Qumotria Kennedy said NO to debtors’ prison … and won!

Qumotria Kennedy

Despite having been outlawed and declared unconstitutional, debtors’ prisons and even more debtors’ jails exist all over the United States. In Biloxi, Mississippi, Qumotria Kennedy said NO to all of that, and, a couple weeks ago, she, and we, won! On the same day Qumotria Kennedy won, the U.S. Department of Justice warned state judges that courthouses are not supposed to be ATMs, but, of course, the national shakedown of the poor persists.

In July 2015, Qumotria Kennedy, 36 years old, Black, a single mother, was riding with a friend, going to pick up their kids. The car was stopped by the police. Even though Qumotria Kennedy was the passenger, the police ran her identity `through the system’ and found an outstanding warrant for having “failed to pay” court fines, which stemmed from traffic violations in 2013. The thing is, Qumotria Kennedy didn’t fail to pay. She couldn’t pay. She didn’t have the money. She explained that to the probation officers, who are employees of Judicial Corrections Services Inc, a private processing company. They refused to hear her explanations.

Qumotria Kennedy works off and on as a cleaner. She earns under $9000 a year. She raises two children, on her own. By any standards, and by formal government standards, Qumotria Kennedy is indigent. She said as much. She asked for help. She was sent to jail for five days. That’s what counts as help these days.

In October, Qumotria Kennedy, Richard Tillery and Joseph Anderson sued The City of Biloxi; John Miller, Chief of Police of the City of Biloxi; Judge James Steele; and the Judicial Corrections Services, Incorporated. Qumotria Kennedy and her co-complainants were represented by the ACLU. The complaint begins: “Defendant City of Biloxi … operates a modern-day debtors’ prison. The City routinely arrests and jails impoverished people in a scheme to generate municipal revenue through the collection of unpaid fines, fees, and court costs imposed in traffic and other misdemeanors cases. As a result, each year, hundreds of poor residents of the City and surrounding areas, including individuals with disabilities and homeless people, are deprived of their liberty in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center for days to weeks at a time for no reason other than their poverty and in violation of their most basic constitutional rights.”

As Qumotria Kennedy explains, “I decided to bring a lawsuit against Biloxi because I don’t like what the city is doing to people. All it cares about is money. Biloxi locked me up for being poor. But it costs them money to keep me in jail. So this system doesn’t even make any sense. I hope that everybody knows that the system is trampling on poor people, and it’s not fair.”

Last month, Biloxi settled with Qumotria Kennedy and her co-complainants. The city agreed to pay each $25,000. Additionally Biloxi said it would stop jailing people for nonpayment of fines and that it would no longer use probation companies to collect fines. Additionally, it would hire a full-time public defender to represent the indigent charged with nonpayment and would not charge additional fees to people who entered into repayment plans or performed community service in lieu of payment. Furthermore, people will not be given a hearing to see if they’re able to pay imposed fines. For those who can’t pay, alternatives will be found.

Qumotria Kennedy was dumped into jail because she’s a low-income Black woman. Qumotria Kennedy is the embodiment of intersectional violence. The violence against her and the extraction of value from her body intensified with each convergence of components of her identity. This revolving cash register of injustice is happening in jails across the country. Thanks to Qumotria Kennedy, who refused to be the sum total of her oppressions, who said NO to the City and the Police and the Judge and the Corporation and the injustice and indignity of debtors’ prison, it may be ending in Biloxi, Mississippi.

 

(Photo Credit: American Civil Liberties Union)

What happened to Christina Tahhahwah? Just another Native American jail death

On July 14, 53-year-old Choctaw activist Rexdale W. Henry was “found” dead in the Neshoba County Jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That’s the same day 18-year-old Kindra Chapman was “found” dead in her jail cell in Homewood, Alabama, and a day after Sandra Bland was “found” dead in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas. Like Sandra Bland, Rexdale Henry was arrested for a traffic violation, in this case non-payment of a fine. Mississippi was already investigating the death of Jonathan Sanders, a Black man who died at the hands of police in Clark County, Mississippi Jail a day before Henry was arrested. Four days after Rexdale Henry was “found”, Troy Goode was “found” dead in police custody. Goode was White. In dying in jail, Rexdale W. Henry joins more than this list of “mysterious” jailhouse morbidity and mortality. He joins a national list of Native Americans dying in jail and at the hands of police. He joins Christina Tahhahwah.

In Lawton, Oklahoma, Christina Tahhahwah lived with bi-polar disorder. When she stopped taking her medicines, her family called the police and asked them to take her to the hospital for medical care. She was at her grandparents’ house. When she refused to leave the property, the police arrested her for trespassing and took her off to jail. Not to the hospital, to jail. That was November 13, 2014.

On November 14, minutes after being handcuffed to the cell door, Christina Tahhahwah was “found” unresponsive. She was in cardiac arrest. She was transferred to the hospital, where she died. Her family was not notified of her heart attack nor of her transfer to the hospital. One family member says they only found out because a family friend, who works at the hospital, sent them a note via Facebook. The family went to the hospital and there heard that fellow jail inmates were saying that Christina Tahhahwah had been tasered for refusing to stop singing Comanche hymns. The Lawton police say no Tasers were used.

Tasers are not the issue. The issue is that Christina Tahhahwah is dead. Just another bipolar Native American woman “found” in jail. The Lawton Police have not said they treated or cared about the reports of her bipolar condition. The issue is justice.

