Filmmaker Scott Budnick; New Hampshire Representative Robert Reynolds ‘Renny’ Cushing to be Honored by the Southern Center for Human Rights

On Thursday, November 7th, the Southern Center for Human Rights will host its 23rd Annual Frederick Douglass Awards Dinner in Washington, DC.

SCHR will honor Scott Budnick, film producer and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a non-profit organization that provides a support network for the formerly incarcerated, with its Human Rights Award. Mr. Budnick is currently serving as President and CEO of his newly-formed company, One Community, LLC. This venture uniquely merges Mr. Budnick’s background in storytelling and impact, as a film and TV production company that plans to leverage the movies and shows it makes to effect positive social change. Mr. Budnick is the producer of Just Mercy; the forthcoming film about Bryan Stevenson, New York Times best-selling author and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

SCHR will honor Representative Renny Cushing, a multi-term member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the founder and Executive Director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), with its Equal Justice Award. Representative Cushing’s father’s murder in 1988 has shaped his work as an advocate for crime victims and as an opponent of capital punishment. As a victim-abolitionist Representative Cushing has been a pioneer in the effort to bridge death penalty abolition groups and the victims’ rights movement. He travels throughout the U.S. and the world speaking with and on behalf of victims who oppose capital punishment and was an integral part of the successful movement to end the death penalty in New Hampshire.

As recipients oftheFrederick Douglass Awards, Mr. Budnick and Representative Cushingjoin a prestigious group of organizations and individuals whom SCHR has previously honored for their leadership in the fight for human rights and equal justice in the criminal justice system. Past honorees include Senator Cory Booker, Bryan Stevenson, Congressman John Lewis and Reverend Joseph Lowery.

“SCHR’s fierce advocacy for human rights and a criminal justice system that works for everyone is inspiring,” said Representative Cushing. “It is humbling to be recognized for my work to end the death penalty by such an amazing group whose members are on the front lines fighting every day to thwart efforts of the government to kill prisoners.” 

“As someone born and raised in Atlanta, it is inspiring to be honored amongst these incredible individuals, and to celebrate an organization holding systems accountable and fighting for justice and the humanity of people imprisoned in the South,” said Mr. Budnick. “Our work in the prisons of California was birthed and inspired by the Southern Center’s relentless advocacy and passion for those that are underserved and marginalized.”

Since 1976, the Southern Center for Human Rights has been working for equality, justice, and dignity for people impacted by the criminal legal system in the Deep South. SCHR fights for a world free from mass incarceration, the death penalty, the criminalization of poverty, and racial injustice.

SCHR has won five death penalty cases before the United States Supreme Court, represented thousands of people in class action lawsuits challenging unconstitutional and inhumane criminal justice practices, and worked towards ending the criminalization of poverty.

The Frederick Douglass Awards Dinner is SCHR’s principal annual fundraising event. SCHR is grateful to presenting sponsor Morrison & Foerster LLP, Kilpatrick Townsend, and The Zitrin Foundation. The dinner will be held at Conrad Washington DC Hotel, 950 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20001. A cocktail reception begins at 6:00 pm, with dinner and remarks commencing at 7:00 pm.

Members of the press are encouraged to attend this event. Please RSVP no later than November 6th by contacting Terrica Ganzy, at 404-688-1202 or [email protected].

‘What we call goals are human rights’: an interview with Close the Jail ATL’s Marilynn Winn

Ms. Winn in front of the Atlanta City Detention Center

The Atlanta City Detention Center (or ACDC) has historically served as a place to warehouse immigrants and the poor. It was erected just prior to the city of Atlanta serving as host for the 1996 Olympic Games. Beforehand – and for the duration of – the Olympics, ACDC’s population shot up from 2,200 to 4,500; at the same time, many homeless (or visibly poor) men and women disappeared from Woodruff Park. The jail is a monument to the criminalization of poverty; it is a monument to the practice of policing for comfort. Or it was: now, thanks to a successful moonshot campaign waged by a coalition of formerly incarcerated women of color, the city jail is closing. A city-appointed task force plans to repurpose the jail as a “Center for Equity.” In the space that used to cage poor Atlantans, people will now find resources, opportunities, and community.

