Many formerly imprisoned women of colour return to neighbourhoods transformed beyond recognition. What awaits them?
Atlanta, Georgia – Angela Holt was about three months pregnant when police arrested her in January 2020 after she got into a physical altercation with a man she says called her a “black monkey” at a shop.
She was charged with aggravated assault and held on a $15,000 bond – $1,600 of which she was expected to pay. Unable to afford bail, she spent about five months in the Union City Jail, the Fulton County Jail’s female-only facility located just outside Atlanta in the US state of Georgia.
There, she says she was surrounded by conditions no person should have to endure, let alone a pregnant woman. “We had a heroin addict vomiting everywhere and a mentally ill lady sleeping in her own faeces. We would have to clean up ourselves and the guards wouldn’t even give us gloves,” Holt says.
“They’re getting so overpopulated that they’re throwing the mentally ill, addicts, and everyone else in there with you. They don’t care,” she tells Al Jazeera. “I met people in there for petty reasons – things no one should be in jail for.”
Holt’s experience is not unique. It is a reality experienced by thousands of women in the United States. The pre-trial detention system has served to funnel scores of unconvicted women into jails because they cannot afford to post bail for their release. Black and brown women, who are more likely to be held in pretrial detention, especially face a prolonged domino effect that reverberates far outside the jail walls.
The US uses jails as a “warehouse for people who have problems in our society,” says John Raphling, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Incarceration has become the “response to so many societal problems, like homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse and poverty,” he tells Al Jazeera.
With more than 2 million people locked up in jails and prisons and more than 4.4 million under parole or probation supervision, the US has the highest known prison population and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. A 2017 report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) found that mass incarceration in the US costs state and federal governments $182bn.
The number of women in US jails has grown at a faster rate than any other correctional population, increasing by more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2019. Black and Hispanic women are imprisoned at far higher rates than white women.
Despite the jail population growing substantially over the past few decades, the number of convicted people in jails has been flat for the past 15 years, the Prison Policy Initiative noted in 2016. This is largely due to the money bail system used by most jurisdictions.
If a defendant is unable to pay the bond, whether personally or through a commercial bail bondsman, she can be imprisoned until her case is resolved or dismissed – essentially leading to an explosion of “legally innocent” people being held due solely to their disadvantaged economic status, according to rights groups.
In 2015 dollars, people in jail had a median annual income of $15,109 prior to their incarceration, which is less than half of the median for non-incarcerated people of similar ages. People in jail are poorer than those in prison and are dramatically poorer than their non-incarcerated counterparts.
America’s bail system is “the point in which wealth and race matter the most,” says Tiffany Roberts, an Atlanta-based civil rights and criminal defence lawyer who works for the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR). “You can look at wealth and race and guess what is most likely going to happen to a person when they’ve been arrested and whether they will be detained pretrial.”
Black and Hispanic defendants are much more likely to be held pretrial than their white counterparts; they also receive bail amounts that are twice as high as bail set for white defendants – despite being less likely to be able to afford it.
The single worst mistake Roshell Traylor made in her life was calling the police for help.
A heated argument with her former partner in February 2019 escalated into a physical altercation. Hoping to calm the situation, Traylor, now 40, called 911. But when the police arrived, they took her to Union City Jail, charging her with aggravated assault and making a terroristic threat, felonies.
“I was the one who called the cops, but then I got locked up,” Traylor, a mother of two teenage boys, tells Al Jazeera. “There was no reason for me to go to jail. They could have tried to calm the situation down.”
A protracted nightmare for Traylor followed. She was able to make bail shortly after her arrest but after missing a court hearing, one she says she wasn’t given notice to attend, she was arrested again and initially denied bail. She languished in the Union City Jail for several months, spending nearly a year behind bars without a conviction and away from her family.
“The guards speak to you like you don’t matter. I saw them beat people, pepper spray and tase people,” Traylor says of the conditions in jail.
She explains that after she was booked in the Union City Jail, she stopped eating the food because she could not stomach it, and lived off the chips, honey buns, and noodles she could purchase at the commissary. According to Traylor, the cells were infested with cockroaches and other bugs, which would bite the inmates, about eight of whom shared one small cell together with one toilet.
