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.”

Incarcerated People are Striking for Basic Humanity — America Should Listen

Today marks the end of the first week of a multi-state prison strike, organized with a list of demands that can be effectively summarized by one simple point: incarcerated people must be treated with the dignity, fairness, and respect that they are, by tint of being human, due. The organizers’ list of demands includes an end to modern-day prison slavery, improved prison conditions, an end to life without parole sentencing, increased funding allocated to rehabilitation services, and the termination of felony disenfranchisement.  

The catalyst for the strike was a deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina this past April. Seven prisoners died, making it the most deadly unrest in an American prison in more than 25 years. It lasted for over seven hours. Prison guards did essentially nothing to quell or stop it.  

Modern-Day Slavery

The modern-day slavery practiced throughout the nation’s prisons has been the subject of ire and protest for years. “Slavery persists by another name today,” write David Love and Vijay Das for Al Jazeera. “Young men and women of colour toil away in 21st-century fields, sow in hand. And Corporate America is cracking the whip.

In 2016, a nationwide labor strike was organized in protest of scant — or nonexistent — wages. That strike saw more than 24,000 incarcerated people refuse to show up to work across 12 states. It was coordinated out of Alabama’s Holman Prison.

Thanks to the 13th Amendment, it remains legal for incarcerated people to be forced to work for no pay. Mandatory work programs in federal prisons can pay up to a maximum of $1.15 per hour; state prisons average roughly 20 cents an hour. In some states, including Georgia, prisoners are not paid at all for their labor.

The phenomenon of prison slavery worsened in 1979, with the advent of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, which allowed US companies to use prison labor for the first time. As the prison population began to boom, so did business: companies who participated early on in the program saw their profit margins shoot up. Business is still booming: in 2015, 60,000 prisoners generated $472 million in sales through their participation in the Federal Prison’s Unicor program, where men and women manufacture items ranging from eyeglasses to furniture. In 2016, the program brought in $500 million.

Wages allow incarcerated people access to myriad items, many of which are necessary for basic functions. In Georgia and Alabama, because prisoners are forced to labor for free, they are — theoretically — given the supplies they need. But it is substantially more onerous for people who have no wages, and no outside support, to survive in prison. The food served is often inadequate; the Southern Center for Human Rights receives frequent complaints about a dearth of edible food, servings that do not add up to a healthy daily caloric intake, and rigidity surrounding special diets in most state prisons. In Alabama, prison chefs describe receiving food — destined for the prison cafeteria — marked with “Not Fit for Human Consumption.” In December, The Atlantic reported that lapses in food safety have made prisoners six times more likely to get a foodborne illness than the general population.

If you have the money, you can supplement your diet with food purchased — at a markup — from the commissary. If you are laboring for free, you must either rely on money being sent from family (who are likely already experiencing a financial burden as a result of their loved one’s incarceration) or you go hungry. The same applies to the basic hygiene and personal care items given. It’s also incredibly difficult to remain in contact with family and friends; calls come at a prohibitively steep price for those being forced to work for free.

Prison labor is directly related to convict-leasing, the American South’s answer to a huge shortage of labor after slavery was abolished. In 1898, convict leasing provided nearly three-quarters of  Alabama’s revenue as a state. Today, majority Black and Brown prisoners in the state manufacture items ranging from desks to license plates for between .25 and .75 cents an hour.

This highlights a depressingly familiar American parable: we over-police and over-incarcerate men and women of color; we force them to labor for free or next to nothing; corporations and their wealthy (overwhelmingly white) leaders profit off of their labor.

Read more about the strike here.

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.