The nonprofit organization behind the successful ‘Close the Jail ATL’ campaign, Women on the Rise, was founded and is led by Marilynn Winn. Winn says her mission to close the jail has been years in the making. “I didn’t like to talk about it, because when I brought it up people would tell me, ‘It’s not gonna happen. You’re crazy.’ But in my heart and in my spirit I always knew it would happen,” Winn told the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR).

When Winn created Women on the Rise (WoR), she joined forces with Xochitl Bervera of the Racial Justice Action Center (RJAC) who helped Winn put her vision of working with formerly incarcerated women to change policy into action. The women of WoR speak directly and powerfully to the issues of incarceration in a way that few others can. 

“Every time we won a campaign… we fought and we fought until we got it. It’s all about who’s giving the presentation. A person who has not been in our shoes can’t be passionate enough about their freedom to deliver that piece,” Winn said. 

Winn grew up in extreme poverty and learned to steal to survive. At 17, she went to prison for shoplifting. It was an ordeal she never wanted to repeat, but she found herself unable to get a job without lying about her record. Each time information about her past incarceration surfaced, she was fired, throwing her back into survival mode. Finally, facing a seventh prison sentence, Winn told a judge she needed something different.

“You keep sending me to prison, and it’s not going to work,” she told Judge Walter Lovett. “I’m going to come back and steal some more because I don’t have a choice in the matter.” Winn explained that she’d lied to obtain 18 separate jobs she couldn’t keep, showing the judge her social security documents to prove it. He told her to have a seat while he proceeded with the rest of his court calendar. At the end of the day, she and her attorney were alone with the judge and the prosecutor.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to send you back to prison. I do understand what you’re saying, but I don’t have anything to offer you. You’re not a drug addict.’”

Winn had become addicted to drugs during her fourth stint in prison, but she’d been clean and sober for a long time on that day in Judge Lovett’s courtroom. She convinced him that she could still be an addict, and he agreed to send her to drug court. There, she was able to obtain employment at a staffing company. Winn took the initiative to learn everything she could about the job, and now serves on the board of directors for First Step Staffing. Speaking up that day in court, Winn found a voice for herself and for her community.

Winn believes that the people most impacted by a problem are often the ones best suited to find a solution. “Those closest to the problem are the ones… to solve those problems. I’m no different. l still face those barriers and that’s why I fight them so hard. Even though I got a pardon, if a police officer should pull up my name, he would see my record before he sees my work. I’m still that person they would call a convict, who has been in prison. I’m still her.”

Close the Jail ATL was the latest in a series of successful community-led campaigns for decarceral solutions in Atlanta, including Ban the Box, decriminalizing marijuana possession, municipal cash bail reform, and the history-making Pre-Arrest Diversion (PAD) initiative.

“I was really excited… because stuff was happening that we’d never heard of, here in Atlanta, in the South, with a Republican governor. That let me know that the city was open to a number of things that it had never been open to before,” Winn said.

Things were happening, but the jail still loomed over the city, housing increasingly smaller numbers of people arrested for offenses as minor as a broken taillight. WoR and RJAC allied with 48 other groups, advocating at town halls and city council meetings and connecting with the city’s most impacted citizens. Resistance, Winn said, came from people in the community whose fears about public safety stood in the way of their understanding the alliance’s mission to close the jail. 

“Of course we got pushback… It’s all about educating people,” Winn said. “For example, I had to speak at a downtown neighborhood association, and they were stone faced. Literally most everybody that’s living in those areas are white, and they want to know about people that’s coming out that’s breaking in their cars. I let them know first of all that I am formerly incarcerated and I had that same problem until I got the services I need. You can scream, “Put people in jail,’ but they are not dying in the jail. They’re coming back out. And they are coming back out worse than what they went in. Some people went in with family support, some people went in with somewhere to live, coming back out with nothing… Coming out fiercer to commit a crime than they were… because they did have a little something but coming out now to nothing and nowhere to go. Wouldn’t it be easier and simpler to put your tax dollars into services for these folks than to lock them up? Because once they get what they need, then they will not do what they do.”

