|Participant Name||Participant Initials||Description (Role/Job)|
|Miriam Nemeth||MN||Justice Project-Advancement Project|
[NOTE: this interview had some audio issues, so there are gaps in the transcript]
Hi, I am Marina, I am a 2L at UCLA School of Law. I am on the public defense track, and I'm actually currently in Prison Law and Policy with Professor Dolovich. So, I think that'll bring an interesting lens to our discussion today. So, I want to start by explaining how we plan to use the conversation we're about to have. Our conversation is not legally privileged, and we will not keep what you say confidential. We plan to make transcripts and recordings of our interviews available for use by future researchers and the general public, and portions may be posted online or discussed in posts on our website or other published writing. I want our conversation to flow freely, and I realize that you may discuss a sensitive topic or mention a piece of information that you later realize you would like withheld. If you request it now, at the end of the interview, or later on, after further reflection, we are happy for you to review the transcript of our conversation before it is made public and redact any portions you deem necessary from the transcript and the recording. We hope that this effort will provide some additional insight into the lived experiences of incarcerated people during this time, as well as the responses or lack thereof by the legal and political systems that decide their fate. We are also interested in documenting the personal experiences of those working in and around legal systems during this moment of crisis, and strategies for coping with secondary trauma. And we also hope to gain insight into the functioning of the legal system during the time and the mechanisms by which the law answered or failed to answer demands for intervention by judges and other government officials. So why don't you just give a brief professional biography and any work that you did before the pandemic if it was different?
Sure. So my name is Miriam Nemeth. I am currently the Deputy Director of the Justice Project [part of the Advancement Project], where we focus on mass incarceration and policing. I lead the mass incarceration side of our work. Our work functions by partnering with grassroots groups around ( ), partnering with grassroots groups around the country and supporting their campaigns for change through legal support, campaign support, (communications support). Before--I've been at Advancement Project for just shy of three years now. I was a staff attorney for the first year of the pandemic and (was promoted) ( ) after that wild year.
So sorry, sometimes your audio is kind of coming in and out.
That may be the old computer, I might need to restart the Zoom because I think headphones haven't helped in the past. ( ) Yeah, their laptop.
( ) the other laptop
Yeah, if that's, if that's better for you. Or, I mean, I can still hear but it just is cutting out a little bit.
Let me grab some headphones and see if (that helps)
You want to just jump back in from…
Sure. Um, I think I was saying that I joined Advancement Project as a staff attorney in 2019 and our work focused across the country. I was working in project sites in Ferguson and St. Louis, in Jacksonville, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I ended up spending most of my time during the COVID pandemic. Prior to joining Advancement Project, I spent several years as a class action litigator in a plaintiffs’ side law firm (Cohen Milstein), where I was in their civil rights and employment group. And before that, I worked at a boutique in Detroit that focused on police brutality in prisons and jails, and ( ) some other stuff in there, but those are the highlights.
Okay. And also feel free if there are things that you want to jump in with. I have some questions prepared, but if you want to, if you have things that you want to discuss or talk about, you can feel free to like guide the conversation that way as well.
Cool, I will let you start with the questions and I'll take them where I need to.
Okay. So I saw from the Advancement Project that you worked in both early COVID situations in Baton Rouge and locally in Michigan. If you want to just talk a little bit about what happened in real time when the pandemic started and you were trying to get those injunctions to release.
So, we, before the pandemic hit, our two primary work sites, or--in our project group, were East Baton Rouge with an organization called the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. We'd been working with them for several years and had been in the process of developing a bail lawsuit with them. So, ( ) building towards some level of litigation, trying to avoid a conditions lawsuit because of how resource intensive those can be and what (we can offer and what we were) trying to do by pairing litigation with our (organizing). Our second major site was Michigan Liberation, largely in Detroit, but (also) in Wayne and Oakland counties, Michigan. We also had some connections in Florida with groups such as Dream Defenders and an organization that's now called Florida Rising, but was then, um, New Florida Majority. Um, and I think the folks at Dream Defenders reached out very quickly and said, “we want to get,” or, actually, we--so the first few weeks of the pandemic, I think everyone (was kind of scrambling to figure out what to do). My boss at the time, Thomas Harvey, was working with folks on creating the hybrid, kind of the case that a lot of people started bringing, the hybrid conditions and habeas claims, and shared that around with us as something we could (do, so then we could start reaching out to our partners) and getting more deeply invested in that--that our partners were doing, which they had already been starting to do, and we’d been already starting to support. And from there, from like, a week or two of being like, “well, what do we do? How do we do this?” confusion. Kind of sitting on our hands a little bit, feeling really useless and like navigating the “oh my god, now we're locked at home, how do we function and survive and not go stir crazy?” We just, like, it was an almost immediate pivot to 16 hours plus days, every day. So, the first case that my team brought with Thomas and my colleague, Tiffany Yang, who’s now at the Georgetown clinics, um, they brought, they basically helped to develop this framework that we have in our work [note: referring to the hybrid conditions/habeas claims]. They took the template that had been going around with the ACLU and Civil Rights Corps and groups like that, and modified that to fit the work they were doing and our partners in, in Florida and immediately got the folks on the ground to be making connections in the jail and building up a lawsuit that became a real pilot for this work, which for a period of time was incredibly successful. ( ). Um, and from that was kind of, like ( ) dive into it, immediately started jumping in (or) we can do that elsewhere.
