These Formerly Incarcerated Women Fought to Close a Jail and Won
The Atlanta City Detention Center was for those with small violations, but the effect on their lives was tremendous
“Have you ever heard of formerly incarcerated women closing a jail?” That’s the question posed by Marilynn Winn, co-founder and executive director of Women on the Rise, an advocacy organization of formerly incarcerated women of color. Her office looks directly onto the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC), a 17-story jail that Winn and Women on the Rise have long fought to close.
Built in 1996, the 1,100-bed jail was intended to hide the homeless and other undesirables during the Olympics. ACDC’s population has largely been limited to those who violate city ordinances, such as walking in the roadway or shoplifting, or traffic laws. (People arrested on more serious charges are sent to the Fulton County Jail.) Until recently, the jail also contracted with ICE, which paid $78 per immigrant per day.
Winn herself has been in ACDC multiple times. Once it was for driving on a license that she hadn’t realized was suspended; other times, it was for shoplifting items she couldn’t afford. Once she was jailed 30 days when she couldn’t pay a $100 fine.
There was nothing to do, she recalled, except sit on the top bunk of her two-person cell, staring out the slits that passed for windows. She picked out Atlanta landmarks or watched the freeway for her friends’ cars. Otherwise, she just waited for her time to end.
Built in 1996, the 1,100-bed jail was intended to hide the homeless and other undesirables during the Olympics.
Winn was in the midst of a drug addiction and hustling to survive. But she saw many others whose lives were ruined after a few days behind bars. “They come in for traffic violations and have to sit there for two weeks,” she said. During that time, they lose their jobs. Without jobs, they risked losing their homes or custody of their children.
It was May 2019 when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms signed legislation to close and repurpose the jail. It will become, as Winn puts it, a “one-stop shop” for services and resources to keep people from being arrested. Bottoms even used a Women on the Rise pen, Winn said.
The closing came after years of organizing to prevent and repeal ordinances that funneled hundreds into the jail, rendering the building obsolete. “We call it starving the beast,” said Winn, pointing toward ACDC. “And that’s the beast.”
Across the country, 612,000 people languish in local jails. Three-quarters of people in jails have not been convicted of a crime and are simply awaiting trial. Of those who have been convicted and remain in jail, nearly 80% are for drug, property, or public order crimes. (Those with more serious convictions and sentences are sent to state prisons.)
Women make up one-sixth (or 101,000) of the country’s jail population, but they are the fastest-growing population behind bars, having increased 14 times between 1970 and 2014. Approximately two-thirds are women of color: 44% are Black, 15% Latinx, and 5% of other racial backgrounds. In comparison, 36% are White.
Now formerly incarcerated women of color are fighting back — to not only shutter ACDC but also repeal laws that have long targeted them and their communities.
Winn traces the start of her own political advocacy and what became the Communities Over Cages campaign to 2011, four years after her last stint in ACDC. Upon release, Winn tried to put her record, which included 30 felonies, six prison sentences, and countless arrests, behind her, but it continued to pop up. She landed 18 different jobs, but after background checks, she lost each and every one of them.
Across the country, 612,000 people languish in local jails. Three-quarters of people in jails have not been convicted of a crime and are simply awaiting trial.
By 2011, Winn was volunteering with 9to5, an organization fighting employment discrimination against low-income women, when she learned about Ohio efforts to “ban the box”—meaning remove the box asking job applicants about their criminal record. Winn launched a similar campaign. She began talking about her own experiences with arrest and incarceration as a way to garner support. In 2014, the City of Atlanta voted to ban the box. (The state followed suit the following year.)
That’s how Agnes Bennett got involved. Bennett too had been in and out of ACDC for years. Sometimes she’d just be in the wrong place at the wrong time without violating any city ordinances. She never spent more than 30 days in ACDC at a time, but those arrests — and jail stays — added up to a criminal record making it impossible for Bennett, a graduate of Spelman College, to secure meaningful employment. She joined the fight to ban the box and, in 2013, the newly created Women on the Rise.
In 2013, Women on the Rise joined trans organizations LaGender and Trans(forming) to form the coalition Solutions Not Punishment to fight a 2013 proposal to banish people convicted of sex work from the neighborhoods where they had been arrested. A second conviction meant banishment from the city limits. The proposed law specifically targeted trans sex workers in midtown.
