The End of Louisiana’s “Jim Crow Jury”

Last week, Louisiana voted overwhelmingly to abolish non-unanimous jury verdicts – a relic of Jim Crow that has, since its inception, silenced black jurors with terrifying and profound precision. Louisiana was one of only two states that allowed verdicts with only ten of twelve jurors. While resistance to Jim Crow juries has always existed, a pioneering study of over 5,000 jury trials in Louisiana between 2011 and 2017 gave a final burst of momentum to the movement. Tuesday’s historic “Yes” vote on Amendment 2 came almost exactly 120 years after the Jim Crow Jury was first adopted at the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1898, expressly convened “to establish the supremacy of the white race in this State to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done.”

120 years later, there should be no doubt that the Jim Crow jury was successful. The empirical evidence compiled exposes non-unanimous jury verdicts as an exceptionally effective tool of white supremacy, operating exactly as intended: first, to stifle the voices of black jurors who understand intimately the injustice of the criminal process, and second, to grease the wheels of the carceral machine intent on efficiently criminalizing black bodies. While black jurors made up less than a third of total votes in non-unanimous jury verdicts between 2011 and 2017, they cast more than half of these verdicts’ “empty votes,” or votes that were disregarded in a non-unanimous verdict. Not only were black jurors silenced, it was black defendants who were disproportionately convicted in these non-unanimous decisions. When a conviction was reached against a black defendant in Louisiana, there was a 43 percent chance that the verdict was non-unanimous. When the convicted defendant was white, that number dropped to 33 percent.

The margin of victory for Amendment 2—at nearly 2-to-1 (with only 3 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes opposed)—was a remarkable shift for a state that has long led the country in its tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice. Until very recently, Louisiana was the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated country in the world. But it was another fact about Louisiana’s criminal process that featured prominently in the public debate over Amendment 2: Louisiana—and New Orleans specifically— is the wrongful conviction capital of the United States. Of the twenty-five individuals exonerated since 1990, eleven were sent to prison by non-unanimous jury convictions. 85 percent of voters in New Orleans voted in favor of the Amendment, which, alone, gave it almost enough support to succeed. The second highest percentage of support came from Caddo Parish, where more people were sentenced to death per capita from 2010 to 2014 than any other county in the United States. (The Parish’s former District Attorney, Dale Cox, has often said that Louisiana needs to “kill more people.”)

There were few clear indicators, however, that determined how a parish would vote, revealing the true extent of the campaign’s support. Some of the most non-white parishes, like East Carroll and Madison, had relatively low percentages of “Yes” votes, while some predominantly white parishes, like Jefferson, had some of the highest percentages. One of the few factors that did seem to have an effect was the level of vocal opposition from that Parish’s district attorney. In Sabine Parish, one of the three parishes that voted in opposition, District Attorney Don Burkett was one of the most outspoken critics of Amendment 2. Yet in an ironic twist, the powerful Louisiana District Attorneys Association (that has long fought for split-juries) did not take a position on Amendment 2. The LDAA does not take public stances unless it reaches a unanimous decision amongst its members.

Amendment 2’s overwhelming victory should not be understated: grass-roots organizers built an extraordinarily diverse coalition that should serve as a model for justice reform in the future. As Mercedes Montagnes of the Promise of Justice Initiative told us, “Our courts hold out the promise of justice for every citizen. With the passage of this Amendment, we are one step closer to making this promise a reality for the people of Louisiana. Together, our coalition and the people of Louisiana have shown that we are ready to move our criminal justice system forward and make justice a reality for all.”

As the movement looks ahead to the next battle for equal justice, how we frame this victory is critical. Across the political spectrum, Amendment 2’s success has been heralded as the final knockout blow for Jim Crow. “You, now, ladies and gentlemen have ended 138 years of Jim Crow,” declared Sen. J.P. Morrell, the sponsor of the legislation that led to Amendment 2’s place on the ballot. And while non-unanimous jury verdicts may have been the most egregious relic of Jim Crow left standing, they were simply the most visible piece of Jim Crow’s legacy on our criminal legal system, signifying the rot that reaches to the core of criminal justice in the United States. The abolition of the Jim Crow Jury is not the final blow, but rather, an essential first step in the long process of eradicating the structural racism at the heart of the country’s carceral regime.

Tennessee Plans to Execute Edmund Zagorski in Electric Chair Tonight

Tonight, in Tennessee, barring any last minute intervention, Edmund Zagorski will be strapped into an electric chair. Four sponges soaked in brine will be attached to his ankles to increase conductivity, another brine-soaked sponge will be placed on his forehead, a shroud will be placed over his face, and he will be shocked to death. Two shocks, both 1750 volts.

Mr. Zagorski requested that he be executed by electrocution on October 8th, just hours after the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the use of a 3-drug lethal injection cocktail, which multiple experts have warned would lead to a very painful death. Mr. Zagorski said that he preferred the thought of a 35 second death, with two large shocks, to a potentially protracted, agonizing death via lethal injection. He’s not alone in his trepidation — this summer, in an effort to avoid a botched execution, eight death row prisoners in Alabama requested to be executed in the gas chamber, rather than face lethal injection.