So, within, um, I don't have a great sense of time from that period, I think by like, early April, we had the, um, yeah, must have been, by early April, we had the Florida case in ( ) and then we were pivoting to building up and I didn't do much on the Florida case. I was supporting ( ) are building up work ( ), the boutique that I had worked in Detroit (I was and one of my colleagues was very close with our project there). And we quickly realized that it wasn't just the Detroit, the Wayne County jail ( ) decrepit facility and it's really horrible like you don't want to touch anything because, like, crumbling and ragged and threatening. We couldn't just do that. But a lot of people who were being harmed and detained in jails who were, a lot of Black and brown folks who were detained in that area, were also being detained in Oakland County, when they crossed over the line from Detroit into the white suburbs. We pretty quickly launched two lawsuits in Michigan. My colleague Ashley Carter led the Detroit one, and my colleague, Krithika Santhanam, who's now in LA, led the Oakland County one and those were on a pretty similar track ( ). Thomas and I kind of subdivided those because I had a lot of litigation experience and he did, too. And so I worked closely with Ashley to get that team up to speed. ( ) Ashley was not a civil rights litigator, but was fantastic, and helped them get the case off the ground. Working really closely with co-counsel there and kind of doing a lot of the behind the scenes brief and discovery work, writing work that didn't involve as much ( ) work with Ashley and some of our other colleagues. We're leading some of that on the ground. I think Oakland had gotten filed next. Oakland ended up being our most successful case in a settlement a really positive settlement after we actually won one of the few preliminary injunctions that was [audio cuts out]. Um, it went up to the Sixth Circuit and the [audio cut out] sent it back. But we were able to reach a settlement in front of our judge and have been fighting enforcement on that front for several months for a better part of a year, I think.
I'm less familiar with that one than the Detroit case, unfortunately. There had been a long-standing Wayne County conditions case in state court that was in kind of a like, special monitor type situation with a judge and some plaintiff's attorneys, and our case got consolidated with that. And so there were some political moves. And that was different from a lot of our other cases, but it limited our ability to take litigation. [audio cuts out] although we were able to do some negotiations, and education in the jail, so those were the first three cases that went in, in that project, and our project at the time had five people in it. So, each of the staff attorneys was leading one of these major pieces of federal litigation with co-counsel from private law firms and nonprofit organizations. And I remember I was building the Baton Rouge case, which was taking a while and we finally found our first plaintiff in like mid, early to mid April. It must have been filed in, maybe it was, it was probably mid-April [audio cuts out] early I guess, because we filed in late May.
And that, and his name was Damond Harris and he was on COVID lock down line where he was the only person on the line [Note: housing areas in East Baton Rough Parish Prison were called lines and people talked about being “on the line to describe the housing areas they were in. Lines were names with alphabetical letters (A,B, and C were solitary confinement/Covid lockdown lines)]. I think, I think at the time we started talking, he was the only person in the line. Um, the way, the way that the East Baton, the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is the local jail, and it is one of the most fatal jails in the entire country. Only about 20% of jails in the country have any fatalities in a given year, because of their population, demographics, and because of the short-term nature of the stays there. East Baton Rouge Parish Prison has had 56 deaths now, since 2012, the vast majority of them related to very poor medical care. During the pandemic, our organizing partners, um, succeeded in getting their prior medical provider out because they had been so bad and [audio cuts out] there had been at least two deaths since the new [audio cuts out], beginning of this year? late last year? I'm not quite sure about the timeline. Um, so it's a, it's a horrible facility. When our expert ultimately [audio cuts out] our expert ultimately got to inspect it, he had just come from the Wayne County Jail, which is 100 years plus old, and he said that the Baton Rouge Parish Prison was the worst jail he had seen in 16 years in correctional medical care, and that it was as bad, if not worse, than the [audio cuts out] 100-year-old jail, in terms of facilities maintenance, and like its capacity to care for people, which is not a thing that happens in jail or prison. So, we had pretty quick, we had, when COVID hit, pretty quickly pivoted from the bail lawsuit to trying to find ways to find plaintiffs, whether it was through other nonprofits we knew on the ground in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, whether it was through the public defender's office who were kind of scrambling to do their own thing, keeping tabs on, on this informal process they were setting up. But, so, I spoke with, so the first call I got, I mentioned was Mr. Damond Harris, and he told me that they, the way the jail was navigating COVID was that if someone had symptoms, I'm not even sure they had tests at this point, they might have, though, they would