The coalition stopped the proposal and then launched the Pre-Arrest Diversion initiative (PAD). If a police officer determines that a person’s behavior is caused by unmet mental health disorders, substance use, and/or extreme poverty, instead of arresting them, the police can refer them to PAD, where they are connected with resources and services.
Meanwhile, the coalition continued starving the beast. In 2017, the city reclassified marijuana, lessening the penalty from up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine to a $75 fine with no jail time. (Marijuana remains illegal, and under state law, possession can be punished with up to one year imprisonment or a $1,000 fine.)
In February 2018, Atlanta passed bail reform, eliminating cash bail for violations of city ordinances. Judges could no longer demand that a person (or their family) fork over hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to secure their freedom. According to jail officials, more than 6,000 people have been released or diverted from jail since bail reform was enacted. In September, jail numbers dwindled even further when the city ended its contract with ICE to detain immigrants. Between those two events, Women on the Rise launched its Communities Over Cages campaign in July 2018.
Sharon Turner is a longtime member of Women on the Rise. Her arrest record dates back to the 1980s and early 1990s, before the current jail was built. Nonetheless, she said, “Jail is jail. You’re inside a cage.” She and other formerly incarcerated women canvassed the streets with a 10-page survey about the jail. They stopped homeless people, mall shoppers, and random pedestrians. They asked if they or anyone they knew had ever been in ACDC, if they’d like to see it closed and transformed, and what they wanted to see in its place.
“People were eager,” Turner said. “They took the time to fill out every single question. It was easier to get them to do that than to get them to register to vote.”
Chantel Isbell, who had been jailed at ACDC three times, joined the campaign just as Mayor Bottoms signed the legislation. During her first stint at ACDC, in 2013, she repeatedly asked for medical attention. “My head hurt,” she recalled, “and I had a nervous breakdown.” She was ignored for hours before an officer told her that the nurse had left for the day. Isbell spent two days in the jail before she was allowed to be released on a signature bond, meaning that she was allowed to sign herself out of jail without posting bail.
Two years later, she was stopped at a MARTA station. The officer ran her name and found that she had a warrant for another county and arrested her. This time, Isbell spent 36 days at ACDC before being transferred to the other county’s jail. At ACDC, she was not given soap or other hygiene products, save for two sanitary napkins. If she needed more, the officers said, she should use toilet paper.
Winn and Turner are members of the city’s task force on how to repurpose the site, including considering whether to tear down the existing behemoth and construct an entirely new building or renovate the existing structure.
“I wouldn’t wish it [the jail] on a dog,” she said. Now, Isbell, host of the vlog Let’s Dig With Tel, helps with outreach to keep people informed and encourage their involvement in reimagining the site. She publicizes the campaign through her social media channels; she also talks to people face-to-face, knocking on doors and approaching them at MARTA stations and neighborhood schools in Five Points and southwest Atlanta, areas hit hard by policing and criminalization.
Though ACDC sits largely empty today, it still costs $21 million in annual operating costs.
Winn wants to see the building — and that money — used to prevent people from being arrested at all. The surrounding community needs more resources and services. Located in south downtown, ACDC’s neighbors include a half-dozen bail bond offices, a strip club, a Greyhound station, and a homeless shelter. During the day, people curl into doorways of empty storefronts to sleep.
Winn and Turner are members of the city’s task force on how to repurpose the site, including considering whether to tear down the existing behemoth and construct an entirely new building or renovate the existing structure. They are also tasked with garnering community input for programs and services for a center for equity—or, as Winn calls it, a “center for freedom, equity, and wellness”—and incorporating these suggestions into proposed building designs. Suggestions range from the practical (transitional and temporary housing, affordable childcare, programs addressing mental health and substance use) to outdoor green spaces for growing vegetables in the food desert of south downtown, artist studios, and a quiet space for people to have time away from the chaos of the streets. The jail kitchen could be repurposed into a commercial kitchen to provide healthy meals for the center’s patrons and job training in the restaurant industry.
If such a center had existed before, Bennett said, “It would have changed my life at [age] 39 instead of 59.” That’s the consensus of every formerly incarcerated campaign member — access to resources would have kept them from the downward spiral of arrest and incarceration.
“The South is known for locking folks up and throwing away the key,” Winn said. Closing and repurposing the jail would show the rest of the nation that “Atlanta has the model for people to be whole, free, and doing what it takes to be free.”