‘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/.   


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