It’s Time to Close 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.

In 2010, ACDC entered into a lucrative contract to rent cells to the federal government in order to house people detained by ICE (U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.) The city receives $78 per detained immigrant per day. But in June, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that ACDC would, at least temporarily, no longer be accepting newly detained immigrants from ICE.

The city of Atlanta continues to profit off of the incarceration of immigrants at ACDC. Detainees there are forced to work for eight hours a day, with zero compensation (at some other facilities, immigrants are paid $1 a day for their work.) The city has been paid over $6 million from ICE in the 2016 fiscal year alone.

Earlier this month, “Inside Atlanta’s Immigrant Cages,” a report by Project South and Georgia Detention Watch, was released. The report, which is the culmination of a year-long project comprised of interviews with many prisoners, attorneys, tours of the facility, and the poring over of hundreds of documents obtained from the city, paints a gruesome picture of life at the jail. Almost all detained immigrants at ACDC interviewed for the report noted that officers often yelled at and intimidated them, used vulgar language, and threaten them constantly with lock-downs. The conditions that prisoners live in are unsanitary and dangerous; medical care is scant; the quality of the food is notably poor; people are thrown in solitary confinement for no discernable reason. It is a place of great suffering.

“The city jail serves no other purpose than to warehouse poor Atlantans and immigrants,” said SCHR Executive Director Sara Totonchi. Since the passage of the cash bail reform ordinance in February, and the temporary stop in new federal detainees, the cost of keeping ACDC open is prohibitively high. “With the temporary halting of the contract with ICE and the implementation of the new bail ordinance, this jail serves no legitimate purpose and should be closed immediately to save taxpayer dollars,” said Totonchi. Mayor Bottoms herself agrees:  she no longer thinks it is cost effective for taxpayers to keep ACDC’s doors open.

“It is time for Atlanta to stop colluding with ICE permanently and end its agreements to detain immigrants,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, Legal & Advocacy Director with Project South, in a statement.

The Racial Justice Action Center has done formidable work in spearheading the campaign to close ACDC. The time is now.

Read ‘Inside Atlanta’s Immigrant Cages’ here.

Read more about protests against ACDC here.

 

Nowhere to Go: Homelessness among formerly incarcerated people

In a first-of-its-kind study, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) is reporting that formerly incarcerated people are a staggering ten times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. The study, which utilized data from a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, builds on a foundational understanding of the correlation between homelessness and incarceration. Previous national data has suggested that as much as 15% of the incarcerated population had experienced homelessness in the 12 months before they were imprisoned.

Last December, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, was sent on a tour of the United States to witness and report on the extreme poverty experienced by millions in the world’s wealthiest country. In his final report, Mr. Alston disparaged local governments for criminalizing homelessness; shocked by the fact that police ticket and arrest men and women for “crimes” like sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in public places.

At Southern Center for Human Rights, we see this link clearly. Last year, we filed an emergency petition for relief on behalf of Sean Ramsey, who had been jailed for standing on a sidewalk in Atlanta while holding a sign which read ‘Homeless, please help.’ It is illegal to ask for money in the City of Atlanta. Mr. Ramsey was arrested on September 19th and, unable to post the $200 bond he had been assigned, he sat in jail until November 29th.

Across Georgia – and across the country – being homeless or poor is, in effect, criminalized. When you are experiencing homelessness, basic, life-sustaining actions you must take on a daily basis – sleeping or sitting in parks or sidewalks, relieving yourself outside, asking for money – are enough to land you behind bars. Criminalizing homelessness violates our most basic human rights, and it sets in action a revolving door – sent to jail for sleeping on the street; more likely to experience homelessness again once released.

PPI also found, unsurprisingly, a racial element to this revolving door: formerly incarcerated Black men have much higher rates of homelessness than white or Hispanic men. The data also shows that women of color experience homelessness at higher rates than white women.