only test someone who had a fever over 100, often would leave them on the housing lines, they just call them lines in the jail, which are big, open dormitories for the most part, for hours, sometimes a day. Sometimes they wouldn't test them at all and tell them to suck it up. The early, early folks, we later learned, were being held in a medical containment room, which is-- and just warehoused there. But, when that became, when there became a critical mass of people more than one or two at a time so quickly, they switched to, the jail reopened what are called the A B and C lines, which are their solitary confinement lines that had been condemned in 2018 for being uninhabitable due to unpotable drinking water, black mold, vermin, and locks that wouldn't lock the cell doors. So, Mr. Harris told me—we got connected through a nonprofit called the Promise Justice Initiative. I guess his mother had called them seeking help and they referred her to me [audio cuts out] looking for folks on that front. Mr. Harris told me that he had been alone on those lines for a week, he was the only person there. And he would only see humans when they brought him food and that is it, he was locked in a cell all 7 of those days, the entire time, he didn’t even get-- there’s a toilet in the cell, so you could use a toilet, but you couldn't shower. And it struck me how egregious those conditions were. When he-- when new people were brought onto the housing line, ultimately, about a week later…there had been some people there when he first got there. They had been shipped out to Angola because they were very critical cases, and several of them almost died when [audio cuts out] back. One man who was shipped out lost 100 pounds in the month he was [audio cuts out]. When they brought him back, they didn't have a uniform that could fit him because they ((using quotation marks)) “had run out” and so he was forced to use the old uniform that was for a man 100 pounds bigger than him.
So Mr. Harris had these, these people with him. Ultimately, he was alone for seven days, and then had more people come on the line. When more people joined, they started letting people out of their cell for 15 minutes a day to call their loved ones and to take a shower. On some of those lines, the water was so cold in the showers, you couldn't stand under it so you could barely bathe yourself. There were insufficient cleaning products on every part of the jail. They really didn't, they got maybe a dirty mop and bucket once a day. To use the phone, men had to put their used socks onto the phone to call their loved ones and to call their lawyer for help. And they were scared for their lives. They-- people did not, I don't know how no one died in the parish from COVID that first year because the conditions were so horrible. Medical care came on the lines once a day, maybe twice a day, to give them Advil and new snacks. That was it.
Was that, that was one of my questions. At this time, did what, was the jail's plan? I know, for example, in the case, we read, Wilson V. Williams in the Sixth Circuit, the, they had kind of a six-step plan that they had been making. And they had, but I mean, they hadn't really, you know, step one was make the plan, step two was try to figure out the plan, and then you know, on and on. So, it wasn't a very effective plan. But did, did this jail even purport to have a plan or?
We never saw anything in writing in discovery in the case. But it was clear that they were taking certain steps and that that was part of their plan, and I think they allege that they had a plan that was approved by the Louisiana Department of Health, unclear if that's actually true. But the plan was to use these condemned solitary confinement lines to warehouse men. And women were held in a slightly different [audio cuts out] and they just didn't really provide care. The men would talk about, if a nurse came on the lines, they would be covered in like basically a full bodied hazmat suit and be [audio cuts out] throw medicine at the men, and run off the line. To get help when someone needed medical care, they had to pound on, if someone was out in the hallway on their 15 minute break out of their cell, they had to pound on the steel door that was this thick ((motioning 3 to 4 inches between her fingers). Or they would have to kick the bars of their cell, try to get the guards who were down a long hallway to hear them and come pay attention. And there were times people were having trouble breathing [audio cuts out]. I, when we ultimately did a jail inspection in early June, [audio cuts out] of this interview, I don't know if you're familiar with Harry Potter, the Dementors, how they like suck the joy and life out of everything. When I walked down to the C lines, we have some photos that I can share, the C line is the one that was actually single [audio cuts out] cell, the other two had two to six people per cell, but were still considered solitary confinement because of the lockdown structures in place. Um, it felt like you had walked into a space where there was a Dementor. You felt, it felt like there could not be the existence of love in this space. That's how horrible it was. And I have no idea how, you know, we had a plaintiff named Joseph Williams, who was 21, had just turned 21, I think he turned 21 in the jail, who was on the C lines. He was, I believe he was in on the C line, and I remember being on that line in the inspection and [audio cuts out] what this young, small 21 year old was feeling. And he was very sick with COVID in a place where even on my happiest… [audio cuts out]. Thankfully, he's out in the community now. It was horrible.