But in choosing the electric chair, will a slow and painful death be avoided? Other death penalty states have moved away from the use of the electric chair; the Supreme Courts in Georgia and Nebraska ruled that its use is unconstitutional. In the 5-4 Georgia Supreme Court ruling, the electric chair was denounced for “its specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies.” The ruling went on to say that death via electric chair inflicts “purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation that makes no measurable contribution to accepted goals of punishment.” There are multiple instances of botched executions via electric chair. Jesse Tafero, who was executed in Florida in 1990, had smoke and flames shooting from his head. In 1999, blood spilled from under an prisoner’s mask as he was being shocked to death in the electric chair.

Compounding an already horrific situation, the electric chair which will be used to kill Zagorski was built by a self-taught expert — with no engineering degree — and hasn’t been used for over a decade. The expert, Fred Leuchter, worries that his device will malfunction. “What I’m worried about now is Tennessee’s got an electric chair that’s going to hurt someone or cause problems. And it’s got my name on it,” Leuchter told AP. “I don’t think it’s going to be humane.”

The last execution using the electric chair was in Virginia, in 2013. There is no humane means of executing another human. But it is especially tragic that in 2018, a person sentenced to die must be forced to choose a method of execution that has been ruled unconstitutional and cruel, in an attempt to avoid another method that is likely unconstitutional and cruel.

The Tennessean has published a timeline of what tomorrow’s execution will look like, below.

At 5 PM, Zagorski will be dressed in cotton pants, a shirt and cotton socks or cloth house shoes.

Immediate family of the victims, two men Zagorski is convicted of killing, will arrive at the prison by 6:15 p.m. Around the same time, prison staff will shave Zagorski’s head and  legs.

At 7 p.m., prison staff will take Zagorski out of his cell next to the execution chamber. He will be led to the electric chair.

Staff will strap Zagorski into the chair with an electric chair harness and wrist straps.” Four sponges soaked in salt water will be strapped around his ankles to increase conductivity.

Zagorski’s lawyer, federal public defender Kelley Henry, and an attorney for the state will leave the execution chamber.

At 7:10 p.m., blinds to the witness rooms will open and the warden will ask Zagorski for last words.

After that, prison staff will place another sponge soaked in salt water on Zagorski’s head. Staff will then place the electric chair head piece” on Zagorski’s head. They will also  place a shroud around his face.

More salt brine will be poured over the ankle sponges.

The warden will give the signal to proceed, and the executioner will activate the electric chair.

The electric chair will release 1,750 volts of electricity for 20 seconds, will stop for 15  seconds and then will release 1,750 volts for another 15 seconds.

After the first wave of electricity, officials will wait five minutes and then close the blinds into the witness room.

A doctor will check Zagorski for signs of life. If there are none, the doctor will pronounce him dead.

If Zagorski is still alive, the blinds will be raised, another round of electricity will be administered and the doctor will be called in again.

The warden will announce when Zagorski’s death sentence is complete, and will ask witnesses to leave.

South Dakota Executes an Intellectually Disabled Man

Growing up, Rodney Berget had some trouble fitting in. His home life was troubled; he was surrounded by alcoholism and endured physical abuse. A psychologist who examined him at the age of nine determined that he had an IQ of about 70, a score that would classify him as intellectually disabled. As a 10-year-old, he got the chance to compete in the South Dakota Special Olympics. Yesterday, that same state executed him via lethal injection.

Executing people who have intellectual disabilities has been unconstitutional since 2002, when the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the execution of a mentally retarded (or ‘intellectually disabled’) person is cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. A few years after Atkins, the American Bar Association developed, for the first time, guidelines which laid out the critical role of mitigation specialists in death penalty defense. Mitigation specialists are trained to leave no stone unturned as they investigate a defendant, delving deeply into every facet of the defendant’s life, including investigating inter-generational, environmental, health, social and other influences on the defendant’s life, and also assisting in screening for intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses. Mr. Berget was sentenced to death for the murder of a prison guard, Ron ‘RJ’ Johnson, in a foiled escape attempt from a South Dakota prison. Despite his case going to trial in 2012 — a decade after Atkins and at a time when mitigation specialists were not uncommon — Mr. Berget was still sentenced to die, and there is no indication that his lawyer had investigated his background to develop a mitigation presentation that might have saved Mr. Berget’s life.

The deleterious effects of a childhood filled with violence and traumas is demonstrated by its impact on Mr. Berget’s immediate family. Mr. Berget’s brother, Roger, also turned to violence as an adult, spending 13 years on death row in Oklahoma before his eventual execution. Mr. Berget looked up to his brother, shadowing him constantly as an adolescent.

Last month, in Alabama, the state Supreme Court voted to overturn the death sentence of Anthony Lane, a Birmingham man with an IQ of 70. The ruling came down after the United States Supreme Court had ordered the state of Alabama to reconsider sentencing Mr. Lane to death in 2015, citing Atkins. Mr. Berget had the same IQ as Anthony Lane.

