Inspiring Women Who Fought and Won the Closing of an Atlanta Jail - Advancement Project - Advancement Project

Inspiring Women Who Fought and Won the Closing of an Atlanta Jail

#BlackFutures Header

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

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.

KEEP READING

#FreeAndSafe from COVID-19

We are Fighting for the Lives of People Criminalized for Poverty and Minor Offenses Advancement Project National Office and other national civil rights and racial justice organizations are taking legal action to protect people in jails and prisons. We need your help to pressure local and state governments to do the right thing and release people from jails and prisons, allowing them to safely quarantine and social distance in their homes. Call your local public officials (sheriff’s offices, state’s attorneys, governors, etc.) and demand that they take action before it’s too late! USE…

Read More
National Civil Rights Organizations Take Legal Action to Protect People Locked Inside St. Louis Jails

Media Contacts: Gina Physic, 202-505-4659, [email protected] Joshua Garner, 240-326-3874, [email protected] At the height of the coronavirus pandemic one of the most dangerous places to be is in jail ST. LOUIS, MO – Today in federal court, Advancement Project National Office, ArchCity Defenders, Civil Rights Corps, and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) renewed a motion to reinstate a preliminary injunction against the City of St. Louis, Sheriff Vernon Betts, the judges of the 22nd Judicial Circuit, and Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass to highlight the important and devastating changes brought…

Read More
Ferguson, MO, Residents Demand City Council Rescinds Renewal of City Manager’s Contract

Grassroots activist group, Ferguson Collaborative, rallies against Jeffrey Blume despite City Council turning up its nose FERGUSON, MO – The Ferguson Collaborative is leading a group of civil rights organizations in calling for the City of Ferguson to rescind and remove its current city manager over his policies that disproportionately impact people of color. In partnership with Advancement Project National Office and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Ferguson Collaborative is also calling for a more transparent and inclusive governance process for the City of Ferguson. The demands come after a tense protest during a Feb. 25…

Read More
Police Accountability Advocates Form Coalition to Demand Justice from Detroit Police, Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office

DETROIT — Today, Michigan Liberation, Color Of Change, Advancement Project National Office, The Mass Liberation Project, BYP100 Detroit, We the People – MI, and Detroit Action announced the creation of a joint coalition to demand accountability and transparency from Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and the Detroit Police Department. The coalition was formed in response to the Detroit Police Department’s internal investigation into its own narcotics unit, which uncovered widespread corruption including planting evidence, lying to prosecutors, robbery, and embezzlement. “We are calling for a full, independent investigation into the Detroit Police Department’s  narcotics unit. We are also demanding the…

Read More
Five Years after the Killing of Mike Brown, the Ferguson Uprising, a New Report Highlights a Group of Ferguson, MO, Activists Successfully Working Since 2014 to Change Policing Practices and Rise to Positions of Authority

FERGUSON, MO – As the nation marks five years since the police killing of teenager Mike Brown and the series of protests known as the Ferguson Uprising, a report released today by Advancement Project National Office points to how a hyperlocal group of Ferguson activists have been changing the City’s unconstitutional policing and criminal legal system practices. This group of residents and allies, now known as the Ferguson Collaborative, have spent the past five years putting the pressure on local and federal policymakers and courts, ousting a court-appointed official, rallying for the dismissal of thousands of municipal court cases and…

Read More
Advancement Project Turns 20

  6–10 p.m. EST* THIS IS NOT A GALA—It’s a movement! We put together the racial justice event of the year! Advancement Project National Office celebrated 20 years of progressive racial justice movement work with an event beyond any gala. Hundreds came out and joined our attorneys, organizers, grassroots partners and influencers in racial justice sports, culture, arts, and entertainment as we celebrated with great food, performances, and more. This was for the people! If you missed it, or just want to relive the night’s moments, check out the gallery below. *By taking part in this event you grant the event organizers full…

Read More
We’re fighting a racist, predatory system; and we’re winning: a look at the numbers

Did you know St. Louis jails Black people eight times more than white people in a city that is only 47 percent Black?

Read More
Celebrating Black Women’s Resistance on Juneteenth

On the 154th anniversary of Juneteenth, a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives will hold the first hearing on the topic of reparations for slavery since 2007. The hearing, which is the second in history, will focus in part on H.R. 40. H.R. 40, a piece of legislation that would employ a commission to study the legacy of slavery and consider reparations proposals.[1] While the fight for reparations gained prominence in recent years, the issue has been waged for centuries, championed by Black women.[2] However, media surrounding the upcoming hearing largely erases this history…

Read More
Federal Judge: Cash Bail in St. Louis is Unconstitutional

The ruling of a federal judge in St. Louis confirms that the City has violated the rights of hundreds of people, who have been detained before trial at one of the City’s two jails--the Justice Center and the Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse--solely because they are unable to pay money bail.

Read More