And I, we, so I talked to Mr. Harris, and I said, “here's my phone number, please give this to everyone you talk to, like, if your mom knows other people who are in here, like, give my number out, I want to talk to everyone.” So he would just hand that out to anyone who came on the line. My number started getting out into the jail, which was the only way we were able to find people at that point. So, this whole case we owe to Mr. Harris. He had been very, very sick, thankfully he is still alive, he survived. He, so we talked to, we probably talked to about like 10 people and found out that there wasn't just this one line that the men were being held on, that Mr. Harris was on, that there were these, like, three or four other ones, but no one really knew. That was actually part of the plan was, they opened these bunches of lines. Actually, one of our plaintiffs, his name is Cedric, who was asked to not be brought into the case [audio cuts out] more, so I'm just gonna use his first name. He’s like “I’m back in the community, I want to put this all behind me, I don’t want to be associated with this facility anymore.” Cedric had some preexisting medical conditions that made him susceptible to [COVID], asthma, something like that. Nothing majorly life threatening, but something that needed to be managed. It might have been diabetes, yes, he had diabetes. So manageable health condition, but that was not being properly managed. He told us that, before he contracted the virus, he had been tasked by one of the people, one of the guards, to clean out the housing line that held COVID patients before [audio cuts out] line. And they weren't, they were maybe given masks and gloves, but then he was in that space for a full day cleaning it out. And three days later, he felt sick. They put him back on the line he'd helped clean, or one of them. Anyways, and he was sick for a very long time. He, he ended up being a really important witness to understand the [audio cuts out] the jail had because when he was cleaning the line and fell sick was before the jail implemented their plans. And then after he recovered, actually might not have been down for too long. After he recovered, he had to go, he couldn't go back to his old housing line, which is what they would normally do, because the jail had changed their protocol to account for COVID. And he had to go through central booking and intake and sit in their cells until they could find a place to place him. The way the jail was navigating it is they, when folks would be booked into the jail, they would, they would stay in these holding tanks that would hold up to 50 people a few days till they went through arraignment. There were no showers, there were no beds, there were very few seats, you slept on concrete floors for two to three days until you could get through arraignment. And then they put them on this line, the J line. I think it was J, which is a line where there's two people per cell, and they had about 20 cells or so maybe I'm exaggerating. I haven't touched these details in a couple of years. I should have before this call but--
At this point, are the arraignments on Zoom?
They’ve always been on, on, well they’ve been a closed circuit television. So, the arraignments would happen in, in, which is why [audio cuts out] the arraignments would happen in a room in the jail and the judge would be on a closed circuit television from the courthouse. The arraignments each lasted about forty-five seconds. There would be about 40 people in the room. They would get up, the judge would tell them if they had the accurate address, the judge would then state their charges and their bond and ask if they could afford an attorney. If not, then he might ask them some financial questions, post bond, send them back to the [audio cuts out]. No attorneys.
But at this time, I'm trying to say, like, were you all conducting business, like from Zoom, but they were still housing people, before their arraignments, many in one holding tank, even as we knew that everyone else was social distancing?
Yeah. There was no social distancing at the jail. The, most of the housing lines held 100 men room in one room smushed in, I couldn't even tell you the size, the day room, I have pictures of it that we can share that, where there was no capacity to social distance. Um, you know, the shower facilities were bolted into the wall and in an open airspace. So, the water that hit one person or the air that person was breathing in was spread out. In the bunk beds, you were so close that you could reach out and touch the (person next to you). And they weren't allowed to put barriers around their bunks and in some of the lines, the bunk beds, two sets of bunk beds were welded together into four bunk beds where you were almost sleeping on top of your neighbor/of each other. So, you would go on to this J line, and you would stay there for 14 days while they watched your symptoms, but every other person had their own individual 14 day calculator, so on day 13, for you, could be day two for someone who has COVID, becomes [audio cuts out] COVID, you could catch it from that person. And then you're sent to a housing line. And infect, the entire line. One of the first people who brought it into the jail was probably a guard. But that man who I mentioned who was very heavy, he was one of the first people to get sick, and they just ignored him. Even thought we were talking-- this was like, I think, February, early March, they were all talking about it, they knew about it. They, the jail refused to acknowledge any cases in the facility until late March when they had to send one man to the hospital for what they believed was an overdose and it turned out to be a severe case of COVID. So, process that for a moment.
So you'd go to the J lines, and you'd go to a housing line and you were just there. They would do temperature checks sometimes, for about a month they did temperature checks, at least daily, or allegedly at least daily or twice a day. That stopped in May. They didn't have enough masks for everyone, but they refused masks that were donated by a local organization called VOTE, Voice of the Experienced, because they said they had plenty. Most of the men were wearing a fabric bandana that was like, almost a cheesecloth and one of the men sent me his bandana to show me how porous it was. And that's all they had. Guards weren't wearing mask or bandanas. They weren't forcing that on anyone. So folks were just doing kind of a doing what they had to and the virus ravaged the facility, the facility locked down every line. So, every, every line was quarantined on their line, but the guards would still move between lines without washing their hands or changing their PPE that they had. And there were still people who would do laundry and meals [audio cutes out] move between lines.
Was there ever a point that guards had to start wearing masks? And…
Yeah, in theory, they were supposed to be. And, I think for a period of time, they probably were, early on. But I would say that that wasn't until maybe April. Maybe there were six weeks where there were regular temperature checks and the guards were wearing masks and gloves and after that, it was a free for all.