In Georgia, SCHR has advocated for bills which would work to ensure that people with intellectual disability are not put to death, by improving the process by which someone is determined to be intellectually disabled. Georgia remains an outlier in how they determine intellectual disability. Of the thirty-one states which still use the death penalty, twenty-two have used the standard of “preponderance of the evidence,” five use “clear and convincing,” three don’t specify a standard, and just one — Georgia — has the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” for proving an intellectual disability to the courts. This standard is an extraordinarily difficult legal obstacle, and it is responsible for Georgia having executed intellectually disabled people in the past.

The death penalty will never achieve justice. It is empty vengeance, most often leveled against people who have been the victim of abject poverty, violent childhoods, and pervasive race discrimination themselves. But history will judge especially harshly the executions of intellectually disabled people; vulnerable people whom the constitution is meant to protect, not harm.

Our thoughts are with the family of the victim, Ron Johnson, and the Berget family.

Bail Reform in Atlanta Has Been Successful: Don’t be Duped by Misleading Court Data, Especially in the Wake of the Cyberattack

Nearly 750,000 people are detained in jails across the country every day because of an inability to post bail. The costs are tremendous, both for the government as well as the individuals, their families, and the community. The purpose of bail is to secure the individual’s return to court, as well as to consider the risk release poses to the public. People who do not pose a public safety risk and are likely to return for their court date should not be locked in a jail cell only because they cannot afford to pay for release.

Atlanta’s bail ordinance, which became effective in March 2018, was the right move for a city like Atlanta that prides itself on its civil rights legacy.  And the ordinance has had its intended effect.  Since March 2018, about 3,064 people have been released on signature bonds under the ordinance.  These are people who otherwise would have been stuck in jail to await trial for petty offenses.  Further, because of the bail ordinance, community members have kept in their pockets a total of $3,110,850 – money that would otherwise have gone to enrich the bail industry.

But some people think Atlanta should go back to locking up indigent people for their poverty.  And they have seized on incomplete and misleading data to make their case.

In the Atlanta Journal-Constitutions October 4 article, “More defendants miss court dates since some cash bonds dropped,” a misleading picture of the impact of Atlanta’s new bail reform ordinance, passed by City Council just 6 months ago, emerged. The ordinance, which passed unanimously, authorized the Atlanta City Detention Center to release people with pending nonviolent misdemeanors or city ordinance violations on their own recognizance. The idea behind the ordinance was simple: poor people accused of minor offenses should not be sitting behind bars while those charged with the same offenses – but who can pay bail– await their court dates at home.

In an effort to monitor the implementation of the bail reform ordinance, the Council required a six-month review and presentation to the public safety committee by the Chief of Corrections. The Council also acknowledged that, along with eliminating cash bail for most minor offenses, the municipal court’s notification procedures would need to be updated and improved. On March 5, the Council adopted a resolution to study the court’s notification system and identify opportunities for improvement.

Just days later, the City of Atlanta was attacked by ransomware.  Many city services and programs were affected, including the courts. Almost immediately, the City acknowledged the severe impact the attack had on governmental functions and published a press release stating that the ransomware attack affected the ability to access court information.  Improvements to court notification systems that would help people make it to court were predictably put on hold.

The Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety Committee held the pre-planned 6-month review of the new system on September 25.  At that point, due to the ransomware attack, there was just over 60 days of post-bail ordinance data.  In an emotionally charged meeting, City of Atlanta Chief Judge Chris Portis stated that during April and May, because of the ransomware attack, the Court was unable to send court notifications to defendants. He went on to assert that Failures to Appear (FTA) had “doubled” in Municipal Court because of bail reform. There was no discussion of the fact that the Court had only 60 days of data, and that such data came immediately on the heels of a total shut down of the Court’s computer system. Neither a written report nor any explanation of how this data was collected by the Court, was presented to Council.  Alarmingly, the validity of this data was not questioned by any elected official, save for Councilmember Andre Dickens, who requested that raw data be provided before any conclusions be drawn.

The fact is that we have nowhere near the data we would need to reliably conclude that the bail ordinance has caused an increase in failures to appear in court.  Let’s start with the fact that the court’s numbers don’t add up. In his presentation, Chief Labat reported that fewer than 3,500 people arrested between March 1, 2018 and September 25, 2018 were even eligible for release on signature bonds under the ordinance.  Minutes later, however, Judge Portis told the committee that there were 4,120 “failures to appear” in court in the month of August alone. How could the new bail ordinance cause more people to miss court dates in one month (August) than were even eligible for bail reform signature bonds during the entire six-month review period?

Additionally, with the limited data available, we have no way of knowing that the persons failing to appear in court were the same people released on signature bonds pursuant to the ordinance. Any statistician will say that correlation is not causation, and to report conclusions about cause and effect without a thorough examination of the data is irresponsible and misleading.

Over 3,000 people charged with minor offenses who otherwise would have lost housing, jobs, and other necessary support were able to return to their community without having to pay for their freedom. According to Chief Labat, bail reform has saved the community $3 million, money that would have gone to the jail and to bail bond industry. This is a civil rights and fiscal victory for Atlanta. Let’s not go back to wealth-based detention because of incomplete data and a few unvetted claims at a city council meeting.

Are Alabama Sheriffs Violating Federal Law? It’s Time to Investigate.