When speaking to communities comprised of people with experiences wildly different than her own, Winn stresses the personal nature of her fight against carceral injustice. For her, it’s critical to show others who have been targeted and impacted by the criminal legal system that a formerly incarcerated woman is breaking barriers and opening minds in order to create sustainable solutions.

“It’s just a few of us who have managed to overcome the stigma and the barriers that has been placed up to keep us held hostage. But mostly I think we are held hostage in our mind because we don’t want to talk about it. I think talking about it and being able to bring it forefront is the best thing we can do,” Winn said.

Now that ACDC is slated to close, a task force is meeting to discuss plans for the building’s future incarnation. After Mayor Bottoms signed the resolution in May, the task force was given nine months to take recommendations from the community and to find new jobs for the jail’s staff. Winn, one of the Task Force’s Co-chairs, says she envisions a welcoming space that is functional, practical and beautiful: one that will invite people in and make them feel safe; where they can connect with a variety of holistic services.

Winn’s vision, in her words: “I’m looking for a one stop shop, the same place that once housed and harmed our folks, a big beautiful opening, lots of windows, flowers, rooftop garden, outside to attract people’s attention to be curious, and so welcoming. Resource centers, housing, healthcare, addiction, employment development and training, 24-hour childcare. Nonprofits doing the work that we do, paying rent to the city to implement these programs. Education, hands on training… Whatever it takes for a person to thrive. Change the expression on their face. That’s what I see for that building. That’s not a goal it’s a right. What we call goals are human rights. It’s what we’re supposed to have already.”

The Task Force to reimagine the use of the Atlanta City Detention Center includes Winn, Atlanta rapper T.I. and SCHR’s Tiffany Williams Roberts. The task force is made up of 25 community members, some of whom were formerly detained at the jail. Stay tuned for ongoing coverage of the Reimagining the ACDC Task Force’s first phase meetings and town halls.


To learn more about the Task Force, visit https://www.closethejailatl.org/.   


Eleventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Lawsuit Challenging Policies Unlawfully Restricting Access to Basic Utility Services

In May 2017, the Southern Center for Human Rights, along with the National Immigration Law Center and Relman, Dane, & Colfax filed a lawsuit against the city of LaGrange, Georgia, alleging that the city’s discriminatory utility policies violated the Fair Housing Act. In December 2017, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, accepting the city’s claim that because its citizens had acquired housing, they were no longer protected. Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the decision to dismiss, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

“The Court’s order could not have been more clear – housing discrimination is unlawful regardless of whether it occurs before or after someone moves into their home,” said SCHR Senior Attorney Atteeyah Hollie. “This is a win for everyone committed to achieving fair housing practices in Georgia and beyond.” 

The city of LaGrange is the sole provider of electricity, gas, and water utility services. Unlike most municipalities in the country, LaGrange does not levy property taxes—a policy decision that the city routinely touts to recruit new employers and residents. Instead, municipal operations are largely funded through the city’s sale of basic utilities to its residents.

The city requires that utility customers comply with two policies in order to initiate and maintain those basic utility services: first, both applicants and current customers must pay any debts they owe to the city, including unrelated municipal court fees and fines, to maintain their utilities. Residents with municipal court debt cannot obtain electricity, gas, or water, and current customers who owe court debt to the city may have their utilities turned off, sometimes with little advance notice. Second, the city requires an applicant seeking to open a new utility account to present a valid state-or federally-issued photo ID, which many Latinx residents in LaGrange are categorically ineligible to obtain.