And do you think that was because it started to sink in that this would be the case for a very long time and they just didn't think it would be practical to keep doing those processes?
No, because that was still May 2020. It was April and May 2020. I think that their view was, you've already had COVID, you're not going to catch it again. We believe that there's going to be immunity. There are people who caught it multiple times [audio cuts out] and people coming in and out all the time.
And can you talk a little bit about the differences that you experienced, maybe with, with how the, the, that jail, as opposed to the Michigan jail, approached the pandemic or how the judges that you worked with viewed this situation? Or do you did you think that they were very similar approaches?
One other note on the last question that I think I can respond to, I don't think the guards and the administration in this jail believe that people who are detained in jail are humans worthy of care ( ). I think that that is the base bottom line, they are at most a dollar sign and at worst (a liability). And that is how they were treated all the time in all of these facilities. I'm a little bit less closely attuned to the facts in the Michigan cases because when my case, when we finally filed my case in May, I pulled back pretty hard from those case because ( ) all consuming. It was the--I worked at a private law firm, a large private law firm and been to trial at private law firm, and 2020 was the most intense year (of my legal career), even including that year I went to trial. But we were, as I mentioned, working (16 hours a day ) all the time, (handling) upwards of 20 to 30 calls from people in jail, (different jails) every day. It was really intense. But across the board, none of these facilities were prepared for this, none of these facilities had given a damn ( ). None of these facilities thought it mattered what they did in COVID, (how) they treated these people, when now the science is showing that you cannot get over these, these pandemics until you manage the, what's happening in facilities like jails, and prisons, they still don't care. They think they've done a perfectly fine job and then willing to (excuse) all of their lacks of failure for, all their failures for like, we just did our best. ( ) clear across the board that they didn't, opening up a condemned solitary confinement line is not doing your best. In Michigan, locking people in cells with someone who's tested positive and someone who has no running water and your toilets overflowing is not doing your best. They, they just didn't give enough damns about these people. ( ) that most people didn't die in these facilities is, I still don't understand how that happened. ( ) there was a lot of warehousing, there was a lot of like, treating people like their knowledge of their own body and their own symptoms was inaccurate, there was a deep amount of fear and lack of knowledge and with, withholding of knowledge to the people who are detained inside these facilities. So, they were unable to understand enough about what's going on even while we in the communities were still going ( ) and scared and fighting every day. There was deliberate misinformation provided by guards. There was abuse by guards, verbal, physical, emotional ( ). People, even the medical staff didn't give a damn, across the board. They just kind of did what they could with what they had and believed that the most important thing in the world was to “keep these horrible people locked up behind bars.” People that had not even been found guilty. They were unwilling to find compromises to release people. They, they wanted their hold on how much budget they should have, and how much money ( ), to run these facilities. If you reduce the numbers, you need less money. They wanted to prove how much more money they needed. They weren't willing to let them out, they weren't willing to treat humans, ( ) across the board.
When you're saying they…
The administration, at these facilities.
How high up did, did the “they” run, I guess?
We sued the warden and the sheriff. The warden works for the sheriff in Louisiana, slightly different structure in each jurisdiction. We sued both of those. I don't know how much say the sheriff had in this particular context, but both the sheriff and the warden in Baton Rouge have publicly acknowledged how decrepit the facility is and how they know that they will be shut down for constitutional violations if the DOJ ever saw their facilities. That's an argument to get money to build a new jail, (to get) more money in their budgets. But as our partners on the ground like to say, you give them the Ritz Carlton, they will screw it up. It's not the building, it's how they do their work. And so, part of our work was coordinating with our partners to hold protests and to raise attention to what was happening and you know, our partner organization (VOTE) was bringing masks in, and trying to keep people safe and and to show you show that the facilities didn't actually care about the safety of people because they weren't taking these donations of things they needed.
And did they, I know at one point, Attorney General Barr said that he actually recommended releasing some types of like offenders and things like that. And that just didn't matter at all to, to the wardens and the prison administrators?
I'm not even sure they were really aware of that. Um, they're so locally focused and state focused that like what's happening at the federal level doesn't really matter. Um, the public defenders in Baton Rouge are deeply underfunded and deeply overworked but worked together with a district attorney's office to try to release as many people as possible early on in the pandemic. They did succeed in getting about 1000 people out really quickly. The facility usually runs at around 1500 people, it is not actually built for that. It's a little bit smaller than that. But even with those numbers of people they were getting out, that facility never dropped below 1000. So they like to tout all the good work they did, and they did jump in and do as much as they could really quickly, the system continued to replicate [audio cuts out] and continued to put people in harm's way. And there was a reduction in arrests from the police department and the sheriff's office for certain crimes, um, but, again, the facility retained-- stayed at 1000 because of the unwillingness to let folks out. Another major issue in Louisiana is the use of holds by other jurisdictions and by parole and probation, probation and pretrial, different pretrial probation holds. Um, if someone was on parole or probation, they would get a hold where they wouldn't be, they couldn't be released on a, on a probation or parole bond, either ( )in the facility until they're ( ) so that kept numbers incredibly inflated. And there's very little you can do it except negotiate with each parole officer one off one at a time. We did that for about two years and succeeded in getting one person out, which was a major victory. Those holds are deeply problematic. They’re ( ) part of the judicial system and don't understand the impact of what they’re really doing, really only as like a, like, there's like, this fear mongering idea that this person has committed a crime. And so they're a danger, and we've decided that but that's not a decision that they should be entitled to make. And that's something that judges can't override. By the, so sure, a lot of people got out, but 80% of the people who are in there had holds or had bonds that were $300,000. The judges weren’t willing to drop those down ( ).