Today, in a letter sent to the United States Attorneys for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Alabama, the Southern Center for Human Rights, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the American Conservative Union, FreedomWorks, and the Adelante Alabama Workers Center urged an investigation into Alabama sheriffs with federal detention contracts who have personally pocketed substantial amounts of taxpayer money from jail food accounts. There is reason to believe that it is these sheriffs’ federal contracts that have allowed them to reap especially rich rewards from jail food accounts — and that much of the money they have taken comes from the federal government, in likely violation of federal law.

Across the state of Alabama, many sheriffs contend that an archaic state law allows them to keep funds allocated to feed people housed in their jails for their own personal profit, and some sheriffs  have relied on this interpretation to justify the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars into their personal bank accounts.(Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin infamously purchased a $750,000 beach house with these funds.) Sheriffs claim that the law authorizes them to retain “leftover” food money for themselves, abusing public trust and creating a perverse incentive to spend as little money as possible on feeding the prisoners in their care.

These sheriffs’ interpretation of Alabama law has been squarely rejected in an Attorney General opinion and by the current Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey. “Public funds should be used for public purposes,” Governor Ivey said in a statement in July, urging lawmakers to address the issue in the next legislative session.”It’s that simple.”

In addition to personally pocketing state tax dollars, because a number of these sheriffs also house federal detainees (who are either defendants in federal criminal cases or immigrants facing deportation), there is reason to believe that some sheriffs have pocketed federal tax dollars for personal use.

There is a stark difference in the per capita reimbursement rate for feeding a state prisoner versus a federal prisoner. In Monroe County, Alabama, for example, the per capita reimbursement rate for feeding state prisoners is $1.80 per day. For federal prisoners, it is over five times higher: $10 per day. In 2016, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office received a total of $26,710.80 in food funds from the State of Alabama, $5,505.00 in food funds from municipal contracts, and $108,620.00 in food funds from the federal detention contract. On December 30, 2016, the sheriff “declared excess and paid to” himself $44,402.77 – over $12,000 more than the total amount he had received from state and municipal sources, combined.

The misappropriation of funds by sheriffs with federal detention contracts may violate federal contracting law and criminal law. In particular, they likely constitute crimes under 18 U.S.C. § 666, which penalizes an agent of a state or local government or agency receiving more than $10,000 per year from a federal contract who “embezzles, steals, obtains by fraud, or otherwise without authority knowingly converts to the use of any person other than the rightful owner or intentionally misapplies” property of the state or local government or agency valued at $5,000 or more. These sheriffs’ actions also likely violate federal contracting law, such as the provision in the Intergovernmental Service Agreement with Etowah County which prohibits officials or employees of the recipient county from “participat[ing] personally” in performance of a contract in which he or she “has a financial interest,” and from “[u]sing his or her official position for private gain.”

“The law is clear, and Governor Ivey has been clear: jail food funds are public funds, and should be used only to feed incarcerated people,” said Aaron Littman, staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Because these sheriffs have refused to disclose to the public how much taxpayer money they have taken, further investigation is urgently required to determine whether they are violating federal law.”

When limited food funds are misappropriated by sheriffs, the Treasury isn’t the only victim: the health and safety of the people incarcerated in these jails is jeopardized. Recent media coverage of the food served at the Etowah County Detention Center included reports that inmates are frequently served meat packaged in wrapping that says “Not Fit For Human Consumption,” and donated chicken that is rotten and riddled with “tumors and abscesses and deformities.”

“It appears that some sheriffs have placed personal profit above their sworn duty to ensure the basic human needs of those in their care,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “We are deeply concerned that those charged with enforcing our laws are instead breaking them. No one is above the law – this includes Alabama’s sheriffs.”

Sheriffs who pocket money paid by the federal government for feeding prisoners have abused the trust of the taxpayers — both in the state of Alabama and across America — out of whose paychecks these dollars came. Their actions also offend the conscience of all who believe that prisoners are to be safeguarded, not exploited for profit. An investigation into these sheriffs’ actions is urgently required.

Read the letter here.

Last Week, Texas Executed 2 Men in 24 Hours

Last week, two Texans were executed by lethal injection within a 24-hour period. From conviction to death, neither of them wavered in their proclamations of innocence. One’s last words were “I’m not the one who killed Christina.” The other did not give last words; instead choosing to lie silently with his eyes closed, waiting for the lethal cocktail of drugs to take effect.

Their names were Troy Clark and Daniel Acker. They were the 17th and 18th men put to death in the United States this year.

Mr. Clark alleges that he was set up by his former girlfriend, who at first informed police that another person was responsible for the victim’s death, and then later gave a statement saying that she had in fact killed the victim, and that Mr. Clark was not involved. She eventually implicated Mr. Clark, in exchange for a 20-year sentence.

Mr. Acker was convicted of strangling his then-girlfriend in a moving car. He maintains that she jumped out of his moving car during an argument — as she had done before — and died accidentally, likely having been struck and killed by a passing car. Mr. Acker’s legal team filed multiple appeals saying that his trial was tainted by the misleading, erroneous forensic testimony. In 2011, in an evidentiary hearing, the prosecution changed their story: instead of being strangled, they argued, Mr. Acker had pushed her from the car. “This is a real tragedy,” Mr. Acker’s defense lawyer, A. Richard Ellis, told the Houston Chronicle last week. “Daniel Acker is innocent, this was a tragic accident not a homicide, yet the courts are not listening.”