“We were tortured,” she says, her voice shaky from frustration and exhaustion. “I had people going crazy around me. I saw people break down,” she explains.
“We were treated worse than animals. We were nothing to them,” Traylor adds. “We didn’t matter to them. I can’t even make sense of it and I can’t even process how someone treats another living thing in that way. I never want to experience that ever again.”
SCHR’s Roberts tells Al Jazeera that one of the most frequent complaints from women held in pretrial detention is the lack of sufficient sanitary products.
“People who experience menstrual cycles are forced to live in filth and discomfort simply because of something that happens to their bodies naturally,” she says. “Hygiene is not even seen as being an extension of human dignity for these folks who are incarcerated.”
Holt says her cell was infested with ants and she would often wake up in the morning be covered in them. She tells Al Jazeera that due to her pregnancy she “got a little better treatment than some.” But the food “didn’t smell right” and would cause her to vomit. “There was a point I just tried to stop eating it, but my baby wouldn’t let me,” she explains.
Despite this, Holt, who suffers from various mental health issues, says she was still able to access regular medical treatment for her pregnancy during her time in jail but was not able to take her medication while in jail owing to her pregnancy.
“It was really hard,” she says. “I was just crying a lot and trying to figure out what I was going to do. I tried to make the best of it; some things you just have to deal with. I tried to not let any of it get to me. I stayed in my Bible and I prayed a lot.”
Women suffering from mental illnesses are treated particularly harshly, according to former inmates, rights groups and lawyers.
An estimated 32 percent of women in jails suffer from a serious mental illness – major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among other conditions – a rate more than double that of jailed men and more than six times that of women in the general public, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Women in jails also report high rates of childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, intimate partner violence and PTSD.
In 2019, lawyers from the SCHR and the Georgia Advocacy Office filed a civil rights lawsuit against detention officials at the Union City Jail, also called the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail, on behalf of two detained homeless women with “psychiatric disabilities”.
The suit also highlighted that detainees with psychiatric conditions were being held in “mental-health pods”, where many faced prolonged isolation and were held in cells 23 hours a day for months on end, with no other activities except sleeping or staring at cinder block walls.
“Prolonged solitary confinement of people who experience psychiatric disabilities creates a substantial risk of serious psychological harm,” the suit claims. “That harm can result in dramatic worsening of symptoms, decompensation, psychosis, self-injury, and suicide.”
Following visits to the jail, the plaintiffs’ counsel described terrible conditions in the isolation cells, including seeing women unresponsive on the floor while covered in their own faeces, bloody and soiled clothing on the floors, rubbish scattered about, puddles and trails of urine on the ground, faeces smeared on the walls, and standing toilet water puddles.
Due to frequent plumbing issues in the jail women were often left without access to adequate drinking water, the suit alleged. During one visit, a woman held in one of these cells pressed a handwritten note onto her cell window that said: “Please help me,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers said.
In July 2019, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, ordering officials to take immediate steps to improve the treatment of women with mental illnesses in the Union City Jail. The judge also ordered that the roughly 30 to 40 women in the mental health pods be allowed to leave their cells for up to four hours a day at least five days a week. In issuing the order, the judge said the conditions were “repulsive” and that those who were aware of this treatment “really ought to have a hard time sleeping at night”, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Hannah Riley, communications director at SCHR, tells Al Jazeera that SCHR filed a “contempt motion” earlier this year due to the detention officials’ “lack of compliance” with the 2019 preliminary injunction.
Riley says many of the women with mental illnesses being held in the Union City Jail are in a “legal limbo”, deemed not mentally fit to stand trial, but still stuck in the jail owing to insufficient beds at the psychiatric hospitals to accommodate them. Others are held for long durations due to prior convictions or existing open cases.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office said that it would not comment on matters, including the allegations Riley made, involving “pending litigation”.
Pretrial detention, like post-conviction incarceration, has not only a detrimental impact on those behind bars but also on their families. About 80 percent of women in jails are mothers – and are primarily single parents and the sole caretakers for their children.
About 15 to 20 percent of children entering the foster care system have incarcerated parents. One out of every 12 American children – more than 5.7 million children under the age of 18 – has experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Meanwhile, one in nine Black children has an imprisoned parent, according to a 2015 study by Child Trends, a national nonprofit.