“People who have been to prison just once experience homelessness at a rate nearly 7 times higher than the general public,” writes Lucius Couloute of PPI. “But people who have been incarcerated more than once have rates 13 times higher than the general public. In other words, people who have been incarcerated multiple times are twice as likely to be homeless as those who are returning from their first prison term.”

Read the report here.

Read more about Sean Ramsey’s case here.

Two Rulings, One Conclusion: ‘User-Pay’ Court Funding Unconstitutional

In two landmark decisions this month, two federal judges declared that there is a clear conflict present when judges in New Orleans set bail amounts which in turn pad their court budgets. These rulings, brought against Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell and the 12 Criminal District Court trial judges, will do two things: throw the courts’ discretionary budgets into question for the near future and present a unique opportunity to reform the courts’ longstanding practice of profiting off of the backs of poor people.

The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court receives 1.8 % of every commercial surety bond posted in the parish. In other words, bail and bonds paid by poor people – who have not yet been convicted of any crime – are providing nearly a quarter (20-25%) of the court’s discretionary budget each year.

The case against Judge Cantrell was brought by the MacArthur Justice Center and Civil Rights Corps. Though he had acknowledged the necessity of inquiring into a defendant’s ability to pay a certain bail amount, Judge Cantrell has also admitted that he does not set bail lower than $2,500; a prohibitively expensive amount, particularly in a city where a quarter of the population lives in poverty. Judge Cantrell has “an institutional incentive to find that criminal defendants are able to pay bail and to set higher bail amounts,” Eastern District of Louisiana Judge Eldon Fallon wrote. In 2015, Judge Cantrell’s court benefited to the tune of $1 million from bail and bond fees.

In his August 6 decision, Judge Fallon writes that a judge must be able to prove that there is “clear and convincing evidence” that an individual should be detained. That requires both inquiring into whether or not the individual has the ability to pay the set bail amount, as well as the consideration of alternatives to detainment.

“You can’t just throw money amounts at people,” Jon Wool, director of public policy at the Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office, told The Appeal. “You need to say either you’re released on non-financial conditions or you’re detained either because you can’t pay money or as preventative detention, but only after a searching inquiry and a high standard of proof.” The Vera Institute of Justice is hoping to move towards a system where the New Orleans City Council funds the court.

No judge should have a financial incentive to impose bail. Nor should anyone be detained because they lack the resources to purchase their freedom. The question now becomes whether or not the city of New Orleans will fully divorce itself from a fundamentally unjust system which places the financial burden – both the cost of liberty as well as the revenue stream for the courts – on the defendant, or if they will simply make minute adjustments that satisfy constitutionality while maintaining the status quo.

Read more about the rulings here.

Problems at Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender Office Are Brought To Light

In recent months, the Southern Center for Human Rights has received complaints from both clients of and staff attorneys at the Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender Office. Both groups describe an under-resourced office stretched so thin that many indigent defendants receive “representation” only in the most theoretical sense.

Staff attorneys at the public defender office are required to handle excessive caseloads. Many do so, moreover, with no dedicated office space, no computers, and no access to office telephones, printers, or other necessary supports that are indispensable for the practice of law. Inadequate staffing, underfunding, and a lack of oversight further undermine the public defender office’s ability to provide the quality of legal representation required by the U.S. Constitution.

Workload

Staff attorneys at the public defender office handle too many cases. Several staff attorneys report that they represent people in between 500 and 1,000 cases per year, excluding first appearances hearings. These reported numbers substantially exceed the maximum annual misdemeanor caseload limit for full-time attorneys recognized by the American Bar Association1 and other states. Indeed, some staff attorneys report handling double the recommended number of cases.

Inadequate Work Space

 

To our knowledge, the County provides three total office spaces for the public defender’s 18 attorneys and their support staff. One office belongs to the managing attorney, and another is assigned to the chief assistant public defender. The rest of the office’s staff, including seventeen lawyers and three non-attorney personnel, are assigned to the third office, a small room that has space for only three desks. Each desk has a desktop computer and a phone (although one of the phones does not function properly). One of the desks is assigned to the office manager, leaving two desks for the office’s seventeen staff attorneys. Pictures of this office are below. In the first picture, a water leak covers parts of the office floor.