Texas holds the dubious distinction of holding back-to-back executions more than once: the last time was in 2012, when the state put to death Ramon Hernandez and Preston Hughes. Hughes also professed his innocence with his final words.

Since 1973, 163 people have been exonerated from death row, including 6 each from Georgia and Alabama, the states in which the Southern Center for Human Rights works. There is no way to tell how many of more than 1,450 people executed in the U.S. since 1976 may have been innocent. Courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence once the defendant is dead.

As with any human-run system, the criminal legal system is fallible. In at least 163 instances, many people – including juries, judges, and the general public – were so convinced that someone was guilty of a heinous crime that they sentenced them to be put to death. And in at least 163 instances, we were wrong. The fallibility of the system is not a fixable problem. The only fix is to end the death penalty.

Envisioning the Future and Deconstructing the Past at the Decriminalizing Race and Poverty Symposium

Guest Blog by Taylor Lewis

At the Decriminalizing Race and Poverty Symposium, held on September 11th at Georgia State Law School, Southern Center for Human Rights Executive Director Sara Totonchi began the afternoon by reflecting on Johnny Lee Gates, a Black man charged with the alleged murder of a White woman. Gates’s trial — and subsequent death sentence — revealed a racist and punitive system in Columbus, Georgia; one that allowed prosecutors to systematically strike prospective Black jurors in order to secure an all White jury, and Gates’s conviction. The Southern Center for Human Rights, along with the Georgia Innocence Project, took on his case. In a letter demanding that Gates receive a fair trial once evidence of blatant race discrimination became known, leaders in the Columbus faith community wrote: “We are ministers, not lawyers, but we know race discrimination when we see it.”

The symposium’s keynote speaker, Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, adjusted the lens of the discussion even wider, focusing on the meaning of power in the context of the criminal justice system and beyond. Color of Change was founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; an event, to Robinson, that illustrated “a lot of what we already knew” about institutions’ damaging relationship with Black citizens. “Nobody is nervous about disappointing Black people,” Robinson said.

Robinson then moved his keynote towards power within movements: “No progressive change happens in America without Black people building and using their power.” In the face of systemic racism, Robinson said that some view people of color as detriments to building power, rather than assets, allies, and leaders. At the center of positive change, Robinson emphasized, is both strategy and genuine engagement with people of color, particularly Black people. Yet Black people “often did not have the power to affect change.” The work must shift from moment to movement.

The first full panel of the symposium, entitled “Building Power to End Mass Incarceration,” was moderated by Josie Duffy Rice, senior reporter for The Appeal, where she focuses on prosecutors, prisons, and other criminal justice issues. Gina Clayton-Johnson, executive director of Essie Justice Group, Anton Flores-Maisonet, co-founder of Casa Alterna, Rosemary Nidiry, deputy director of Fair and Just Prosecution, and Jon Rapping, founder of Gideon’s Promise, joined Duffy-Rice on the panel for a focused discussion of the effects of mass incarceration on already-marginalized communities. Duffy-Rice’s initial question, “How do you scale movements?” served as a focal point.

For Clayton-Johnson, the intersections in the lives of both formerly incarcerated women and women with incarcerated loved ones reminded her that one of the most insidious byproducts of incarceration is isolation from community and family. This isolation, in turn, is systemic and far-reaching; Clayton reminds us that “1 in 2 Black women have a family member and prison” as well as “1 in 4 women of color.”

Anton Flores-Maisonet rescaled his vision of movement and change by also focusing on community. While speaking about his work to alleviate the dehumanization experienced by those suffering within the American immigration system, Flores-Maisonet said, “Mutual liberation comes when we can all recognize that these systems are rotten.” Down the road from the isolated Stewart Detention Center in Stewart County, Georgia, Flores-Maisonet’s “El Refugio” serves as a place of rest and healing for families and loved ones. Maisonet also took a moment to remind the audience that Georgia State University, his alma mater, does not currently accept DREAMers.

Rosemary Nidiry and Jon Rapping spoke about prosecutors and public defenders, people who, in the context of the conversation, held the most power in the criminal justice system. Nidiry maintained that it was important to cultivate a generation of prosecutors who are “plugged into their communities. As a young prosecutor, Nidiry said that, “it didn’t make sense to me that I could decide peoples’ entire lives.” Rapping responded that public defenders also have a duty to change the narrative “by being proximate and engaged with communities.” Rapping pivoted the meaning of community by placing the values of community within the system itself, and said that his organization is dedicated to building a “community of public defenders to implement client-centered practice and challenge systemic assumptions.”

Josie Duffy Rice also moderated the second and final panel of the afternoon, entitled “Ending Cash Bail: What It Takes.” Sarah Geraghty, Managing Attorney of the Impact Litigation Unit at Southern Center for Human Rights, Marissa McCall Dodson, Public Policy Director at the Southern Center for Human Rights, Premal Dharia, director of litigation at Civil Rights Corps, and Mary Hooks, Co-Director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) joined Duffy- Rice on the panel.

