Prison Culture: How Biases Trump Evidence and Land People in Jail

Prison Culture: How Biases Trump Evidence and Land People in Jail

Prison Culture: How Biases Trump Evidence and Land People in Jail

The imprisonment of an American couple in Qatar reveals biases in criminal justice, at home and abroad.


There are many ways to tell a story. Here’s one: In 2012, Chinese-Americans Grace and Matthew Huang moved with their three children from Los Angeles to Qatar for a construction project on which Mr. Huang was an engineer. In January 2013, their 8-year-old daughter, Gloria, who had been diagnosed with serious eating disorders, died of cachexia and dehydration. In March, the Huangs were sentenced to three years in a Qatari prison for homicide.

Here’s another way to tell the story: Instead of pursuing anything like a proper forensic and factual investigation, Qatari police simply arrested the Huangs for starving their daughter to death, and for child trafficking with intent to harvest her organs. In fact, there was no evidence to substantiate any abuse or intentional starvation. Gloria’s two brothers are healthy, and neighbors and family friends have gone on the record about conditions in the home. After the California Innocence Project took on the case, an examination performed by an American pathologist indicated that Gloria’s organs were intact, with no sign that an autopsy had even been performed in Qatar.

A third way of telling the story: Gloria and her two brothers, adopted from Ghana and Uganda, were described in the Doha police report as “ugly black children.” One Qatari investigator said, “The adoption process consists of searching for children who are good-looking and well-behaved, and who have hereditary features that are similar to those of the parents. But the children connected to this incident are all from Africa, and most of the families there are indigent.” This was underpinned by the broad Qatari suspicion of all forms of exogamy—traditions against marrying outside one’s kinship circle are so strong that Qatar suffers from one of the world’s highest rates of genetic disorders related to extreme consanguinity. According to the Huangs’ website, the prosecution saw no reason for these adoptions other than that the Huangs took the children into their home “in order to harvest their organs, or perhaps to perform medical experiments on them.”

Media around the world have picked up on the Huangs’ predicament and dissected it through a dizzying array of prisms: race, religion, ethics of adoption, global migration, contested definitions of eating disorders, etc. None of these analyses provide credible grounds for a criminal case against the Huangs, yet these legions of speculative associations are evocative in their own right. Americans do indeed have an unfortunate international image of buying, selling, returning and “re-homing” adopted children like commodities on eBay. And it is true that a Somali child was recently rescued from brokers who had smuggled her into Britain for alleged organ harvesting. Traffickers have made news for stealing children from sub-Saharan Africa for sale as sex slaves and, in Qatar, for use as camel jockeys. And as evangelicals, the Huangs were shadowed by tales about zealous Christian missionaries dispensing harsh beatings as a parenting practice. What’s more, 80 percent of Qatar’s residents are largely Asian migrant laborers and servants, whose rights—including those of the Huangs—are constrained by the employers serving as their “sponsors,” rendering them effectively stateless.

It is easy for us to be appalled by the Huang case and assume that such things can never happen here. But humans have biases. It is the role of our courts and government institutions to sift through those biases and waken us when we are about to be deceived by our illusions. “The norm of public reason,” as Yale law professor Dan Kahan calls it, is a concept that calls for “legislators and ordinary citizens to justify policies on grounds accessible to persons of diverse moral and cultural persuasions instead of in terms that reflect a partisan conception of the good.” Justice here and abroad depends on public systems that do not lock us up based on mere assumptions. Forensic science, critical reasoning and due process can assist us in making decisions that are based on fairness and evidence. Yet these judges’, public defenders’ and prosecutors’ offices are the tools consistently under political assault these days—routinely understaffed and budget-strapped.

Ultimately, the Huangs’ story is one of a family imprisoned—literally and figuratively—by the power of cultural narratives with lives of their own. Many Westerners are shocked by the criminalization of the Huangs, but we should take their plight as a more general object lesson about the power of biases. What will be the fate of Gloria’s two brothers here in the United States? If we imagine shimmering Brangelina rainbow uplift when we think of adopted African children, our treatment of those children, when grown, as inherently criminal and intellectually suspect is no less insidiously burdensome than the stigmas haunting the Huangs in Qatar. I am reminded of the carelessness with which the police investigated Trayvon Martin’s death. The officers in Sanford, Florida—much like their Qatari cousins—displayed so little curiosity beyond their own preconceptions that they didn’t bother to perform routine forensic examinations, like properly preserving Trayvon’s clothes or testing George Zimmerman for drugs and alcohol. If we are shocked by Qatar’s lack of due process, so should we worry about exactly the same lack for minorities and migrant workers in the United States, whom we too often and too carelessly presume are “terrorists” if not organ harvesters, “leeches” if not vampires.


I wish to thank my student Katri Stanley, who brought this case to my attention in a very fine seminar paper about adoption laws.

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