by Xochitl Bervera
This blog originally appeared on Medium.
How an alliance of formerly incarcerated women, trans and queer leaders, and immigrant justice organizers closed down an Atlanta jail.
Now, they’re helping transform it into a Center for Equity, Wellness, and Freedom
Black, and/or formerly incarcerated, and/or trans and/or gender nonconforming, and/or disabled, and/or poor, and/or immigrant. This is who once filled the 1,100 beds in Atlanta’s City Jail.
The City Jail has been one of the tools used to divide and conquer these communities. But over the last five years, something unexpected has happened. These communities came together to wage a series of powerful campaigns to free people from incarceration. The Communities Over Cages: Close The Jail ATL Campaign fought for and won reforms that, on their own, would have temporarily kept one or another group of people out of the Jail. Taken together though, the nightly count has decreased from 700 to 300 to 150 to 72.
By July of 2020, it will be zero, where it will remain.
This is how we closed a city jail, and why we won’t rest until we transform it into a vibrant Center for Wellness & Freedom to serve the very people it once harmed.
The first time Ms. Marilynn Winn, Director of Women on the Rise, said “I think we’re ready to launch the campaign to close down the jail,” I balked. We were sitting on the front porch of our office, the Blue House/La Casa Azul. I remember going silent, a smile on my face, no doubt, but a big lump of hesitation in my throat. Not because I didn’t believe the jail should be closed (I knew it should be closed), but because I knew how many different interests relied on that jail to make a profit or secure their paycheck.
That jail had lucrative federal contracts, was fed by a police force accustomed to arresting people for the most minor ordinance violations, made millions for bail bond companies, and had a charismatic Chief Jailer that endeared himself to our elected officials by using “voluntary” labor to clean up the city’s neighborhoods at no cost to them. I calculated the years it would take and the fights it would require. The list of opponents it would fire up seemed endless. I was exhausted just thinking about it.
And a little terrified. A campaign to close the jail would be poking a dragon. The beast was already stomping around damaging our communities, but to holler “Close the jail!” would bring its fiery focus and attention directly on us. We would, with this campaign, set in motion a whole series of events, attacks, and counter-attacks.
Were we ready?
Of course, we had been getting ready for years.
I’m the Director of the Racial Justice Action Center which houses two organizations, Women on the Rise and the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaPCo), and together with our ally organizations across the city, we had been laying the foundation for years to take this Goliath on — and win.
With SNaPCo, we had built a unique and powerful organizing force in the city of Atlanta that took on criminalization and sought nothing short of the total transformation of our city’s public safety system. SNaPCo was unique because it brought together the diversity of the Black trans community (including trans women, trans men, non-binary and gender non-conforming people, and others in the trans community) together with formerly incarcerated women — some queer, some straight, the majority cis — to fight back against the hyper criminalization of our communities. We wanted to move resources away from our punitive criminal legal system and into much needed services and support for our communities.
Together, between 2012 and 2018, SNaPCo and its member organizations organized to end police misconduct and violence against trans people, “banned the box” on employment applications, stormed the court house and police department when transphobic prosecutors and cops demeaned and endangered trans people, and passed legislation to create alternative-to-arrest programs that provided supports and services to our city’s most marginalized. We repealed “quality of life” offenses, reclassified possession of marijuana (so it was no longer punishable by jail time), garnered pressure and attention to the police shootings of our people, and won seats on our police civilian review board and changes in policing policy and procedure. We also worked alongside allies and comrades to pass municipal bail reform.
With all these reforms, we watched the population inside our city jail plummet. Because, despite the claim that the police were making arrests for public safety, when the city could no longer arrest or detain people simply for being poor, hundreds and thousands fewer arrests and detentions were made.
We also watched attitudes change and momentum grow toward a new vision for community safety. We forced decision-makers to address trans communities and listen to the wisdom of formerly incarcerated people. We had packed city hall so many times (and won), that our council members grew alert (and respectful) when they saw us coming in our black and red T-shirts. When our Pre-Arrest Diversion program went from campaign to legislation to a successful, dynamic program keeping people out of jail and promoting harm reduction throughout the city, a council member called us “the best organizers in the city” because we highlight injustice and bring demands — but we also bring solutions from the most impacted and the work to get it done.
When the nation erupted into Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2016 in the wake of yet another round of police murders, Atlanta rose up. The young people of SNaPCo were right there in it, closing down highways and demanding an end to the epidemic which included lost lives at the hands of APD. This powerful movement shifted our work and campaigns in ways we couldn’t have predicted as it shifted the political landscape. Even the most in-denial elected official had to admit that at least elements of our criminal justice system are racist and violent. Concepts of the “New Jim Crow” were now in the popular media and public discourse. And, in our city, as across the country, there was a scramble for solutions to stop police violence and end mass incarceration — which is what we had been fighting for all along.
So in late 2017, it was time.
After all our reforms, we still had a giant, 440,000 square foot jail sitting in the middle of our downtown, sucking $32.5 million dollars each year out of the city’s budget, all in the name of “safety.” It was time to not just change policy, but to force the city to put its money where its mouth was — to divest from this jail and invest in our communities.