This office is meant to house 20 people.
Another view.

Because staff attorneys do not have office space or office phones, many are required to rely on their personal cellphones to reach clients and handle other case-related matters. Others rely on messages tacked to a corkboard in the office, a system that wrongly assumes attorneys come to the office regularly when in fact, many do not because 1) there is nowhere to work in the office and 2) they are in court almost daily. Some staff attorneys report that there is only one cubicle available for their use.

Moreover, some staff attorneys report that they have waited months, and in some cases years, to receive a state- or county-issued laptop, while others have yet to receive a work computer. Others report that malfunctioning office printers and copiers sometimes compel them to print case-related documents at home.

Inadequate Staffing

The public defender’s office has one managing attorney and seventeen full-time staff attorneys responsible for representing indigent defendants accused of misdemeanors in ten state trial courts, three magistrate courts, and three accountability courts located throughout Fulton County. Each staff attorney is assigned to multiple courts at a time: they “must cover both trial courts, the magistrate courts, prepare for trials, and serve as duty defenders when not in court or preparing for trial.” The frequency of proceedings across courts requires staff attorneys to be in court almost every day of the week. Some staff attorneys report that they are in court four or five days a week, making it impossible for them to devote adequate time to their cases, files case-specific motions, research legal issues, and perform other basic duties of an attorney.

The Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender Office has many hardworking lawyers and administrative staff committed to safeguarding the constitutional rights of poor people accused of crime. Their dedication and commitment are to be lauded. But even the most well-intentioned lawyer cannot effectively work under the conditions described.

The Southern Center has sent a letter detailing the above issues — and more — to the Executive Director and State Level Services Director of the Georgia Public Defender Council, the Chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, and the Managing Public Defender for Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender, requesting steps be taken to remedy these problems.

Georgia Prisoners Are Subjected to “Harshest and Most Draconian” Solitary Confinement Units in the Nation

*Content Warning: some images are disturbing & contain blood*

The Special Management Unit (SMU) at Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison is the state’s most restrictive solitary confinement facility.  Prisoners there spend years wholly isolated in a small concrete room. The cells, which measure roughly the size of a parking spot, are designed to isolate prisoners from the outside world.  In the SMU’s most restrictive cellblocks, people are permitted no books or personal property, and do not leave their cells for any reason for a minimum of 90 days.  The isolated conditions are exacerbated by the constant din of yelling and banging on doors, the permeating stench of feces, and the dampness and mildew caused by in-cell showers.

A clean cell in Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison’s SMU

SMU prisoners are in some form of lockdown at all times. Most prisoners remain locked inside of their cells virtually 24 hours per day, five to seven days per week; on the other days, they spend about 22 hours or more per day alone in their cells.  “Recreation” takes place alone inside an empty cage and occurs, at most, for two hours, twice per week.  Prisoners in the SMU spend every moment alone in a small isolation cell, cage, or shower stall, or handcuffed behind the back while being escorted between one small space to another.  Prisoners liken these conditions to living in a “tomb” or “casket.”

The outdoor ‘exercise’ area, which some SMU prisoners are permitted to be in 5 hours per week.

The conditions of confinement are significantly more isolating than comparable units at other facilities, as the prisoners are wholly denied contact – even visually – with the outside world and other people. The doors to the SMU cells are made of solid metal, rather than open bars. There is a small metal shield over an opening in the door; it is typically kept closed, only to be opened briefly by prison staff. This means that men incarcerated in the SMU are unable to see out of their cell into the hallway, keeping any social interactions that would occur in other solitary confinement units with bars instead of metal doors from occurring.

The metal doors to an SMU cell.

Some of the units in E-Wing also have a metal shield covering the exterior window in the cell, essentially hermetically sealing the unit and keeping the men from experiencing natural light and air.

A window of a cell in E-Wing, sealed with a metal plate.