Duffy-Rice asked, “What are some of the risk assessments when considering bail?” and “How are we fighting against the ‘solutions’ to cash bail that have their own harms?” Geraghty began by stating that poverty always “deeply affects who is incarcerated,” which creates a situation in which those at the bottom never see any reform or benefit. Dodson spoke on the power inherent in litigation when tackling systems, which forces policy makers to talk, emphasizing that many fear the optics of institutions losing “on a federal stage.” Racial disparities within the system, she said, “exist from start to finish.” Bail becomes a crucial step in this process. The culture of the bail system, Dodson extended, maintains myths about the necessity of cash bail and incarceration.

Dharia then added, “Stop talking about risk and start to focus on success.” She then remarked that all work to end and reform bail is connected and part of a broader network. In the end, the work aims to amplify a narrative shift and foster a culture with the ultimate goal of decarceration.

Hooks maintained that resistance against all institutions of oppression is central to a vision of liberation and to “save the soul of our country.” Without economic justice, there can be no racial justice. And racial justice, Hooks illustrated, is impossible under a capitalist system, a system which fuels the prison industrial complex and its strong arms, including cash bail. Both money and power is often “funneled into institutions rather than the community.” This work takes more than policy; it takes both vision and community.

Marilyn Winn, the executive director of Women on the Rise, gave the closing remarks to mark the end of the Decriminalizing Race and Poverty Symposium. Women on the Rise, a grassroots organization led by formerly incarcerated women of color, is dedicated to reducing recidivism for women and fostering self-sustainability. Winn stressed the personal nature of her fight against carceral injustice, and spoke about a system that discards rather than uplifts: “I’m one of the Black women who were ignored… I was under correctional control for over 40 years because of racism and poverty.” Winn then addressed the barriers she faced within the system, and how, in her own life, the most impactful of these barriers was her inability to find and maintain a job after she was released from prison. Winn’s status as a Black, formerly-incarcerated woman, fostered a cycle of underemployment and recidivism. Winn bluntly stated that she had held, “18 jobs… and I’ve been terminated from all of those jobs for being a woman and being Black and lying on my application so I could get a job.”

When Winn faced a judge again, expecting to be sentenced to another term in prison, she told him, “I keep coming back because every door has been closed to me.” Winn hoped to be able to demonstrate to the judge that her own circumstances had been continuously perpetuated by a system that punished her economically and socially for something she had done as a teenager. She then explained to those in the audience how she was forced lie again in order to qualify for an addiction program meant to facilitate financial independence.

Ultimately, Winn hopes that Women on the Rise will succeed in its ultimate goal to permanently close the Atlanta City Jail, an arduous process she called “starving the beast.” Through initiatives intended to ease the financial burden of incarceration on low-income communities, as well as building community and legislative power, Women on the Rise remains committed to reallocating the $33 million it takes to operate and maintain the Atlanta City Jail and pouring those resources back into the communities most affected by the criminal justice system.

The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: 55 Years Later

Inside the church, a teacher screamed, “Lie on the floor! Lie on the floor!” Rafters collapsed, a skylight fell on the pulpit. Part of a stained glass window shattered, obliterating the face of Christ. A man cried: “Everybody out! Everybody out!” A stream of sobbing Negroes stumbled through the litter — past twisted metal folding chairs, past splintered wooden benches, past shredded songbooks and Bibles. – TIME Magazine, September 27th, 1963

Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14; from left, are shown in these 1963 photos. (AP Photo)

September 15th, 1963, was a cool and overcast morning in Birmingham, Alabama. At the 16th Street Baptist Church, the city’s largest Black congregation, it seemed to be a Sunday like any other. Congregants were at the church, preparing for the day’s sermon, entitled ‘A Love that Forgives.’ Children were milling about the basement of the church, dressing in their choir robes, playing, and preparing for Sunday School. But it wasn’t a Sunday like any other: unknown to the congregants, there were already 15 sticks of dynamite planted under the steps to the church.

At dawn that morning, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry – all members of the Ku Klux Klan – had planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite under the steps. At 10:22 AM, a call was placed to the church. 14-year-old Carolyn Maull answered. The caller said: “3 minutes,” and then hung up. In less than 60 seconds, the dynamite exploded. A survivor later said that the entire building shook. The explosion was so powerful that a man passing by in a vehicle was blown out, and windows as far as two blocks away were damaged.

Four girls were murdered: Addie Mae Collins (14), Carol Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14). If they were alive today, none would be older than 70.

‘Bombingham’

Birmingham, Alabama was, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” White supremacy was brutally upheld through both law and culture; even the most tentative attempts at racial integration had been met with ugly, violent backlash. In 1963, the city didn’t have a single Black man or woman on their police force, and very few Black people were registered to vote. Racially motivated bombings were not uncommon: in the 8 years preceding the Baptist Church bombing, there had been at least 21 explosions at Black churches or homes. Though there had been no fatalities, the cost – both financially and emotionally – was tremendous. These acts of racial terror were so common by 1963 that the city had earned the dubious distinction of being nicknamed “Bombingham.”