Yeah, I wanted to ask a little bit about the judges. What was their mentality? Did they feel a sense of urgency? ((MN shaking head in response)). Or did they just feel like, I don't want my name to be the headline if I release someone, and they do something that…
I don't know, really. We didn't get, we didn't sue the judges until we brought our bail case later that year. We brought the conditions case in May of 2020 and then (the bail case) in December of 2020, and we had plaintiffs ( ). The bail case was an effort to try to get people to-- try to prevent people from being stuck in there on high bonds and they couldn't afford, we had reached actually a very amazing settlement (the) last month [note: we settled the case formally in February, 2022] so that's really critical and we're hoping it makes a difference. But I don't have a great sense of the judges during this time. But, I think there was a lot of behind, behind doors dealings with the PDs and the DA to get people out. And there were some judges who are receptive to it in some, in some cases, and not in some cases. That didn't factor into what we had the capacity to push on as much and we kind of ( ) but that system that they used really only lasted until mid-May. We're only doing that for about two and a half months.
And what about now, when, or not maybe not right now, but when we had the Omicron variant, for example, is there still a room to be trying to push for these injunctions and releases? Or is the kind of thing now, well, I guess our measures mitigated it enough and enough people survived so we can kind of just keep doing what we did?
Um, and here comes the ( ), this is why this should be a drama and not a comedy. The, in early 2021, after the vaccine had started rolling out, we lost our case in a horrible way. We'd actually probably lost it all before, but we filed a motion for reconsideration. The judge granted a motion to dismiss our 60 plus page complaint because he claimed that we failed to state a claim. Judge Brian Jackson stated this, a Black man who, in our preliminary injunction hearing in June of 2020, told the warden he was, that, acknowledged that him and the warden went back, way back, probably to high school, and told the warden on the record that he was pretty sure, that he believed in the warden and believed that the warden was doing (everything he could to address this crisis) ( ) all of our evidence was to the contrary, including several of our plaintiffs who testified and our expert. So, in later that year or the beginning of the next year, he said we failed to state a claim under the Eighth Amendment, because we had acknowledged that the jail had done something. But that is not the constitutional standard, there is a right under the Amendment. He refused to acknowledge a floor in the Eighth Amendment, even when we filed for reconsideration. We ultimately decided that we had to drop the case (at that level ) level, because we were afraid that if we brought that interpretation of the Eighth Amendment to the Fifth Circuit, we could cause real harm for every prisoner in the Circuit. That would be a view of the Eighth Amendment that [was really harmful]. It was one of the most devastating losses (of my legal career). We lost on a motion to dismiss with prejudice. And I had to call our plaintiffs, some of whom were still in (that) jail, some of whom had spent 90 plus days, six months, maybe, in the COVID locked down line because their immune system was so compromised (due to) the virus. I had to call them and tell them that we had lost and that we couldn't keep, we couldn't fight this case anymore. And that there wasn't anything else legally we could do for them. One of them, one of our plaintiffs who's still in there has a hold. His bond was something we could get someone to pay, the Bail Project or the YWCA bail fund, but we can’t get him out because of his hold. He's the breadwinner for his family, all of whom are on disability. He's been in there since before the pandemic. That was horrible.
And how, very clearly and understandably, working that amount of hours and witnessing that amount of suffering, how were you able to, to keep working through that and then to keep doing the work now, knowing that in the face of an unprecedented, devastating emergency, actors completely failed to do their constitutional duties and to do their jobs?