In a 2016 study of pretrial defendants, 56 percent of the detained defendants were parents. More than 40 percent of those in the study said pretrial detention would change, or had already changed, the living situation for a child in their custody.
Parental incarceration, including short-term jail, results in “extreme trauma” for children, ranging from depression and anxiety to aggression and delinquency, according to the Sentencing Project. Children with an imprisoned parent also face more challenges in school and are more likely to be expelled or suspended.
Children who experience parental incarceration and those who are placed in foster care also have a disproportionate risk of ending up incarcerated themselves.
“The criminal justice system is a destabilising force,” says Mary Hooks, former co-director of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), an Atlanta-based LGBTQ advocacy group. “It dictates the ways in which families operate and the ways in which they now have to engage with the state. And on top of that, there’s emotional trauma experienced by young people and children who are separated from their families and having to bear witness to someone you love being arrested and taken away.”
Family members are forced to adapt their lives around the criminal justice system, Hooks tells Al Jazeera. “If you go to Union City, there’s so many rules,” she explains. “You can’t bring your cellphone in; you can’t wear pants that have pockets; you can’t wear open-toe shoes – even though you are just visiting someone, you are now also having to be controlled, contained and incarcerated to an extent just for that short visitation.”
Angela Holt’s four children, ages five to eight, stayed with her mother during her incarceration. “We lied to them and told them I was off studying in college for a few months so we wouldn’t worry them,” she explains.
Roshell Traylor’s children also went to live with her mother, but they were left “worried and stressed out” by the ordeal, Traylor says. “I was very lucky my mom was around and they had a place to go.”
The conditions of jails, as well as the effects of pretrial detention, lead to what rights groups and lawyers say is a rush to plea out.
About 97 percent of felony convictions at the federal level and 94 percent at the state level are obtained through a plea bargain – when a defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a more lenient sentence, according to the Marshall Project. Plea deals often result in shorter prison sentences, and research shows there are significant racial disparities in plea bargains offered to white and Black defendants.
“Pretrial detention contributes to things like forced confessions, false confessions, unfair plea bargains, or even just taking pleas just to get out and not fully appreciating what that felony charge means for you in the future,” explains SCHR’s Roberts.
“But that’s not what’s on the forefront of people’s minds,” she adds. “They’re thinking about getting back to their families and their jobs and getting out of cages where they’re fed rancid food and are held in horrible conditions.”
Public defenders, who provide pro bono legal services for those who cannot afford a private attorney, are also “overworked and underfunded,” according to Roberts, who worked as a public defender for years in Atlanta.
Public defenders are at times juggling 100 cases at one time, she says. “The issue has to do with the number of cases these attorneys have because of bloated police forces, over-arresting, and prosecutors over-prosecuting cases,” Roberts says.
Holt finalised her plea deal after she was already bailed out, pleading guilty to a felony and misdemeanour charge of aggravated assault and battery. “I was pregnant so I just wanted to get out of there so I took the first offence because I knew I wouldn’t get any jail time,” Holt says.
Traylor, meanwhile, says she was only able to speak with her public defender twice during the time she spent in jail, nearly a year. “You’re just stuck in there. The guards don’t care about you and you can’t get in touch with your public defender,” Traylor explains. “You have no idea how long you’re going to be in there and no one is there to help you.”
Traylor says she only pleaded guilty to several felony charges after fearing for her sanity in the Union City Jail, while battling thoughts about when she would ever see her children again. But Traylor remained in jail due to other charges that were not included in the deal, for which she was later bailed out.
Atlanta is among several cities in the United States that has successfully passed bail reform.
In 2018, Atlanta activists succeeded in eradicating cash bail for people awaiting a hearing on nonviolent misdemeanours or ordinance violations. They also successfully led a campaign for marijuana possession under an ounce to be met with a $75 ticket, rather than a $1,000 fine and possible jail time. Marijuana possession under an ounce was the most common infraction that funnelled people into jail in Atlanta, with Black people making up 90 percent of those arrested on the charge.
