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.”