This essay was written with Matthew Clair.
I spent more than four years awaiting trial in a jail in Hays County, Texas. Five birthdays, two lawyers, one mistrial, countless motions, and a bond reduction later, I have just been released. But I remain desperate for justice. Spending nearly a fifth of my life locked up in a Southern jail has taught me, a young Black man in his twenties, that our criminal legal system is designed to ruin the lives of people like me.
I will never forget the day I was arrested: March 5, 2018. I woke up at 4:30 in the morning to get ready for work at Village Family Practice-Physical Therapy, where I was a physical therapy technician. I arrived by 6:50 am to set up for our morning patients. At noon I had my lunch break. After lunch, I returned to the clinic to set up for our afternoon patients. A few of them had arrived early, warming up for their therapy sessions. But something seemed off to me. Things were unusually quiet. I took a moment to glance at my phone to respond to a text message, and the next thing I knew several armed men came rushing into the room with assault rifles pointed at me. “Cyrus Gray, put your hands up. You’re under arrest!” I went numb.
As they handcuffed me, I was in shock. I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong. The officers walked me out of the clinic and through the building. All eyes were on me. I could feel the disapproving glares of the clinic’s doctors who had once spoken highly of me, of the co-workers that had only good things to say about me, and even of the patients who had invited me into their homes. I had been reduced from a therapy technician to a monster.
Later, I would learn that I and Devonte Amerson had been arrested for the murder of another young Black man named Justin Gage—a murder that we did not commit. While my arrest was strange and terrifying, being trapped in jail and fighting for my freedom for the last 54-plus months has been a nightmare.
My first attorney was a proud man in his late forties who didn’t care about my case—or my freedom. I immediately sensed that he didn’t have my best interests at heart, nor the interest of justice. In the nearly two years that he was supposed to be representing me, he visited me a handful of times for no more than ten minutes. He never responded to any of my letters, and he never went over any discovery, evidence, or defense strategy. He gave me no sense of security, hope, or comfort. I left our brief visits feeling more and more helpless and guilty, when I knew that I was not. His very first words to me were: “Wow, you really went for the big one, didn’t you?” He made a mockery of my situation and went out of his way to profess his belief that I was guilty.
During our short visits, he tried to convince me to plea to a 45-year prison sentence. He told me, “You’re still young. You’ll get out around my age. Look at me, I’m still having fun out here, getting girls. You’ll have a lot of life left.” But, this middle-aged white man would never know a thing about me—a young Black man with no criminal history and, up to that point, ignorant of the criminal legal system. At another point, he said to me, “I haven’t looked into your case at all, but if the judge makes me stay on it, maybe I’ll look into it and see what I can do.”
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I was disgusted. Rather than getting to know me or working on my case, my lawyer spent much of our meetings talking about his other clients. One client in particular was a young, white-appearing man with a similar charge as mine. For some reason, he believed this client’s claim to innocence and valued his life more than mine.
In court, I mustered the courage to ask the judge for another lawyer. It was only my second time setting foot in court, and I was uneasy. I’ll never forget watching my lawyer as he laughed and chatted away with the prosecutor as if they were best friends. When the judge asked why I was requesting to remove him, my lawyer and the prosecutor cut me off and spoke over me as I tried to answer the judge’s questions. The judge allowed it. It was at that moment that I fully understood what it meant when they said “In the case of Cyrus L. Gray III vs. The State of Texas.” It was me against everyone—even my lawyer.
Things have been better with my second court-appointed attorney. But it’s still hard for me to trust the process. After years of no pretrial proceedings, we went to trial this past summer. For two weeks, the prosecution presented their case against me; my lawyer took a little bit more than an hour to present my defense. I was so diligent in my own defense—taking notes and pointing out issues that I hoped my defense team would address—that some of the jurors believed I was an attorney rather than the criminally accused person whose life was in their hands. It wasn’t easy, but I was fighting for my freedom. The trial resulted in a mistrial. My new trial date is now set for February.
Pretrial incarceration makes it nearly impossible to be heard, especially in Hays County, where we do not have a public defender’s office. For years, directly impacted people and community activist groups, led by the nonprofit Mano Amiga, had been working to address this. Thanks to their efforts, on November 22, just after my release, I had the chance to speak about the positive impact that a defender’s office could have in the County. The Hays County commissioners listened to testimony from me and other directly impacted people and agreed, approving a contract that will establish a public defender’s office. It’s set to begin taking a limited number of cases later this year—a game changer for indigent people like me. In jurisdictions that have public defender’s offices, a team of lawyers, investigators, and social workers often work with clients who cannot afford an attorney. Studies have shown that public defenders secure better outcomes for their clients than court-appointed private attorneys who are assigned by judges or contract with the government to represent indigent clients.
Pretrial incarceration also comes with many difficulties beyond working with court-appointed lawyers. It’s challenging for defendants like me to communicate effectively with attorneys. Many court-appointed lawyers do not respond to letters or answer calls; lots of people who were incarcerated with me in Hays County Jail have not seen or heard from their lawyer for months. There are people here who have gone nearly a year without having any form of successful communication, making it nearly impossible for them to defend themselves.
