“I had never been inside a jathere before in my life,” writes Keeda Haynes of her first real job, the one she dreamed of as a teenager in Franklin. “I had never even seen movies or read books about prison life – so I didn’t know what to expect.” But as she explains in her memoirs Bend the bow: my journey from prison to politicsher desire to study and work with people who had committed crimes would take an unexpected and very personal turn—one she could never have imagined.
While studying for a degree in criminal psychology at Tennessee State University, Haynes took a job as a corrections officer at a men’s facility in Nashville. There, she noticed that most of the men were low-level, nonviolent offenders: homeless people, low-income people who couldn’t post bail, and undocumented people the police had arrested. “In other words,” she writes,[it] was filled to the brim with individuals – mostly black and brown – who were criminalized and incarcerated because of their circumstances.
Haynes recalls how, through her work in prisons, she came to understand the realities of the criminal justice system, and the seed was planted for the work she would dedicate her life to, both as a public defender and as a criminal justice advocate. reform. But she would also learn what life was like on the other side of that line.
Haynes explains how over the summer after turning 19 and just weeks before her first semester at TSU, she went out to celebrate her friend’s 21st birthday. That night, she met a man from Memphis nicknamed “C”. This chance encounter proved fateful when Haynes and his sister agreed to sign for the packages C had sent them. He said they contained pagers for the cell phone company he started with his cousins. But, writes Haynes, instead of cellphones, she would later discover the packages contained marijuana. Suddenly, she found herself caught up in a federal drug investigation that threatened to derail all her academic and professional plans and put her behind bars.
Because she believed she was innocent and because she never lost sight of her ultimate goal of going to law school, Haynes declined a plea deal and opted to go to trial. With the help of a very competent lawyer, at age 22 and with her freedom at stake, she embarked on what was to become the fight of her life: “I don’t think there is any amount of practice that prepares you to face a system that tries to deprive you of your freedom.
Ultimately, Haynes was acquitted of all but one charge, a big one: aiding and abetting a conspiracy involving more than 100 kilograms of marijuana, based on willful ignorance. Although she claimed she was unaware of the drugs, the prosecution argued she should have known. That tactic, according to Haynes, is at the heart of the government’s case against her, a case she says was based on bigotry and assumptions about her character, not facts. Although she was a bright, hard-working student and had no history or history of drug involvement, prosecutors viewed her – a young black woman – as a seasoned criminal. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and an overzealous judge, her sentence would be severe: Haynes was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.
It was there that Haynes decided to turn her hard lessons into action, devoting her time in prison to studying for the LSAT, helping other inmates with their legal battles, and making sure she would be able to obtain his law license to help others who have ended up in the revolving doors of the criminal justice system.
Having personally experienced injustice and after years of fighting for his clients and their families, Haynes decided in 2020 to run for Congress to help those same people on an even greater scale. Because nothing is ever easy, her March 2020 campaign kickoff came just days after a destructive tornado ripped through her city, and soon after the pandemic brought it all to a halt.
Although becoming the first black congresswoman to represent Tennessee wasn’t in the cards, she got 40% of the vote in the Democratic primary for Tennessee’s 5th congressional district. But excluding Keeda Haynes from continuing the fight for justice would be a mistake: “Bending the bow takes effort,” she writes. “It takes action. It takes pressure. The work continues.”
To read an expanded version of this review – and more detailed local book coverage – please visit Chapter16.organ online publication of Humanities Tennessee.