Dr. Craig Haney, perhaps the most qualified expert in the nation with respect to the psychological and physical harms caused by solitary confinement, characterizes Georgia’s SMU as “one of the harshest and most draconian” he has seen, and its prisoners as “among the most psychologically traumatized persons [he] ha[s] ever assessed.”  During his tour of the SMU, Dr. Haney encountered, among other things, a cellblock full of people with serious mental illness, a man who had been locked for months inside a pitch-black cell, and another man, naked and psychotic, whose cell was covered in blood.  While inspecting the SMU’s most restrictive cell block, Dr. Haney “was met with a cacophony of prisoner screams and cries for help. The noise was deafening and there was the smell of smoke in the air.”

Prisoners spend years subject to the SMU’s conditions, with the timing of their release entirely dependent on the whims or simple non-action of senior Department of Corrections officials.  Plaintiff Timothy Gumm spent seven and a half years in the SMU, despite 14 recommendations (over the course of 4 years) by SMU officials that he should be transferred to a less restrictive prison, while Johnny Mack Brown and Robert Watkins have been there for nine and eight years, respectively.  As of July 11, 2017, out of 182 prisoners assigned to the SMU, around 141 (78 %) had been there more than two years, 80 (44 %) had been there more than four years, and 47 (26 %) had been there more than five years.

Scientific studies substantiate the pain and suffering that isolated prisoners endure and the significant risk of serious psychological and physical harm to which they are exposed.  The SMU’s isolating conditions cause particular damage to the high number of people with mental illness housed there.  Out of the 30 prisoners in the SMU’s most restrictive wing, 26 men (or 87 % of the men in that unit) had diagnosed mental disorders.  A considerable number of SMU prisoners are driven to engage in extreme acts of self-harm, including cutting themselves, banging their heads against the wall, overdosing, attempting to hang themselves, eating feces, setting fire to their cells, and swallowing batteries or razor blades.

On the day that Dr. Haney and Southern Center staff visited the SMU, they encountered a man who had attempted suicide the day prior. He was taken out of his cell, evaluated, and then returned the next day. His cell had not been cleaned; it was still covered in blood. His arm had a deep, open wound.

Blood on the floor of an SMU cell.

“The practice of locking people away in a concrete box for years on end is both cruel and entirely counterproductive to the goals of public safety and rehabilitation,” says SCHR Managing Attorney, Sarah Geraghty.  “There is a growing national consensus that solitary confinement units like the SMU inflict lasting harm, exacerbate behavioral problems, and increase recidivism.”

On July 5, 2018, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, on behalf men incarcerated in the Special Management Unit at Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison.  The motion asks the federal court to require corrections officials to immediately remedy the prison’s intolerable conditions.

In their motion seeking a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs have asked the federal court to require Department of Corrections officials to take affirmative steps to ameliorate the unconstitutional conditions in the SMU, including the following:

  • Offer at least three hours of daily out-of-cell time to all prisoners in the SMU in a manner consistent with security concerns;
  • Establish within 30 days a plan for providing meaningful activities, consistent with security concerns, to people in the SMU; and
  • Establish within 30 days a plan to evaluate all prisoners in the SMU to determine which prisoners have mental illness and to promptly transfer such persons out of the SMU.

“The conditions at the SMU are beyond belief, beyond imagination.  There is no valid penological justification for it, unless the Georgia Department of Corrections believes that inducing total despair and hopelessness and encouraging suicide is such a purpose,” said Kilpatrick Townsend partner, Jay Bogan.

Read Dr. Haney’s report here.

Reminder: Corporations Are Profiting Off Of Migrant Detention

The stories being reported from our country’s Southern border are horrifying. It is worth remembering that two corporations are profiting handsomely off of the current administration’s callous and inhumane policies. CoreCivic and GEO Group are the two largest providers of private prison and detention centers in the country.

In April, a lawsuit was filed against CoreCivic, alleging that the corporation is making millions in profit off of forced labor of migrants detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The detainees are paid a meager wage of between $1 and $4 a day.