Jail even cuts you off from your own family. You’re not given the opportunity to obtain your loved ones’ contact information. And once your loved ones learn about your incarceration, they must pay to receive your call. Financial extraction from our communities is the price of staying in contact with the outside world. In many instances, the people I have gotten to know in jail, and their families, just don’t have the financial resources to regularly stay in touch. Frequently, I have had to ask my family to help another inmate locate their family member on social media to simply notify them of their situation.
Behind those walls, you’re guilty until proven innocent, especially if you’re Black and without financial resources. Your rights are undermined, and correctional officers treat you as if they personally witnessed you commit the crime of which you’re accused. In daily interactions, you’re often made to feel helpless, hopeless, and worthless. And it’s not just correctional officers that have made me feel this way. From medical and mental health staff to other incarcerated people of different races, I’ve faced discrimination because of my skin color and the severity of the crime of which I’m accused. Structurally, the jail system grinds you—and your ability to prove your innocence—down by preventing access to basic legal materials. For a long time, Hays County would not allow incarcerated people access to a law library, and the digital library they now provide is of little use when lawyers and judges rarely take defendants’ claims seriously.
My experience is not uncommon in Hays County. According to the Hays County Jail Dashboard, 82 percent of us were awaiting a criminal trial in jail as of January, 25 2023. And among those of us who were awaiting trial of any kind, more than 15 percent had been incarcerated for more than a year. Across the country, nearly half a million people are sitting in jails without a conviction.
These statistics represent real people, just like me, who have been locked up in Hays County Jail. There’s Myles Martin, who sat in this same space, wrongfully accused for nearly three years: three years of ruined relationships with his children; three years of discrimination and prejudice; and three years that he will never be able to get back. He was found innocent at trial, but then manipulated into a conviction of lesser misdemeanor charges just so a harsh prosecutor could justify his wrongful pretrial incarceration. There’s Lamount Harvey, who has now been wrongfully incarcerated pretrial for over seven years. There’s Melvin Nicholas, a 62-year-old Black man who remains incarcerated despite evidence that suggests he is innocent. Melvin nearly died on two occasions due to the jail’s poor medical care. And of course, there’s Devonte, my childhood friend who is still behind bars today.
In some ways, despite all the trauma I’ve experienced, I’ve been lucky compared to many of the people I’ve met in jail. With the help of my pen and my family, I’ve been able to write letters and get in touch with various people and organizations who have taken me seriously, even when my lawyers wouldn’t. My good friend Shawn Jackson has given his all to fight for me, a young man he met in a cell years ago. It’s thanks to him that I’ve been able to work with Mano Amiga. Collaborating with Amy Kamp, an organizer with Hays County Jail Advocates, has enabled me to have my voice heard in the local press and keep my current lawyer accountable. In collaboration with Amy, I have surveyed other incarcerated people and gathered data on jail conditions to shed light on major problems and injustices in the legal system—from prolonged pretrial incarceration to vindictive prosecution. The most pressing problem reported among the more than 35 people I surveyed was a lack of adequate counsel.
Throughout all of this, it’s not lost on me that another young Black man lost his life. The family of Justin Gage, the victim of the crime I’ve been accused of, is suffering an incalculable loss. It pains me to think that a misguided prosecutor and an indifferent team of detectives have convinced his family that Devonte Amerson and I are the cause. A hurt family is rightfully seeking answers and closure, and my heart goes out to the Gage family. Three Black families (Justin’s, Devonte’s, and mine) have been suffering for years at the hands of a flawed and indifferent legal system.
I have learned a lot from this tragic experience—about the legal system and about myself. I have learned that we need to fundamentally reform our grand jury process. The grand jury should be treated as an opportunity to deeply evaluate the facts and consider whether the evidence truly merits an indictment rather than serving as a rubber stamp to prosecutors’ hunches. If the grand jury process were taken more seriously, I believe we could prevent many wrongful pretrial incarcerations. I also believe that our county should devote more resources to adequate pretrial assistance. Through years of writing to countless organizations, a common response I have received was that nothing could be done to assist me until after I was convicted. It is perplexing to think that I have to be convicted before I can get assistance to fight for my freedom. Finally, I have also learned about the importance of bail reform. For most of my time in jail, I was incarcerated without bail. When bail was set in my case, it was initially at an amount I could not afford. I am back in the community today because of extraordinary efforts to get my bond reduced. Unaffordable bail amounts are a driver of mass incarceration, with racially unjust consequences. Judges need to understand the financial circumstances of defendants and set reasonable bail amounts.
Beyond thinking about these legal reforms, I have also spent the last several years reflecting on my life. I was angry when this journey of incarceration started. I was confused and felt betrayed and forgotten. It felt like my life had been thrown away. I almost gave up, but I couldn’t imagine what that would have done to the people who cared about me the most. So, I fought. I fought for my dignity and my freedom. I read books, I worked out, I wrote stories, and I crafted plans for the future. I opened myself up to be present for others inside and on the outside. And I have tried to make the most of every day. If I could share one thing with those going through similar experiences, I’d tell them to strengthen their mind and find themself first. Don’t lose hope in better days. You can always quit. So why quit now?
Image: Yolanda Djajakesukma/Unsplash