These reforms, which activists describe as “non-reformist reforms”, are part of a larger strategy of removing resources and people from America’s jails and prisons. “Our aim is to dismantle this system piece by piece,” Hooks tells Al Jazeera.
Black women in Atlanta have also decided to take matters into their own hands, leading bailout actions to help get people out of the jails. Black Mama’s Bail Out, spearheaded by Hooks, raises the funds to pay the bail of Black mothers who are separated from their children and families. According to Hooks, the campaign has succeeded in bailing out more than 2,000 Black mothers. Women On The Rise, a similar organisation, bailed out both Traylor and Holt. By the time Holt was released, she was more than seven months pregnant.
“We know the boot of this system is on our people’s neck so we can’t not engage it,” Hooks explains. “We have to find some level of relief for our people.”
“It can take years to get one policy change and then it gets whittled down from its original vision,” she continues. “So we focus on experiments on how we can support each other without relying on the state.” The activists are also advocating for the Union City Jail to be officially closed.
The coronavirus pandemic made the work of these organisations especially pressing. The pandemic dramatically worsened the conditions at Union City Jail, along with jails across the country, with inmates being put under a 23-hour lockdown without being provided personal protective equipment.
Hooks says the national bailout collective, which coordinates the Black Mama’s Bailout, focused on bailing out as many people as possible and put pressure on jail officials to release more inmates amid the pandemic. “We demanded that unless someone has been sentenced to die in jail then they [detention officials] have the responsibility to let people out or else they are essentially giving them a death sentence,” Hooks says.
Roberts points out that traumatising women in jails and reinforcing devastating cycles of poverty and abuse do nothing to benefit public safety. “We constantly conflate the impulse to punish with an outcome of safety. This is what allows people who are in charge of these jails to do outrageous things with our money and on our watch,” she says.
“The way the criminal legal system treats Black women is reflective of how America has treated Black women – which has been defined by a process of dehumanisation throughout our country’s history,” Roberts adds.
“It’s irrational and perpetuates enormous amounts of harm onto our communities. Throwing women into cages, separating them from their children, abusing them, and traumatising them is not going to make anyone safer.”
Traylor and Holt, along with millions of other Americans with criminal records, are now barred from various fields of employment, while many other employers are not willing to hire someone with a criminal record. They are also prohibited from applying for federal or state grants, living in public housing, and receiving federal cash assistance or food stamps, among other benefits. Millions of felons also lose their right to vote.
Holt tells Al Jazeera she has faced difficulties trying to get her life back on track since her imprisonment. She was studying music production on a full scholarship at the Art Institute of Atlanta but when she was arrested and held for months, right around midterms, she lost her scholarship and her GPA plummeted.
“I’ve been applying to a lot of jobs, but no one will hire me with a felony on my record,” she says, adding that before her arrest she had applied for subsidised housing and was preparing to move out of her mother’s house. “But now I’m not eligible for subsidised housing and all my apartment applications get turned down because of the felony,” she explains. “I can only apply to felony-friendly apartments and it’s not so easy to find those.”
When Traylor was finally released from Union City Jail, she breathed a long sigh of relief. “I’m relieved spiritually and mentally to be out,” she says. “My children were so scared for me when I was in there and they were very happy when I returned home.”
But her ordeal with the US criminal justice system was only just beginning and she is now taking antidepressants to cope with her experience.
She also lost her job, her apartment – which she paid weekly rent for – and her belongings because her flatmates threw them out, not knowing where she was for almost a year. “That one phone call to the police and my whole life was stopped,” Traylor says; her eyes become blurred with tears as she pauses, shaking her head in continued disbelief. “I got out with nothing – no job, no house, no clothes. Nothing.”
Despite losing everything during her time in prison, Traylor, who was sentenced to three years’ probation, is now expected to pay probation fees during her supervised release. In Georgia, parolees pay a $30 monthly fee, with probation sentences for felony property and drug offences averaging between five to 7.5 years. In other states, the fees can climb to $121 per month.
“The system takes everything from you. But then they don’t give you any help after that. They send you out with a Breeze card [a card for the Atlanta metro] and a lot of people have nowhere to go except the streets,” Traylor says.
“Now I’m just trying to move on, but it’s been hard,” she adds. “But I can promise you that I will never call the cops ever again.”