What Moore didn’t say right away, at least not publicly, was that she was going to devote her time, her energy, her presence, to Irons’s case. “[Criminal justice reform] is such an overwhelming space. And it’s easy to get paralyzed when you’re overwhelmed,” Moore says. She dove into her work with Win With Justice, focusing on educating voters about the importance of prosecutorial reform. In the United States, most prosecutors are elected by the people, and also have absolute immunity, meaning they can’t be sued for misconduct in the courtroom—even in cases where they’ve presented falsified evidence or coerced a witness—and it’s easy to imagine prosecutors who are most concerned about maintaining a high conviction rate. Who is elected to those positions, in other words, is vitally important to the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and in determining whether justice is really served in cases like Irons’s. “Prosecutorial reform is one of the spaces that has one of the biggest impacts because you can actually go do something,” she says. “We have to act and use the power we have as voters.”
Moore’s decision to step into her purpose paid off—in March of 2020, after 23 years in prison, Irons’s conviction was overturned.
After that first game of checkers, Maya and Jonathan continued to talk in letters and emails and on the phone. “We just continued to grow and learn each other and get even closer,” Irons says. “And it was like, ‘Man, we really like each other. We’re good friends.’ That was the foundation of our relationship—being good friends.”
Developing a friendship with a prisoner while you’re in college is not exactly easy. “Nothing is ever simple in the prison system,” Moore notes. Finding time for a simple phone call to catch up was an ordeal. “I would have to fight to get into line, like coordinate [with the other prisoners] because there were only four phones for 72 men. You’d have to negotiate, develop friendships with people that you normally wouldn’t deal with to try to coordinate,” Irons says. “People would jump the line when they weren’t supposed to or stay on the phone too long, so we developed this unofficial committee basically to try to be considerate. But it was hard. I saw people get assaulted for the phone—it was a serious thing.”
She couldn’t call into the prison, and it wasn’t like Maya Moore—one of the best basketball players in NCAA history with a schedule packed with classes and games—could pick up a call at any time either. “Our friendship wasn’t just a ‘pick up your iPhone and call whenever,’” she says. “It was work.”