The lawsuit further alleges that detainees are deprived of basic necessities — like food, toilet paper, or soap — and must work for the ability to purchase those items from Stewart’s commissary. If they refuse to work, they are threatened with solitary confinement, or further withholding of necessities.

The plaintiffs, represented by a coalition of civil rights groups and lawyers, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and Project South, include Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a detainees currently incarcerated at Stewart.

“When I arrived at Stewart I was faced with the impossible choice — either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food,” Barrientos wrote in a statement released to CNN in April.

“If I didn’t work,” Barrientos continued, “I would never be able to call my family.”

A joint investigation from Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting and WABE reveals more about the inhumane conditions at Stewart. Reporters obtained federal records showing that Stewart is experiencing critical staffing shortages as well as an influx of drugs. Two detainees have died in a 12 month period; one who died by hanging himself with a bed sheet while being held in solitary confinement, and the other from complications from pneumonia.

Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, sent a letter to several members of Congress last week, calling on them to “end an unjust detention system that sends immigrants far from their families and friends, subordinates their well-being to the profit of others, and strips them of their rights.”

Similar lawsuits and allegations are cropping up at detention centers owned by CoreCivic around the country. Last month, a group of men issued a statement detailing the severe abuses and mistreatment that they are subject to inside Otay Mesa Detention Center, outside of San Diego. “They force us to work for 6 hours for a payment of $1.50,” the letter reads. They also claim that they are threatened to be sent before a Judge when they refuse to work. The letter is signed by 37 detainees.

Any modicum of profit motive is poison to a system which seeks to humanely detain people. The basic civic responsibility of the justice system cannot be held hostage by corporate executives, city budgets, or stockholders.

Remembering our Friend and Hero, Lewis Sinclair

Ten years ago today, the world lost a true luminary. A dear friend of the Southern Center, Lewis Sinclair, peacefully passed away at the age of 93 on June 8th, 2008.

Lewis and his beloved wife of 27 years, Mary Sinclair

A passion for and dedication to social justice and grassroots community organizing were constant throughout Lewis’s incredible life. He believed that people didn’t need to be lectured on what was wrong, or what needed to change in their communities – they already knew  – and that the fixes were simply a matter of bringing people together to collectively identify challenges and brainstorm their solutions. “You need two things to do this work, a sense of outrage and a sense of humor, and Lewis had both in abundance,” former Southern Center President Steve Bright told the AJC. “He never let us take ourselves too seriously. He raised our spirits on countless occasions.”

Lewis was a constant presence at protests.

Lewis was an economist with the Tennessee Valley Authority, who eventually retired to Atlanta. He was a constant presence at protests against capital punishments and any human rights violation. As a friend of SCHR — and a board member —  Lewis, along with Mary Sinclair, his beloved partner of 27 years, would assist in death penalty cases by interviewing witnesses and preparing them to testify in court, ensure client’s family was taken care of, and volunteer any variety of practical assistance that the SCHR attorneys needed. “Lewis was very proud of the Southern Center and proud of its work,” remembers Mary Sinclair. “He felt so good about what the office did.”

Kori Chen writes in the SCHR Human Rights Report, “while deeply committed to SCHR’s excellent legal work, Lewis also believed that you could only achieve so much through the courtroom. Lewis remembers that SCHR – then known as the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee – was founded to be the legal support for local activists organizing against the death penalty and brutality in prisons and jails. Thus, he was very supportive of broadening the scope of its work to include strategies such as community organizing through programs like Fairness for Prisoners’ Families and our campaign against private probation companies in Americus, Georgia. In essence, Lewis saw these efforts as returning SCHR to its roots.”

Most poignantly, Lewis believed in the power of people. He believed that every individual, regardless of profession or status, holds the power within themselves to create the change that is needed in the world. We carry these lessons with us and continue to be inspired by Lewis’s legacy.

