Inspiring Women Who Fought and Won the Closing of an Atlanta Jail
By Vanessa Reis
After her last stint in jail which led to losing 18 job offers, impacted advocate-turned-heroine Marilynn Winn helped close a jail. It wasn’t all in a day’s work, but she got the job done. Marilynn Winn and other formerly incarcerated women at the advocacy organization Winn founded, Women on the Rise, succeeded in their battle to close the Atlanta City Detention Center. In May 2019, these women made history along with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who signed legislation to close the jail and repurpose it as a center for services and resources to keep people from being arrested.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we are celebrating the voices of women making profound impact in criminal justice reform. Inez Bordeaux is another powerful advocate working to achieve similar goals in St. Louis at the #ClosetheWorkhouse campaign. In partnership with Advancement Project’s National Office, #ClosetheWorkhouse is also seeking to close a notoriously inhumane jail known as the “Workhouse,” which condemns hundreds of mostly Black people to unspeakable conditions, often solely due to their inability to pay bail.
Bordeaux ended up in the Workhouse for minor poverty-related crimes, and it devastated her life. Infested with mold, rats, roaches, and food that “looks like something you wouldn’t give to an animal,” she said, the jail took away her humanity—and she worried she wouldn’t make it out. When she did, she dedicated her life to making sure others would never have to experience the desperation and hopelessness that permeated the jail.
As for Winn, her advocacy work began after her last stint in the jail, when she learned about “ban the box” campaigns which call on employers to remove the box asking job applicants about their criminal record. She had spent time in the jail several times before—once for 30 days when she couldn’t pay a $100 fine, other times for shoplifting items she couldn’t afford, and for driving with a license she hadn’t realized was suspended. The Atlanta jail largely incarcerated those who had violated city ordinances—for instance jaywalking, shoplifting, and traffic laws – and devastated the lives of those imprisoned. Once in jail, individuals faced deplorable conditions and would often lost their jobs, and in turn, risk losing their homes or custody of their children.
Winn struggled immensely trying to find employment with a criminal record, and after learning about “ban the box,” she launched a similar campaign in Atlanta. By 2014, the Atlanta City Council voted to ban the box, and the state followed suit the year after.
Other formerly incarcerated women joined the fight, including Agnes Bennett and Sharon Turner, both of whom had experienced similar disenfranchisement and injustice at the hands of the Atlanta City Detention Center. These women campaigned tirelessly for important prison reform legislation, for instance eliminating cash bail.
In February 2018, Atlanta eliminated cash bail for violations of city ordinances; and since then over 6,000 people have been released from jail. Their success in jail reforms led Women on the Rise to further launch their Close the Jail ATL: Communities Over Cages Campaign in July 2018.
Advancement Project National Office is also working to eliminate cash bail in the St. Louis Workhouse via the #CloseTheWorkhouse campaign.
“It destroys cities piece by piece,” Bordeaux said of cash bail in an interview with Ben & Jerry’s.
Prior to us winning litigation, more than 95 percent of people in the St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse have not had any trial and remain incarcerated (for an average of 291 days – almost a year) solely because of their inability to pay for exceptionally high cash bonds. Almost 90 percent of these individuals are Black, while only half the population in St. Louis is Black; and most charges are for non-serious and/or poverty-related crimes. Since winning our lawsuit, which challenged the unconstitutional cash bail system in St. Louis, many people have finally been able to go home and reunite with their families—after spending months locked in cages. These critical steps have vitalized our campaign as we continue to work towards closing the jail entirely.
The “Workhouse” has notoriously horrific and inhumane conditions, including extreme temperatures, inadequate medical care, mold, rats and cockroaches, and abuse by guards. The original “Workhouse” in St. Louis was a debtors’ prison built in 1843, where the poor were forced to do manual labor when they could not pay their fines. Its present-day counterpart remains reminiscent of its history of exploitation and marginalization.
The success of women in Atlanta as part of Women on the Rise in closing the inhumane Atlanta City Detention Center is an inspiring win in the fight for racial justice and freedom. Without the unrelenting perseverance of women such as Winn and Bordeaux, we would not be where we are in dismantling a criminal justice system rife with racism and abuse of our most vulnerable populations.
Vanessa Reis is a communications intern at Advancement Project National Office. She is a senior majoring in journalism and criminal justice at the University of Maryland-College Park.