Lemonada Media’s Untold Story podcast hosted by Jay Ellis just debuted its second season. While the first season tackled the issue of policing in America, this second season focuses on our country’s criminal justice system, aptly subtitled “Criminal Injustice,” and attempts to answer the question, “What can we do to ensure that America’s justice system is truly delivering justice to its citizens?”
In the U.S. our criminal justice system is primarily comprised of three components: law enforcement, the courts, and the corrections system. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for many to navigate and comprehend, which oftentimes results in the wrongful incarceration of innocents. In each episode of this season, Ellis “talks to real people who have experienced the effects of these policies first-hand, as well as academics, scientists, organizers, and city officials who are all part of the effort.”
Ellis sat down for a Q&A with ESSENCE, to discuss the second season, what he learned from experts in the field, and what he hopes can come to fruition in our country as a result of this work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ESSENCE: What has made you compelled to tell these stories, you know, is there anything in your life or your background that’s really drawn you to this work?
We started this podcast just after George Floyd was murdered. In that moment, there were a lot of different voices saying that we needed to do a lot of different things in order to create meaningful change. I found myself not sure which voice to listen to or finding very credible information in each of those sources that had completely different views on how we should change everything, and I found myself really wanting to just learn more. I realized that I have gone through this world not knowing anything about police unions or how they’re set up or not knowing anything about pay to stay, forensic labs, felony thresholds. And I once worked in retail where we had to call the police on people if they stole something in our store. So, I just realized how little I actually knew about this system and didn’t want to walk through the world like that anymore.
If people wanted to come learn with me, then that made it so much more sweet, and so much more worth it in a lot of ways. And then, in my own life and my past, like many of my friends and peers and many of the people who read your publication, many of the people who listen to the podcast, we have all experienced some loss most likely, whether it’s one or two degrees in our families, in our friendship circles, in our work circles, due to either police violence and/or an incarceration system that is unjust.
ESSENCE: The podcast was attempting to answer this question. What can we do to ensure that America’s justice system is truly delivering justice to its citizens? What do you think is the answer after doing this work and learning all you’ve learned from seasons one and two?
The thing that I walk away with the most is information. We are so tied off from so much information, and information that we’re made to believe is too big for us to comprehend, it’s too complex, we’ll never understand it as lay citizens and it’s actually not the case. As cliché as it sounds, one person, one voice can literally make a change and can get other people ignited to make change. I look at season one of the podcast and there’s a case study that we go through in Austin, Texas, specifically about the Austin police union. At the time, they had a contract that was coming up. Most people in the city of Austin had no idea, and two people from completely different sides of the city who had never met each other before were going through their own issues and trying to figure out how they could find change and create change in this police department. They ultimately get linked up, and then they find out that the City Council has to vote on the police union contract, and that’s how it actually gets put into place. They then are in City Hall meetings telling their reps we will not vote for you if you vote for this contract, and all of a sudden galvanized a huge amount of people to come into the City Hall meeting, one by one sit there and speak their voice about this this contract.
The City Council actually denied the contract and instead created a civilian-led panel to be a part of the police union contract discussion because that had never been there before. Of course, everyone thought there was going to be pandemonium and officers were going to quit and crime was going to go through the roof, and it wasn’t the case. It was actually the opposite. When we hear information like that and hear how it was done, we can go replicate that in other places, and to me that seems to be the way to change, and to know what’s on the books in your state and in your county and in your city. Then, making sure you get out and talk about it, vote about it, and call your city council members and your mayors and your congressmen and all those folks because they are there to listen; they should be there to listen.
ESSENCE: I really enjoyed the subtitle criminal injustice, how did you come up with that?
We kick around titles back and forth, and I did not come up with criminal injustice this season. I wish I was quick enough to have come up with that one. I think that one came from Stephanie over at Lemonada, I think it was one of her pitches, and that was just from us doing a big brain dump on titles. But this season obviously talks about a lot of folks who got sent to jail for crimes they did not commit, and what you ultimately find out is that the forensics were faulty in their cases, an injustice.
ESSENCE: How do you think this podcast and its discussion around forensics will interact with shows like Law and Order and CSI where the average layman is really being misled about their usefulness?
We have to do a better job of representing what that means. What I learned this season, in going through that episode and talking to the Houston forensic Senate science lab, was that expert is very different from a doctor, is very different from a scientist, and we’re often taking opinions from people who sometimes are not actually going out and scientifically testing stuff. They’re giving their opinion on what blood splatter may look like. But there are things that are not as tried and true as we think they are and they are constantly used in film and television, as well as in labs across the country, even though they’re faulty. What’s even more interesting is that a group of experts, they’re not peer reviewed by anybody. So if they’re wrong, or if they come to a conclusion, no one else ever checks that conclusion to make sure that it’s right or that they get the same outcome, and so little things like that I think have to really be taken into account and I hope folks pay attention to that and realize that we have spent years putting a lot of people away on science that was not truly science.
ESSENCE: Given that you’re a parent and have your own daughter now—how has that altered your perspective on both the prison/criminal justice system?
I don’t know if having a child has altered my view of this system as much as it’s made me double down on really wanting to find ways to fix this very, very broken system that has not grown with the times, has not been agile, has not been reflective of the world that we live in, at all whatsoever. Instead, it’s in a lot of ways obviously held down a lot of folks, taken a lot of folks from us, and negatively impacted people’s lives. For me, the biggest thing that having a daughter has done for me is made me want to just leave the world in a better place but finding those places that I want to focus my efforts with this platform that I’ve been so lucky to have.
ESSENCE: You mentioned that this podcast originally started two weeks after George Floyd. Black History Month just ended, but how can we continue to keep people engaged on this subject, given the ever-shortening attention span of Americans?
It’s daunting. I find myself overloaded sometimes. But I think it’s putting information out into the ether. I think it’s just in the same way that we are constantly being told to buy a bag of chips or a certain soda or watch a game or a show or a movie. I think we have to push it just as hard to make sure that folks know about elections, and that they know about the scams that a county is doing to not get votes counted, or the gerrymandering or again, all of these laws that are on books that we learned about in season two. I think it’s just one of those things of constantly putting it out there and finding different ways to tell the story. We can’t tell the story in one way all the time, and I think that’s part of what I love about this podcast is, it’s a different way to tell the story.