“From my earliest days at SCHR, I knew I had cheerleaders in Mary and Lewis Sinclair,” remembers Sara Totonchi, SCHR Executive Director. “They helped us all feel part of something larger than ourselves, a struggle of enormous urgency for human rights and dignity. As we remember Lewis today, we reaffirm our commitment to continuing the struggle that he and others bravely fought for so many years.”

Read Kori Chen’s tribute to Lewis here.

Death Sentences are Dwindling in Georgia, In Favor of a Different Kind of Death Sentence: Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole

It has been 4 years since a jury in the state of Georgia handed down a death sentence. This trend, and the shifting perceptions of capital punishment, have been reflected across the country: according to a Quinnipiac National Poll released in March, American voters support the death penalty 58 – 33 percent for people convicted of murder, yet when offered a choice between the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole, Americans choose the life option, 51 – 37 percent. According to Quinnipiac, this marks the first time a majority of voters backed the life without parole option since they began asking this question in 2004.

Georgia courts have imposed just four death sentences in the past nine years, and none since 2014. This is a remarkable shift from the 1990s, in which the state averaged nine new death sentences per year. It would appear from that shift that Georgia, through its prosecutors and juries, has turned away from the death penalty.  But executions tell a different story. Georgia carried out one or two executions per year in the 1990s, yet our state has executed nineteen people in the last four years.

Over the last few years, Georgia has executed a man whose drunk lawyer bungled the case, a man with intellectual disabilities, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, a woman who planned but did not actually commit murder, and at least three men with strong claims of actual innocence. “These cases are no outliers,” says Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “They are emblematic of a particularly harsh time in Georgia’s history when death sentences were handed out frequently despite substantive and procedural flaws. And they encapsulate what’s wrong with capital punishment in Georgia.”

In 2017, nationally, 39 death sentences were imposed. While this number is still unacceptably high (particularly when juxtaposed against the rest of the Western world) compared to 1998, when 295 individuals were sentenced to die, it’s a welcome decline. Pete Skandalakis, the Executive Director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, attributes the decline in death sentences as a result of people getting more comfortable with the idea of life without the possibility of parole. “That has made a huge difference,” Skandalakis told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “And when you sit down with victims’ families and discuss the process of a death-penalty case with all the pretrial hearings, then the years of appeals that follow, I have found that families like the finality of life without parole. It lets them get on with their lives.”

A sentence of life without the possibility of parole – while an improvement over capital punishment in many ways – is a different sort of death sentence. Sending someone to die behind bars, with no expectation of ever being released, denies their humanity and their chance at redemption. Still, it seems that Georgia – and perhaps the country as a whole – is more ready than it’s ever been to move past capital punishment.

“Now is the time for Georgia to acknowledge that the death penalty no longer serves us,” says Totonchi. “It’s expensive, it’s fraught with errors, it’s disproportionately sought against people of color and low income individuals, and it targets our most vulnerable, including people with disabilities and metal health conditions.”

Read more at the AJC.

Lighting the Fires of Freedom: A Conversation with Janet Dewart Bell

Who comes to mind when you think of leaders of the Civil Rights movement? Martin Luther King, Jr.? W.E.B. Du Bois? A. Philip Randolph?

What about June Jackson Christmas, a psychiatrist who opened her home to civil rights workers for respite, raised funds, and provided free counseling? Or Georgia Gilmore, a cook who helped raise funds to help sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Perhaps Mamie Till Mobley, mother of murdered teenager Emmett Till, who espoused forgiveness and redemption; frequently evincing love for the children of her son’s killers? Throughout the Civil Rights era (and throughout American history) Black women activists have consistently fought for freedoms and rights that they had never known, and perhaps wouldn’t see in their lifetimes.

The Black women who have long been confronting and working to end the most critical civil and human rights issues facing our nation are often left out of the history books. In her new book, Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, social justice activist and communications strategist(and SCHR board member) Janet Dewart Bell profiles nine Black women who led – with little or no recognition– on many levels of the Civil Rights movement. Though these women aren’t household names, their contributions and sacrifices continue to be felt today. SCHR Communications Manager Hannah Riley spoke with Bell about her new book, the ongoing fight for equal rights, and what lessons we can learn from their fight.