The three-story red brick church on 16th Street had long been a refuge and rallying place for civil rights activists. In the spring of 1963, it served as the training location for students who would eventually be arrested during the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, and it housed trainings by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was a regular meeting place for leaders in the movement, like Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph David Abernathy.

1963 was a particularly tumultuous year for the city of Birmingham. When the Children’s Crusade successfully convinced the city to desegregate schools in May of that year, they were given 90 days to do so. September 4th had been the first day of integrated public education at three schools in the city.

‘The blood of four little children…is on your hands.”

Many placed blame for the bombing on then-Alabama Governor George Wallace, an outspoken and unabashed racist and segregationist. In a telegram to Governor Wallace, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “the blood of four little children … is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”

Though the hours – and days – following the bombing were filled with violent unrest (including the murders of two other Black children, who were shot by a police officer and a white teenager, respectively) the horrific murders of the 4 girls served as something of a catalyst for the nation. An editorial in a Milwaukee paper encapsulated what many white Americans had been feeling: “For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths in a sense, are on the hands of each of us.”

The horrific murders of the girls, followed just two months later by the assassination of President Kennedy, opened a nationwide torrent of mourning and anger, a surge of emotional momentum that historians believe helped ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year.

“I will never stop crying thinking about it,” Barbara Cross, now 68, told TIME. Her father, John Cross, was the pastor at the church. On the day of the bombing, Cross, then 13, was in the basement with the other children. Though it’s taken her some time, Cross now speaks about her horrific experience to students today. “Some kids weren’t taught like I was taught, so I want them to hear about the lesson we learned that day about forgiveness,” she told TIME. “It might be painful, but I could have been underneath that rubble, and I think that’s why I still share through the tears.”

Robert Chambliss was not tried and convicted until 1977. Thomas Edwin Blanton was tried and convicted in 2001 and Bobby Frank Cherry was tried and convicted in 2002. Herman Cash, who died in 1994, was never charged with his alleged involvement in the bombing.

In memory of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and all other victims of racial terror.

‘I Don’t Want Her Death in that Jail to be in Vain’: The Barbaric Conditions for Mentally Ill Women at South Fulton Jail

When the phone call came from the South Fulton Jail in April of 2017, Willie Ruth Myrick blacked out. The chaplain informed her that her 44-year-old daughter, Kesha Brownlee, was dead. Though the details would not be clear for weeks, Ms. Brownlee’s autopsy eventually revealed that she had ingested a plastic spoon, and the head of a toothbrush. This had resulted in a perforated pharynx, which caused her death. She had been found in a cell littered with trash, blood, food, and dirty clothes earlier that day, with a large gash on her head. “I can’t tell you the pain of it,” Ms. Myrick said. “It’s unlike everything else. I lost my parents, my grannies – but this? To lose a child, it’s unlike any other death. It’s almost to the point where you can’t bear it.”

Ms. Myrick with the ashes of her daughter, Kesha Brownlee. Photo by Tabia Lisenbee-Parker.

Ms. Brownlee, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, suffered from severe mental illness for the better part of 25 years. At the time of her death in April 2017, she was being held on a probation warrant at the jail.  Her solitary confinement cell was filthy.

“Kesha was very mentally ill,” Ms. Myrick said.  “She was first diagnosed when she turned 20. She had been in and out of jail and mental institutions for years. It was a vicious cycle with no end.”

“We cannot allow conditions like these to become normalized in our criminal legal culture,” said Southern Center for Human Rights managing attorney Sarah Geraghty.  “For the memory of Ms. Brownlee, for her family, and for other women in the system, we have to do better than warehousing people with mental illness in jail cells.”

Warehousing Persons with Mental Illness

The South Fulton Jail houses women with serious mental illness in three “mental health pods.” Most such women  are housed alone because they are deemed too ill to share space. Some are kept in their cells, around the clock, for weeks or months at a time. They are subjected to more extreme isolation than convicted people in Georgia’s most restrictive prison solitary confinement unit.

Ms. Myrick acknowledges the difficulty of managing people with severe mental illnesses. “I know it’s got to be hard,” she said. “These mentally ill people do mentally ill stuff. You put them in there with guards who are not capable of dealing with this. Then this is what you get, right here. Someone will wind up dead.”

Many of the women who appear to be most in need of psychiatric care are being detained for petty offenses. Some are languishing in isolation cells simply because they cannot pay bond amounts as low as $200. Many of the offenses for which these women have been jailed are a result of the symptoms of their mental illnesses: on visits to the jail, the Southern Center for Human Rights legal team has noted multiple women charged with offenses of “public indecency,” such as sitting, partially clothed, on a curb, or walking down a street without pants. Other offenses include shouting boisterously at a shopping mall or refusing to leave a McDonald’s.

One woman had been held in the jail from May 8, 2018 to August 9, 2018, awaiting trial for being partially unclothed at a MARTA bus stop. Because she couldn’t afford her $500 bond, she had been held in her isolation cell 24 hours a day, removed only for court dates. Numerous other detainees had expressed concern to the SCHR legal team that she had not bathed, or left her cell, for months.

