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.

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