The disproportionate impact of these policies on Black and Latinx communities is clear: 90% of the residents subjected to the court debt policy were Black (LaGrange’s population is only 48% Black) and Latinx immigrants are overwhelmingly impacted by the city’s policy of requiring photo identification in order to obtain utilities.

The policy of adding unrelated fees to utility bills represents a huge disadvantage to low-income residents, whose bills are already a larger burden relative to their overall income. Seven LaGrange residents are listed as plaintiffs in the suit, including Pamela Williams, a property owner who discounted rents for several tenants who could not afford to keep the lights on.  One such tenant was Calvin Johnson, a 37-year-old lifelong LaGrange resident. When he moved into a trailer owned by Williams’ mother, he was surprised to find that he owed the city money for outstanding court fines. He was confused, he told Rewire in 2017, because he had served jail time for the charge in 2003 and hadn’t realized he still owed hundreds of dollars, until the charges showed up in an unlikely place: his water and electricity bills.

Even though Johnson worked two jobs, he said he still didn’t know how he was going to make it. He’d worked out a payment plan with the city, but he still couldn’t afford to pay the fines, his bills, and his rent, which his landlord discounted for a few months to let him catch up. Johnson eventually left LaGrange and moved in with family. He joined the lawsuit in hopes it might change life in LaGrange for other residents struggling to keep the lights on.

“They need to change that law,” Johnson told Rewire. “It hurts a lot of people, especially when people are living from paycheck to paycheck… They know that you got to have lights, you got to have water, that’s why they add it onto people’s utility bills. I think it’s very wrong.”

The second policy listed in the suit, which requires that residents opening utilities accounts produce a state-issued photo ID, amounts to a complete deterrent for immigrants who are blocked from obtaining an account in their own name.

One anonymous plaintiff, referred to in the lawsuit as John Doe #3, moved to the United States with his young son and wife, who has a medical condition that requires dialysis — and consistent water and electricity. When she became pregnant again, they tried to move to a bigger home, but he was unable to open a utility account in their name with his Mexican passport or tax ID. He had to have a friend with a social security number and state-issued ID put the bills in his name. 

These policies amount to utilities as a form of social control. While the city attracts businesses with the freedom from property taxes, it in turn further disenfranchises its most marginalized residents. In LaGrange’s Municipal Court, a fine from a traffic violation could lead to probation and more fines, and eventually to the lights and the water being shut off.

This is exactly what happened to Charles Brewer, a named plaintiff who passed away in August 2018. Brewer, 57 at the time of his death, suffered from serious sleep apnea and congestive heart failure, and was on a waiting list for a heart transplant. In 2014, Brewer was placed on probation after he pleaded no contest to driving without a license. He was ordered to pay a total of $871 in fines and fees relating to his arrest, most of which he had paid off when his probation ended. In October of 2015, the remaining debt of $210.25 was transferred to the city’s collection agency. When Brewer moved the next year, he applied for utilities and was obligated to sign a statement which read: “Applicants with delinquent amounts owed to the City of any type shall be subject to having utility services terminated for failure to pay said debts.” Five months later, Brewer received a letter from the City, warning him that his utilities would be cut off if his court debt – which was accruing interest each month – was not paid. Both Brewer’s oxygen tank and CPAP machine required electricity to run. Terrified at the prospect of losing these life-sustaining machines, he explained his situation to the City, who claimed to have added a “medical no-cut” notation to his file. Despite this, Brewer continued to receive threats of service interruption, and lived in fear that the two hundred dollars he owed from his traffic violation would cost him his life.

Ernest Ward, former President of the Troup County NAACP, told Rewire that the court debt and utility account policies are “an extension of institutional racism—another way the city keeps its Black and brown residents in line.”

“We are truly excited about the decision handed down yesterday,” said Ward in a statement last week. “It was huge for our disenfranchised community members, who are continually impacted by the barriers associated with poverty. We have a reason to be excited, but at the same time, we have a reason to be sad. Sad because lawsuits do not change the heart of a person, and we desire a time in our community when one doesn’t have to litigate equality.”