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Judge Joe Brown Says ‘Being in Jail Is Like Being in the Slave Warehouse’

Straight out of a five-day stint in prison, the infamous TV judge tells us about jails' terrible treatment of inmates, the connection between his sentence and American unemployment, and why the kids need to vote in 2016.
September 2, 2015, 10:25am

On Tuesday morning, authorities released Judge Joe Brown, host of the eponymous TV court show, from the Shelby County Corrections Center in Memphis, Tennessee. Brown had served a five-day sentence for a contempt of court charge dating back to 2014: While representing a woman in a child support case, Brown got into a screaming match with a Juvenile Court magistrate, according to USA Today. Brown's sentencing shocked his friends and colleagues.


"Working with Judge Joe Brown and knowing him personally, you know the heart of a person," Brown's friend Shay-Renae told me. "You know that he has a passion for children, he has a passion for women."

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Shortly after Brown was released, I caught up with him about his five days in jail, America's judge problem, and why he's coming out of retirement for a new television series, where he'll be tackling serious issues like the privatization of prisons.

Broadly: What happened on the day of your arrest?
Judge Joe Brown: There was more said than what came out. The feds, the Justice Department jumped [the court], and said Shelby County Juvenile Court was the most prejudiced, racist, biased, and unjust operation they've ever encountered in [the Justice Department's] history. So there was an agreement signed where every case was supposed to be recorded, audio and visual. For some reason the visual seems to have gone out and the audio was edited.

So what exactly happened?
What happened? Let me ask you a question: Are you married?

No, I'm not.
Imagine that you have been and you're in your mid-50s. You have a son. He's graduated from a major university, done fine. You've got yourself a brand new job, pays well. They do a background check, and they find out that you've got a warrant from Juvenile Court. Some person from out of state is claiming that you're the mother of his daughter. You don't have a daughter, never have had one. There's a warrant for your arrest.


Now you know, there's no such action in Tennessee anyway—think of the mischief that can be caused. Somebody doesn't like a woman, so he claims that she's the mother of a child. Think of what could happen to the happy home. That's a new kind of stalking. That's a new kind of harassment.

This woman had been arrested beforehand, but it was dismissed, and then they had an arrest warrant the second time. So the only thing that was necessary to clean the case up is [to] let her raise her right hand and be sworn in. "Do you have a daughter?" "No." "Have you ever had a daughter?" "No." "Do you have any children?" "Yes." "How many?" "One son." "Thank you, no further questions." But apparently this lawyer was too busy, too tired, too frazzled to hear it, so he set the case. She had just gotten this new job, and I didn't want her to lose the job. So what you can hear me say, is: "State the basis for your ruling. State your authority." Any judge is supposed to state on the record why he's ruling in a certain fashion—he didn't.

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So what happened to the woman?
The case got dismissed against her.

How is what happened part of a larger problem in America?
The larger problem is there is a pressure here: What are people going to do to support themselves? That pressure is all over the country, and we don't have any legislation, anything in Congress to put people back to work. We've got all kinds of stuff that makes the investment banking industry OK […], but people aren't going back to work. You see there's more to it. One of the corporations that's involved with Shelby County Juvenile Court is [the] Corrections Corporation of America—that's all over the country. We've got this thing in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other places where we've got some injustice out there and it's obvious, but we've also have these kind of things in other areas where it's not so obvious because it's behind closed doors. You see courts can be a two-edged [sic] sword in America. Look at Dred Scott and look at Plessy v. Ferguson—and then look at Brown v. Board of Education. The same Supreme Court, different people, operating with what they thought was appropriate authority, they said separate but equal is OK. So we have to pay attention to our courts. Our judges are some of the most powerful officials in the country, but we don't pay attention to this.


Now most judges, they're pretty good—and then every now and then we get a megalomaniac who takes advantage of a situation and pushes, and we get this thing that all the kids are talking about: Black Lives Matter. Now people vote, but they don't pay attention to what's going on and it's almost like there's a blind eye being turned in America to those whose issues are most important to ordinary people. You need a job. You need a way to be gainfully employed so you can support yourself and your family and those you are responsible for in a dignified fashion. And we don't have it. And one of the things that they do to compensate for that is to do things that continuously knock more and more of the youth out from being employable.

Can you elaborate how they do that?
Well, you see you get a felony conviction, and you can't vote; you're unemployable. So it's just like a commodity, like corn or cotton. In this case people are being employed, but you store the surplus in a jail cell inside of a grain silo, and you get a welfare check and cut back. The reduction is when the kids drop out, drug out, get pregnant too early [or] too often, don't get education, don't get trained, develop [the] wrong attitude and lifestyles to their community, and they can't do anything. So they get in a situation where people make a lot of money.

Now I preached about that when I had my show for 15 years, so I'm coming back out of retirement. We're going to do another show: True Verdict with Judge Joe Brown. I will be paying more attention to social, cultural, and such issues than I was before. Somebody in this country needs to start speaking out about it. Fall 2016. Watch it! We will talk about these things. We're going to make it a lot more political than it was before—and we're going to rely a little bit more on humor than we did before. We'll talk about these things that usually don't get talked about. I like Jon Stewart, and I like Colbert. Somebody's got to be held accountable, and somebody's got to speak out. It's time for the leadership. The people can do something about it: Just step forward and do something. That's what I'm going to be doing.

What was your time in jail like?
Being in jail is like being in the slave warehouse, but I will say this: There are some very efficient, fine correctional officers out there. I was surprised to find out how many of them had horror stories about Shelby County Juvenile Court, men and women, when it came to support payments. They treated me fine—it's just the jail is a jail—and one of the things I was looking at that concerns me is I listened to these kids out there through the walls. The closest thing I can come to describing it accurately is if you think of some eight or nine-year-old kids that are unruly, that's what they sounded like. They weren't talking about money, they weren't talking about women, just nonsense. And they never grew up. See, the system has not done anything with them. There's no jobs for them, there's no education for them—that's being cut back drastically. And there's no family out there and places like Juvenile Court do all they can do to destroy family.

What do you want people to do to change this?
Everybody, please go vote. When you vote, pay a lot of attention to who you are voting for. Think. Use that net. Don't just use the net for social media—and look forward to fall 2016 when I'll be talking to you again on True Verdict with Judge Joe Brown.