Brittany K. Barnett was only a law student when she came across the case of Sharanda Jones, single mother, business owner, and, like Brittany, Black daughter of the rural South. A victim of America's war on drugs, Sharanda was serving a life sentence without parole for a first-time drug offense.
... [an] engrossing memoir ... Barnett’s critique of mass incarceration is most persuasive when it reveals the ways that both crime and punishment disrupt families and intimate relationships ... A Knock at Midnight isn’t preachy in any sense, but its vignettes about the lives of women in the 'New Jim Crow' era are powerful and devastating ... Barnett does not have a negative word to say about many individuals, not even the judges and jailers responsible for the injustices she describes. Barnett is mad at systems and gives most of the people who carry them out a pass ... The same glass-half-full approach applies to her engagement with Obama, who granted clemency petitions for seven of her clients, and whom she appropriately credits with doing more for prisoners than any president before him. Barnett’s description of a White House reception for former inmates is touching. She glosses over the view through the glass-half-empty lens: that Obama did not go nearly far enough, which caused his pardon attorney to resign in disappointment ... Barnett cites Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy as inspirations, but in terms of insightful analysis and new policy prescriptions, A Knock at Midnight has little to add; it reads instead like the women-centered version of those other works. This is still a significant intervention because, until recently, Black women’s experiences in the criminal legal system have not received anywhere near the attention of their male counterparts.
... unfurls like a coming-of-age story ... [Barnett] fans us with her outrage without betraying cynicism. She is astoundingly good at what she does ... what sets this book apart is her own story ... Her depictions of her mother are flat, distant ... This is unfortunate, because without deeper insight into Barnett’s pain, the book never quite achieves its potential poignancy. At first, I suspected the problem was language — passionate, yet vague, sometimes calcified on the page. But then Barnett surprised me with vivid literary specificity ... Eventually, I realized my problem was perhaps less with Barnett’s writing than with the system she had mastered ... Barnett writes of the need to “humanize” her clients in her appeals for their clemency, and so she has learned to craft their stories to win the hearts of people already in power — people upholding the same system that made begging for mercy necessary. This kind of storytelling risks sanitization; it can strip away moral complexity, gut resentment, guilt, regret. Sometimes, I realized, 'humanizing' can make a person sound less human ... Maybe I wanted too much. This book is important and in certain ways I admired Barnett’s decision to overbalance her and her clients’ struggles with joy.
... isn’t your ordinary memoir. It carries the force of urgent action, and it calls attention to sentencing laws that must be read to be believed ... Most important, it bears the toil and triumph of freedom hard won. That’s a quality that readers will have a hard time taking for granted after reading these pages.