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'Starving The Beast': The Women Working To Close a Misused Atlanta Jail

Marilynn Winn, a formerly incarcerated 68-year-old Black woman, wants to repurpose Atlanta City Detention Center into a wellness and freedom center for the local community.

by Kimberly Lawson
Feb 8 2019, 4:55pm

Photo of Marilynn Winn, left, and Tatiana Lima courtesy of Women on the Rise.

Last year, the City of Atlanta announced it would stop allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold detainees at its local jail on the federal agency’s behalf. During the September press conference, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order formerly declaring Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) off limits to ICE.

“We will no longer be complicit with a policy that intentionally inflicts misery on a vulnerable population without giving any thought to the horrific fallout,” Bottoms said at the time, referring to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy that led to family separations at the US–Mexico border. “As the birthplace of the civil rights movement, we are called to be better than this.”

Local immigrant advocates called the move a victory. Since then, the number of people detained at ACDC has continued to fall, leaving many, including the mayor, to consider how this 471,000-square-foot space could be better utilized.

Marilynn Winn, the executive director of the grassroots organization Women on the Rise, has been thinking about the question of what to do with the space for years now. Winn, a formerly incarcerated 68-year-old Black woman, wants to repurpose ACDC into a wellness and freedom center (similar to a former prison being transformed into The Women’s Building in New York City) with resources to support the local community. She tells Broadly she feels confident they can make it happen, too.

In January, she and other representatives from Women on the Rise met with Mayor Bottoms to discuss what they’d like to see happen with the city jail. They’re also working to introduce legislation in Atlanta City Council that would establish a community-led design team to, according to a draft of the resolution, “engage in a directed visioning and planning process to decide how best to renovate and revitalize the facility and reallocate the funding.”

Winn, who was 17 years old the first time she went to prison, says the people most impacted by a problem are usually the ones best suited to find a solution. “There’s nothing you can tell me about the system and how it operates,” she says. “I have experienced it, I have lived it, breathed it, ate it, slept on it—I’m a part of it.”

"Starving the beast"

ACDC is considered by many to be Atlanta’s “extra jail,” opening just prior to the 1996 Olympic Games, which Atlanta hosted. Many activists believe the facility was built as a way to deal with the city’s homeless population.

“It was literally built to hide the poor and homeless from the viewers of the 1996 Olympics,” says Xochitl Bervera, the executive director of the Racial Justice Action Center, an organizing and training center that supports Women on the Rise. “That was the old way Atlanta did things. It was not a solution. It’s ... a way of policing for the comfort of our visitors as opposed to for the safety of our residents.”

By 2003, city officials transferred responsibility for the detention of people arrested and charged with state offenses to the neighboring Fulton and DeKalb county jails. That means, Winn says, the majority of those housed in ACDC are there for traffic and city ordinance violations. “Simple misdemeanors,” she points out, that could just as easily be addressed by handing out citations to return to court.

On any given day, WABE reported in August, the 1,300-bed facility houses about 150 inmates. The annual operating costs to keep ACDC open topped $33 million last year.

Since Women on the Rise launched six years ago, one of its primary goals has been to close ACDC. Doing so, Winn says, will force city leaders to find ways to address some of the root causes for why many people cycle through the criminal justice system, including drug addiction, mental health issues, and poverty. “A person that continually goes to jail—they don’t go to jail because they want to,” she says.

One of the first major successes Winn and her fellow organizers accomplished was getting City Council to approve a “ban the box” ordinance in 2014. The change made it easier for people with prior criminal convictions to get a fair chance at being considered for employment with the city by no longer asking them to disclose that information on their applications.

As Bervera said at the time: “Employment is both the number-one barrier for people coming home from prison and jail and the most significant factor in whether a person stays in the community with their family or returns to prison.”

Women on the Rise—alongside trans and gender non-conforming organizers with the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative—also spearheaded a pre-arrest diversion initiative, which launched in 2017 and aims to redirect people out of the criminal justice system when it appears they would be better served by social services. If police find that a person may be engaging in illegal behavior because of “mental health challenges, addiction or even severe poverty,” Bervera explains, they can call the pre-arrest diversion program for assistance instead of taking that person to jail.

Most recently, organizers advocated for Atlanta’s marijuana decriminalization law, which passed in 2017 and lowered the punishment for possession of an ounce or less to a $75 fine and no jail time, and supported other organizations fighting for bail reform. A new city ordinance signed last year eliminates the cash bail system for people with pending non-violent misdemeanor charges or city ordinance violations.

“With all that work that we’ve done, we call it ‘starving the beast,’” Winn says, referring to the sheer size of ACDC, which is 17 stories high. It just doesn’t make sense to keep the jail open, she adds. It’s “not just an extra jail now, but an empty jail.”

“I know what it’s like to be dehumanized”

In August, a local councilman introduced a resolution calling for the jail to be closed and, according to the text, “transition completely from use as a jail, detention center or corrections facility, to one that provides a positive, meaningful service to residents of Atlanta and the surrounding community.”

Bervera says they envision a “vibrant and holistic place where people can come and not be treated less than.” That means having a place where people can access opportunities they may not otherwise have access to, including educational and employment opportunities, a mental health crisis center for individuals and their families, child care and even a rooftop urban garden.

Just something, Winn says, to give people hope.

For every member of Women on the Rise, the fight to close the jail is personal, as they’ve each been impacted by the criminal justice system in some way. According to a recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative, nearly half of incarcerated women in the United States are held in local jails, yet 60 percent of those women haven’t even been convicted of a crime—they’re awaiting trial behind bars.

Winn says she can foresee many of the people going to the city jail for misdemeanor violations ending up on “the same sorry road” she’s traveled. Her family was extremely poor, she explains, and a relative taught her how to shoplift as a child to get the things she needed. It was a lesson she carried with her into adulthood: If she needed food or money, she shoplifted.

As a result, she’s been to prison six times (mostly for theft), has nearly 30 felonies, and is unsure how many times she’s been arrested.

“When I came out of prison, I thought I was going to come home and get a job like everybody else, but that didn’t happen for me,” Winn says. “I was a Black woman and I had a record. So I found out that I couldn’t get a job because I had been arrested. I started lying to get jobs and go back to the same places, and they would hire me. I’ve had 18 jobs that I lied to get. I’ve been terminated from all 18.”

It wasn’t until she convinced a judge to send her to drug court, where she had access to resources, that she was finally able to keep a job. “I’ve never been arrested again,” Winn says.

Another organizer, Tatiana Lima, spent a year in a local county jail as she awaited trial for a number of felony counts after her daughter was murdered by the child’s father. She was ultimately acquitted of all charges and later went to law school. She’s now a policy and legal associate for Women on the Rise.

This work is important to her, Lima says, because she recognizes the role the legal system plays in devastating women and people from marginalized communities. Her own experience changed the trajectory of her life in a way she could never have imagined. “Losing a child within itself is a devastating, life-changing experience,” she explains. “Having to go through that process of being incarcerated adds to the trauma.”

“I know what it is to be dehumanized,” Lima continues. “I know what it is to be told when you get up, when you go to sleep, to be using the bathroom in front of complete strangers, to not see your family, to not know whether or not you’re ever going to leave.”

Lima didn’t go to law school with any kind of “delusions of grandeur or faith in the legal system,” she says. Rather, she wanted to use the knowledge she gained from her personal experience to work toward “a transformative solution” addressing a criminal justice system that unfairly targets and punishes disenfranchised and disadvantaged communities.

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In Atlanta, she says, “I definitely think closing the jail and diverting people from the system has to be a part of that.”

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