Our clients and our partners, and it's always been our clients and our partners. That's one of the reasons I came to Advancement Project and left the big firm. It's, I'm so motivated to do my work by the courage and the, the courage of the folks inside and the relationships that I’ve built. We’ve built up really important relationships of trust where they know they can depend on me to (fight for them), they can reach out to me when they need me, and their courage to stand up to the system from inside the belly of the beast is…those connections are priceless. And our partners fighting outside have been, I mean, all those folks have been my heroes throughout this. They get up every day and they keep fighting even though they're trapped in jail; or a coalition that we work with is made up largely of people who have lost loved ones in the jail or had been in (the jail themselves). Miss Linda Franks is one of the leaders of the Coalition and her son, Lamar Johnson, died in the jail in I believe 2016, after about three or four days in the jail. Miss Ava's child has been in the jail, Miss Stacy has been in jail herself. Miss Amelia’s son is currently in the jail and has been there for years. He's a smaller man, younger man who gets abused regularly, assaulted regularly. He’s got a hold and a high bond and he'll ( ) he probably did not do, actually, we know he didn't do them. The description of the perpetrator of LSU, LSU undergrad, was raped by a Black man who does not fit Frank's description. He's, you know, like one has lighter skin, one has darker skin, one has dreads, one does not. One is a big, massive human, one's a small skinny person. And he's been there the whole time and they, they have to wake up and fight each day. So we need to fight with them.
How, you've eluded, and I can't really imagine how painful it would be for a mother to know that their child is trapped inside and can't get out and might die. You know, what, what did you kind of see as that, is the impact on families and mothers?
I will never forget some of the calls that I had with mothers whose loved ones were in the facility. And the tears, and the fear, and just how scared they were, and how they didn't know anything. (.) I mean, we knew what it was like to live in this community and not know anything and be afraid to go to the grocery store. These people lived with that fear right next to them, folks inside did. And then, you know at that, at that time, we all thought we were all going to die from COVID and the people who were going to die first were the folks in jail. And so, the loved ones in the community were terrified. They were just doing everything they could to keep in touch with their loved one and provide support. It was, a lot, and a lot of them didn't have capacity or the money to do that, so the folks inside were just alone. I remember Miss Amelia calling to ask for help for her son. And he was, he didn't, neither she nor him wanted to (do it) because they were so afraid of retaliation inside, that her son suffered regularly. But we were able to connect Miss Amelia to the Coalition ( ). Miss Amelia is one of their leaders, one of the most active people in there (the Coalition) who's in the community regularly. She had, at the time, lived in North Louisiana and came down to Baton Rouge to be part of this community and to be closer ( ) to do this work to shut down this jail, (which is) the campaign that we're ultimately fighting for. She's in the community all the time canvassing and talking. She has just indefatigable energy and ( ) that just blows me away all the time. In our bail case, Miss Linda, Miss Amelia, another member of the Coalition actually went to (the final bail settlement hearing) and testified and the judge, the federal judge on our bail case, said that she didn't think there needed to be a ton of federally court imposed monitoring because these strong, courageous women (in the) gallery who had testified and come forward to speak ( ), she was sure that they were going to ( ) keep an eye and that they were powerhouses in the work they were doing, to protect their loved ones in the community and to keep, keep the jail accountable. Um, some of the things she said about ( ). And to see Miss Amelia’s growth into, into a leader who leads with compassion and ( ). And it's ( ) it's just incredibly powerful for me and, you know, for the Coalition.
Okay, I have two last questions that came to mind. And then I'll let you say anything else that you want to convey. One is what, when, clients were testifying, was it just kind of the ( ) their version versus the guards? Or was there, or did they take what they were saying at face value as true? Or was there just kind of a disbelief?
You couldn't have taken, the judge couldn't have taken it at face value, what they said (as) true and ruled the way that he did, which was to deny our preliminary injunction and to dismiss the case with prejudice. The, there were no guards testifying. We had a couple of our plaintiffs testifying, including one who is wheelchair bound with congestive heart failure, who wrote a letter to the judge which is how, one of one of the ways our case actually started, begging a judge to help him, begging this judge to help him, because he was afraid for his life every day in the medical unit, where they were just moving people in and out with COVID all the time (and he couldn't live on a housing line because he was so infirm). And then the warden just said, well, here's our policies. (.) And there wasn't there wasn't enough there. We actually fought to get this man, this was Clifton Belton, we fought to get him out of jail as part of this ( ) work we were doing around the case. (There was a) ton of mutual aid, we got (him) bailed out. We worked to get the hold taken off of him ( ) because of his health conditions, we were like, do you really want this guy in a wheelchair in your jail? You want to have to take care of him? No, then drop your hold because that's where he's gonna be. We got the YWCA to bail him out, to provide him with housing, to provide him with groceries. Our-- Miss Linda and the Coalition would regularly provide him with groceries, take him to doctor's appointments. And just an aside about how horrible these jails are, Mr. Belton had been in and out of jails for decades, due to a long history of drug abuse, but he lived the last few years of his life clean, [audio cuts out] because of the mutual aid of our coalition and our team was able to provide him. Because of that he was able to stay clean and sober. He ultimately died last November, but he was able to live in the community, and feel valued and ( ) connections in a way that he never had in his life. And in a way that jail continually disrupted for him. Every time he had to go back, every time he had to go back, he had to start from zero. And the one time he had to go back due to a processing error. After we got him out, he retained those connections so that he stayed (healthy) in the community. These are lives. These are people. Jails do nothing but destroy people. And if we've learned anything from this pandemic, and watching it ravage folks in our all facilities, it's how horrible these facilities are, and how damaging they are to humans, and how much they need to be shut down.