Lighting the Fires of Freedom

Featured in the book are Aileen Hernandez, the first Black president of the National Organization of Women; New Orleans chef and restaurant owner Leah Chase; psychiatrist Dr. June Jackson Christmas; Diane Nash, a leader of the Nashville student movement and a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Gay McDougall, who was the first African American admitted into Agnes Scott College and later became a human rights leader who focused on ending apartheid in South Africa; Judy Richardson, SNCC activist and co-founder of Drum and Spear Press, devoted to publishing Black literature and associate producer of the landmark television series, Eyes on the Prize; Kathleen Cleaver, the first woman to serve on the Central Committee of the Black Panther Party; Gloria Richardson, known  as “the Lady General of Civil Rights”; and Myrlie Evers, wife of Medgar Evers, who later served as chair of the NAACP.

These women joined the movement not to seek fame or recognition, but a more just world. Despite their impact on the civil rights movement, they remain relatively unknown. With this book, Bell hopes to change that.

“The book grew out of research for my dissertation, during which I found a lot of women that I could have written about and interviewed,” says Bell. “These nine women represented a wide range of activity, and at different levels of these movements. They are iconic on their own, of course, but they also represent different groups that lead at all levels . This all grew out of my theory of leadership, and my respect and love for African American women leaders and for The Movement itself.”

“In Lighting the Fires of Freedom, we start with a chef and restaurant owner, Leah Chase, and her contribution to the movement. She hosted interracial groups of civil rights workers and gave them a place to meet – which was against the law at the time. New Orleans had perhaps a more genteel Jim Crow, but it was still there. For most, it was separate and  unequal. I also spoke with Dr. June Jackson Christmas, who was a psychiatrist. She and her husband opened their town house in New York City as a respite to civil rights workers. She hosted unknown activists and big names, she raised funds; she provided counseling to civil rights workers who just needed a break (this was before people talked about PTSD.)”

Bell speaks to various audiences about her book often, and has been asked what lessons might be taken away from the interviews conducted in the book.  “A young person at one of my talks told me that she feels discouraged, and feels that it’s difficult for her and her friends to know what to do,” she says. “And I said, you know, the advantage we had – even though we had segregation – was that we knew what the problem was; we weren’t being bombarded with the falsity of “post racialism.” The other part is that we believed in a future, even if we couldn’t make it better for ourselves, that would be better for those who follow. The unleashing of the bold racism under Trump has made it much harder. We have unarmed people being shot and killed without remorse or government action — encouraged by the policies and pronouncements of Trump and his allies.The instruction I think we get from all of this is we must do what the Southern Center has always done. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. That’s what these Black women believe.”

These women had very little money, no societal clout, and no laws on their side. Despite these setbacks – or perhaps because of them – they developed creative approaches to building transformational leadership.

“They provided leadership that was just not acknowledged, and it was certainly underappreciated,” Bell says. “Take the Montgomery bus boycott: this wasn’t successful based on the oratory–although providing a narrative is extremely important — it was successful based on organizing. The organizing that went on behind the scenes was critically important. Someone had the vision to come up with alternate forms of transportation,  for folks not taking the bus any longer. Money had to be raised to support the boycotts. Take Georgia Gilmore, a cook, who started a the “Club from Nowhere  to fundraise for the boycotts. She, and other cooks and service workers many of whom lost their jobs as a result, did a lot to support the boycotts and the movement.”

What, if any, is the common thread among these women? “All these women,” Bell says, “were totally grounded in Black culture and community. They had a familiarity and a comfort with it. Their upbringing was one of being positive, not only about themselves and this country, amid Jim Crow, but being positive about themselves. My late husband and I said this to each other – and others – often: there is joy in the midst of struggle. You must find your center and hold onto it. These women in my book are real people leading real lives. They are whole people; for black people, preserving personhood is itself an accomplishment. That’s what these women did – and do – and that’s what I tell young people. Be grounded in the culture and don’t be distracted by the false notion of ‘post racialism’; don’t internalize the oppression. Call it for what it is, and get rid of it.”