Another woman had been arrested for making loud, boisterous comments at a mall where police noted that she “appeared to be mentally ill.” She had been incarcerated in solitary confinement for over 225 days at the jail. She showed signs of profound mental illness, and had been deemed incompetent to stand trial. She had been ordered to Georgia Regional Hospital in March 2018, yet still remains in the jail.

Solitary confinement poses a grave risk to people with mental illness. Groups like the American Psychiatric Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care have warned against any use of isolated confinement for this population.

A Call for Change

In a letter to Sheriff Ted Jackson, Chief Jailer Colonel Mark Adger, and Chief State Court Judge Diane Bessen, the Southern Center for Human Rights is calling on government officials to address the unconstitutional conditions and lengthy detention for women with mental illness awaiting trial in the South Fulton Jail.

In response to the letter, Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts called SCHR’s allegations “simply appalling” and said he will be talking to the sheriff to address the concerns raised by SCHR. “At a minimum, the recommendations suggested by the Southern Center for Human Rights should be implemented immediately,” Pitts said.

“Disabled women who cannot afford to pay their way out of jail are experiencing our criminal court system at its worst,” said SCHR attorney Atteeyah Hollie.  “We must equip correctional and court staff so they can protect poor and disabled women from the lengthy jail stays and inhumane treatment we’ve seen to date.”

Ms. Myrick and her son, Maurice, with a collage of photos of Kesha. Photo by Tabia Lisenbee-Parker.

“This won’t just disappear,” said Ms. Myrick. “You can’t sweep these problems under the rug. My daughter was a human being, and she had family that loved her. She was a mother. She has 3 sons left here. I don’t want her death in that jail to be in vain. I don’t want another parent to go through what I’ve gone through.”

Incarcerated People are Striking for Basic Humanity — America Should Listen

Today marks the end of the first week of a multi-state prison strike, organized with a list of demands that can be effectively summarized by one simple point: incarcerated people must be treated with the dignity, fairness, and respect that they are, by tint of being human, due. The organizers’ list of demands includes an end to modern-day prison slavery, improved prison conditions, an end to life without parole sentencing, increased funding allocated to rehabilitation services, and the termination of felony disenfranchisement.  

The catalyst for the strike was a deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina this past April. Seven prisoners died, making it the most deadly unrest in an American prison in more than 25 years. It lasted for over seven hours. Prison guards did essentially nothing to quell or stop it.  

Modern-Day Slavery

The modern-day slavery practiced throughout the nation’s prisons has been the subject of ire and protest for years. “Slavery persists by another name today,” write David Love and Vijay Das for Al Jazeera. “Young men and women of colour toil away in 21st-century fields, sow in hand. And Corporate America is cracking the whip.

In 2016, a nationwide labor strike was organized in protest of scant — or nonexistent — wages. That strike saw more than 24,000 incarcerated people refuse to show up to work across 12 states. It was coordinated out of Alabama’s Holman Prison.

Thanks to the 13th Amendment, it remains legal for incarcerated people to be forced to work for no pay. Mandatory work programs in federal prisons can pay up to a maximum of $1.15 per hour; state prisons average roughly 20 cents an hour. In some states, including Georgia, prisoners are not paid at all for their labor.

The phenomenon of prison slavery worsened in 1979, with the advent of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, which allowed US companies to use prison labor for the first time. As the prison population began to boom, so did business: companies who participated early on in the program saw their profit margins shoot up. Business is still booming: in 2015, 60,000 prisoners generated $472 million in sales through their participation in the Federal Prison’s Unicor program, where men and women manufacture items ranging from eyeglasses to furniture. In 2016, the program brought in $500 million.

Wages allow incarcerated people access to myriad items, many of which are necessary for basic functions. In Georgia and Alabama, because prisoners are forced to labor for free, they are — theoretically — given the supplies they need. But it is substantially more onerous for people who have no wages, and no outside support, to survive in prison. The food served is often inadequate; the Southern Center for Human Rights receives frequent complaints about a dearth of edible food, servings that do not add up to a healthy daily caloric intake, and rigidity surrounding special diets in most state prisons. In Alabama, prison chefs describe receiving food — destined for the prison cafeteria — marked with “Not Fit for Human Consumption.” In December, The Atlantic reported that lapses in food safety have made prisoners six times more likely to get a foodborne illness than the general population.

If you have the money, you can supplement your diet with food purchased — at a markup — from the commissary. If you are laboring for free, you must either rely on money being sent from family (who are likely already experiencing a financial burden as a result of their loved one’s incarceration) or you go hungry. The same applies to the basic hygiene and personal care items given. It’s also incredibly difficult to remain in contact with family and friends; calls come at a prohibitively steep price for those being forced to work for free.

Prison labor is directly related to convict-leasing, the American South’s answer to a huge shortage of labor after slavery was abolished. In 1898, convict leasing provided nearly three-quarters of  Alabama’s revenue as a state. Today, majority Black and Brown prisoners in the state manufacture items ranging from desks to license plates for between .25 and .75 cents an hour.

This highlights a depressingly familiar American parable: we over-police and over-incarcerate men and women of color; we force them to labor for free or next to nothing; corporations and their wealthy (overwhelmingly white) leaders profit off of their labor.

Read more about the strike here.