That brings me to my final question. What, I mean, there's so many things that needs to change and need to be done. Some that will take, will take a very long time. What do you see as some of the key changes, like, you can, you can provide things that you think are realistic, and then things that, you know, to strive for, or whatever, things that you would want to recommend.
Justice Project at Advancement Project is explicitly abolitionist, and all of our work is built towards abolishing the carceral state. There is I mean, there are short term solutions, sure, but the solution is to get rid of prisons and jails, to build up communities, invest in our communities and invest in people like Miss Linda and Miss Amelia, like Mr. Belton, like all of the people I've mentioned on this call, and not just invest in rich communities with cute little boutiques. We have to change the way that we see each other in this world, and not, you know ( ) racism, overhaul how we criminalize behavior, if at all, and instead be providing supports for mental health, or addiction or education, all have these things. We, and I recognize that that probably falls into your category of unrealistic or unachievable things, but it's not. It is absolutely achievable and it may not be achievable in our lifetimes, but we abolished slavery and we can abolish the modern iteration of slavery which is prisons and jails. And we can do it, I believe we can do it, based on the genius of the ordinary people (in our own communities), that we work with every day, the people like Miss Linda and Mr. Belton, (we can do it through building up mutual aid and) ( ). We need to start building structures that support community and connection and stop supporting the capitalist drive to just get more and more money. We need to want and believe that everyone in our communities deserves equal access to opportunities, equity, and we need to, to believe that Black people are as good as white people, which (we don’t do a) great job of. And all of those, all those things can happen, and we all need to get behind that thought. I think we've seen over the past few years that that fight is starting in action. It’s really important to ( ) and (invest in our future).
Do you think that, in a way, the pandemic kind of brought to light or made, put, the issue of like prison conditions and more on the mainstream radar?
Probably. It cycles in and out, you know, everything in this country is a cycle. Attica was 50 years ago, just over 50 years ago now. And hopefully, I think the important part is to keep it in the news and not cycling out. But I think it's also to be aware that changing of prison conditions, changing your conditions doesn't change your (circumstances ), as my mentor, one of my mentors or someone I would love to be my mentor, Norris Henderson, who founded VOTE from inside Angola says, “We need to be thinking about changing our circumstances, not just our conditions.” Conditions work and adding more money to the systems will only re-entrench the problem that we are seeing right now (by doing) what seems to be a quick fix. And of course, you need to navigate harm amelioration now because people are ( ). But we need a long-term goal to get rid of these, these cages [audio cuts out]. Well, I have to run to two calls in the next hour that are going to ping pong ( ). But (I could do) one more question, or…
Those are all my questions; I just want to thank you so much. You have painted a very colorful, but upsetting picture of what these past couple of years have looked like, and such deep sensitivities to some of your clients and community members you've worked with. So just, if there's any other things that you want to say, or convey, like the floor is yours.
Yeah, I'm sorry, some of my answers were jumbled. There's just so much to this behemoth. I think I've provided a lot of good summary statements, but I also want to make a call to lawyers to get involved in movement work. We need lawyers and litigators who have expertise in this area to support grassroots groups, to support their campaigns for change, or to use litigation as a tool to build power in Black and Brown communities and underserved and underfunded and lower economic-banded communities. That is the way we make change. Let's not just parachute in, find our plaintiffs and help those individuals; let's connect them (so that we can be) a source of building and supporting connection. That's a really, that’s a thing that's not (taught) in law school. ( )
I think that is so important, and especially lawyers in criminal law, not as much on the civil side with prison, you're kind of have more of an availability to get with the grassroots, but I think that that is a really vital piece that that needs to be addressed in connecting things like, even voting and registering to vote and things like that all together.
VOTE has done a great thing where they started out as a Special Civics Project in Angola prison, and started to build a voting bloc inside and outside the prison to elect people who are favorable to issues experienced by people who are in carceral facilities. And that's another great thing for all of us to do.
Right. That's the path forward for, we have to elect leaders who will invest in communities and other programs and stop investing in prisons and the prison industrial complex.
At a minimum, and we need to invest in our own communities. Yeah. Yeah. And yeah, and build connections.
Well, thank you so, so much for your time, I learned so much. And I know that this will be so valuable for our collection. So, thank you for the time. And thank you for all of the work that you've done in your life, and over this past couple of years in these extremely trying times.
Thanks very much, Marina, it was nice to talk to you and I look forward to seeing how the collection keeps growing.
Yes, I'll, I'll keep you posted on where this goes. And, and all of that and feel free if you want to take something out or whatever. Or even if you want, if you realize there's more things that you want to say and you want to do another one, like let me know.
Cool, sounds good. And we're always looking for interns to help on our campaigns work with ( ). Remotely, too. Yeah. Have a great, great day and a great weekend.
You too. Take care.