Read Bell’s essay on transformational Black women activists in The Nation. More on Lighting the Fires of Freedom here.

Bad Prison Food Is More Than a Punchline

The quality of food in prisons and jails across the country is notoriously poor. What happens when there is an incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding incarcerated people?

Breakfast at Etowah County Jail.

Across Alabama, sheriffs contend that a state law authorizing them to “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails allows them to take any money they don’t spend on food as personal income. This dubious interpretation of state law has been clearly rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it only for official purposes. Despite this, the practice continues. In January, SCHR – along with Alabama Appleseed – sued 49 sheriffs who refuse to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from money allocated for feeding people in their jails.

It’s long been understood that food served in correctional facilities across the United States is far from gourmet. Incarceration has a “gastronomic dimension,” and unappetizing food is often seen as part and parcel of the punishment incarcerated people are meant to receive. But bad prison food is more than just a punchline.

According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incarcerated people are 6.4 times more likely to contract a food-related illness than the general population. SCHR receives countless letters from people incarcerated in Alabama, detailing the meager and/or inedible meals served to them.

A new article by AL.com’s Connor Sheets highlights the gravity of the situation at Etowah County Jail, a facility which has come under scrutiny after it was revealed that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin (one of the 49 sheriffs being sued by SCHR and Alabama Appleseed) kept hundreds of thousands of dollars meant to feed people incarcerated at his jail. Entrekin has pocketed well over $750,000 from the food money account over the past 3 years.

Not Fit for Human Consumption

Benjamin Hunter was incarcerated at Etowah County Jail for roughly a year. During his time there, he frequently handled boxes of food headed for the jail kitchen. Hunter tells AL.com:

“The meat patties they feed you and call it either chicken or Salisbury steak or whatever, it’s literally for dog food. We called them starfish patties because they look more like a starfish than anything. They literally said in bold red letters plain as day on the top, bottom and sides of the box, ‘Not Fit For Human Consumption.'”

Hunter also told AL.com that he frequently handled visibly rotten chicken that was donated to the jail. “I helped load these boxes of chicken that was culled because of tumors and abscesses and deformities or it was past its time to be shipped,” he said.

As Sheets reports, those who can afford it supplement (or replace) their meals with food items purchased from the jail commissary. Those who can’t afford it face extreme hunger, food-borne illnesses, or both.

The impacts of malnutrition and starvation go beyond the physical. According to Hunter,

“Every ‘riot’ I’ve seen was because of some bulls**t they fed us. Every single one I’ve seen was because of the food. It’s not like a violent prison riot or nothing. Everybody just starts raising hell and screaming and hollering.”

Chris Bush, who had worked in the jail’s kitchen for several months, also told AL.com that once, while in lock-down, one man attempted suicide to draw attention to the fact that they weren’t getting enough food. The guards responded by bringing each man in the lock-down unit two cookies, a cup of juice, and half a peanut butter sandwich. After 3 nights, the extra food stopped coming. Hunter corroborated that during the course of his incarceration there were a number of suicide attempts in response to the dire food issues. “If they were feeding everyone enough,” Hunter said, “you wouldn’t be waking up in the middle of the night thinking your throat’s been cut because the hunger pains are so bad.”

This isn’t the first time that substandard jail food has led to unrest. In May of last year, seven inmates at Alabama’s Marshall County Jail rioted in response to the food being served at the facilities. Incarcerated people in multiple states have organized protests against Aramark, a corporation with food service contracts in correctional facilities across the country.

“Access to enough nutritious food is a human right. When sheriffs have an incentive to spend as little money as possible on feeding people in their jails, it leads to appalling deprivations like those reported by detainees at the Etowah County Jail. When officials across the state are profiting off the starvation of people in their custody, the public has a right to know, and a duty to put a stop to it,” said SCHR attorney Aaron Littman.

Read more about our lawsuit here.