At that time, the jail had a daily population lower than 150 people per night on what we called the “city” side. But the city had also contracted with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold close to 300 immigrants inside the city jail.
Still, the jail was more than half empty — and the cells that were full caged people for violating city ordinances (spitting on the sidewalk, open container, disorderly conduct), traffic laws (driving too close, driving with a suspended license) or immigration rules.
Ms Marilynn said it. It was time to SHUT IT DOWN!
In early 2018, Women on the Rise, our membership based project led by formerly incarcerated women, many of whom have spent time inside the city jail, and the Racial Justice Action Center officially launched the Close the Jail ATL: Communities Over Campaign, partnering with SNaPCo and many other powerful organizations across the city.
For 6 months, we built our Alliance to over 50 organizational members, spanning issues of immigrant rights, housing, HIV, LGBTQ issues, and reproductive justice. We packed city hall, held press conferences, met with every elected official we could find, and produced materials that explained why the jail must be closed. Our members shared their powerful experiences of lives disrupted by this jail and these kinds of arrests. We had hard conversations with the jail’s employees and released policy briefs that called on the city to ensure the workers got a “lift up” not a layoff, supporting labor rights while clearly holding that no one should be locked in a cage to provide a job for someone else. We combatted the myth that the jail was a “help” to those it locked in cages, provided evidence of the exploited inmate labor program, and exposed the fiscal absurdity of the facility. Alliance members Project South and Georgia Detention Watch released a detailed report highlighting the terrible conditions and treatment of the immigrant detainees in the facility and together we rallied at the jail and at city hall until our throats were sore and our voices heard.
And then came Trump’s separation policy at the border. And another round of protests erupted. The first time I was part of a crowd of thousands Black, Brown and white Atlantans, chanting “NO MORE CAGES” I got goosebumps. That hadn’t always been a unified cry — and now it was. Thousands of people joined our calls for an end to horrific immigration policies and made the connection between border family separation and the separation and destruction of families at the hands of the criminal legal system. People were having the simple yet radical realization — that humans of any age shouldn’t be locked in cages and that racism was fueling these injustices.
Mayor Bottoms has since said publicly that when she watched the nightmare at the border, she heard our voices in her head (after hearing us so many times in City Hall) saying “you can do something about this.” And so she did. In September of 2018, the Mayor permanently ended the contract with ICE making a bold statement that “Atlanta will no longer be complicit in a policy that intentionally inflicts misery on a vulnerable population without giving any thought to the horrific fallout.”
This was a vital victory for the campaign as it swiftly removed the then-largest population of people in the building and one of the biggest monetary interests — ICE contracts had brought in roughly $3 million dollars each year to the city.
Not long after that, we achieved the campaign’s second victory. After months of education and pressure, the Mayor went on Fox 5 nightly news and declared that Atlanta would “no longer be in the jail business” and that she planned to close the City Jail!
While we celebrated that night, we also knew that this was just the beginning.
Bridgette Simpson, an organizer for Women on the Rise, and a formerly incarcerated woman said,
“Without community pressure, we knew the city might just sell the jail to the County for use as another jail, or they would take the savings and give it to the police department. If what the community needed was going to prevail, we were going to have to organize to bring the city our vision. We weren’t fighting for just closure, but for transformation, for redemption. We knew that this place which had done so much harm to our communities needed to be repurposed into a center for wellness and freedom — a place that served all our people.”
And thus was born the idea of creating and passing legislation to create a Design Team or taskforce made up of people in the community who would guide the big process of how to repurpose this giant facility. We kept saying,
“it’s not the mayor’s decision, not the fancy downtown developer’s decision. It’s the community’s decision and especially the people who have been disproportionately harmed by this building. Poor people. Homeless people. Black and Brown people. The formerly incarcerated. Trans and gender non-conforming people. Immigrants.”
So together, in a membership meeting, we began to craft the language for the legislation and on May 20th, 2019, exactly a week after we hosted a big education and lobby day at City Hall called Day of Redemption, the council voted 11–1 to pass a bill that created a design team with community leadership to together guide the transformation of the city jail into a center to benefit the community.
On a hot and sunny morning in late May , less than 18 months after officially launching the campaign, Mayor Bottoms stood alongside dozens of Women on the Rise and SNaPCo members and our ally organizations in front of the jail to sign the legislation and launch the Reimagine Atlanta City Detention Center Taskforce and Initiative. Standing next to the mayor, Ms. Marilynn took microphone and said to a cheering crowd,
“Today is a good day for the City of Atlanta and for all the people this city has historically left out and locked away. As a Black woman whose life was harmed by this jail, I will now be part of the taskforce to transform it. Anyone and everyone who has been caged here, come join this movement. Now is our time!”
We celebrate our victories and yet the work is not done until the building has been transformed in the communities’ vision. Stay tuned and join the movement by:
If you live in Atlanta: Sign up for emails at www.closethejailatl.org and attend the next Reimagine ACDC Taskforce meeting on October 29th at 5pm, 768 Hank Aaron Dr SE. Formerly-incarcerated and detained people, attend Women on the Rise’s Formerly-Incarcerated & Detained People’s Townhall on November 1st at 6pm, 504 Fair St. SW