various times in order to help and guide him. I think that has been very helpful, but he still has more adjusting to do.
Dane Stallone is a TCR news intern. He welcomes comments from readers.