Police are killing Native Americans at a staggering, and by and large unremarked upon, rate. Overrepresented in prisons and jails, Native Americans are beyond overrepresented in jail mortality rates. They are the nation of “found” bodies. What happened to Rexdale Henry? What happened to Christina Tahhahwah? Nothing out of the ordinary. Just another Native American death in a jail in the United States.

 

(Photo Credit: http://nativenewsonline.net)

Turn “Jeff Davis” into Arthur Ashe. Do it now!

IMG_3775

If you live in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, California, or Washington, you might live near Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. That’s right. From sea to shining sea, from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border, Jefferson Davis is “honored” and, presumably, you are honored to drive in his memory.

In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy designed, planned and sponsored the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway system, which was to extend from Washington, DC, to San Diego. Their plan was to overlay the Confederacy onto the map of the United States, an ocean-to-ocean highway that would compete with the Lincoln Highway. While the coordinated highway system no longer exists, in each of the states mentioned above, parts of it survive, and under the name Jefferson Davis Highway.

In 2002, when Washington State Representative Hans Dunshee proposed changing the name of Washington’s Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, he ran into a whirlwind of opposition, because nothing says the Pacific Northwest like … the Confederacy and the war to preserve slavery. As Dunshee noted, “People are saying, ‘Oh, Jeff Davis was into roads for the Northwest.’ That’s their cover. But let’s be clear. This memorial was not put up by the AAA. It was put up to glorify the Confederacy.” The president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy weighed in, complaining that the change would “cause more hard feelings and certainly will not unify our country.”

When Dunshee first discovered the presence of the Confederacy in his home state, he said, “I was astonished that it was there. And then I was disgusted.” Disgust is a good response. Dunshee’s disgust only deepened, once he received calls telling him “to go back to Africa and take all of his kind with him.” Hans Dunshee’s “kind” would be German and Irish.

Nine years later, in 2011, in Arlington, Virginia, the Arlington County Board renamed a part called the Old Jefferson Davis Highway. It’s now the Long Bridge Drive. Why the name change? As then-County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman explained, “I have a problem with ‘Jefferson Davis’ [in the road’s name]. There are aspects of our history I’m not particularly interested in celebrating.”

While the “Old Jefferson Davis Highway” was part of the original Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, it wasn’t included in the Commonwealth’s 1922 designation of the Jefferson Davis Highway, and so Arlington County could change the name, once it convinced opponents that perhaps the real “importance of history” is not its repetition but rather its analysis and critique.

Meanwhile, the rest of Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in Virginia falls under the Commonwealth administration, and so any change there must go through Richmond.

The lesson of history has to be that people can change their histories and themselves for the better; that we don’t happen upon progress, we make progress happen. From Washington, DC, to Charleston to Washington State, make freedom ring. Move from astonishment to disgust to astonishment. Tear down the flag; rewrite the name. In Virginia, turn “Jeff Davis” into Arthur Ashe, a proud son of Virginia of whom we are all proud. Do it now. It’s the least we can do.

 

(`Jeff Davis’ Photo Credit: author’s photo) (Arthur Ashe Photo Credit: Charles Tasnadi / Associated Press)

Mississippi is burning to kill Michelle Byrom

Central Mississippi Correctional Facility

Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Bash her in.

Michelle Byrom may, or may not, be executed this Thursday, in two days. She currently sits on death row in Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, in Pearl, Mississippi. Mississippi has three State prisons. All women `offenders’ end up in CMCF. In 1996, Mississippi hosted 807 women prisoners. By 2001, it boasted 1,445 incarcerated women. Today, according to the State’s March 2014 `fact sheet’, Mississippi’s prisons and jails hold 2,233 women behind bars. 900 women live, and die, in Central Mississippi Correctional Facility.

In 1999, someone killed Edward Byrom, Sr. By all accounts, Byrom Sr. was a vicious, abusive man, who tortured his wife, Michelle, and forced their son, Edward Byrom Jr, known as Junior, to live in the lowest rungs of hell. Physical abuse, mental and emotional torture, and sexual exploitation were the daily, and hourly, fare in the Byrom household.

The State decided that Junior and a friend had been part of a murder-for-hire plot hatched by Michelle Byrom. When Byrom was killed, Michelle Byrom was in the hospital for double pneumonia. Junior has confessed, at least four times, to having actually murdered his father. Something snapped, he picked up a gun and shot him. Michelle Byrom has been diagnosed “with borderline personality disorder, depression, alcoholism and Muenchausen syndrome, a serious mental illness that caused her to ingest rat poison to make herself ill.” And, of course, her counsel, by all accounts, was somewhere between dreadful and criminally negligent.

Observers have waxed literary in describing the case. For example, Warren Yoder, executive director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, said, “John Grisham couldn’t write this story … In any reasonable world, this would be a short story by Flannery O’Connor. Instead, it is happening now in our Mississippi.”

Why is Mississippi burning to kill Michelle Byrom. For that, better to turn to Lord of the Flies. Mississippi hasn’t killed a woman in 70 years, and Mississippi can read the writing on the wall. Soon, capital punishment will come to an end, even in Mississippi, a national leader in executions. That recognition feeds the fire. Facts be damned, along with presumption of innocence and shadows of doubt. The beast needs blood.

The details of Michelle Byrom’s life are hard and disturbing, but the substance, and stench, of Mississippi’s burning is far worse. Stop the execution of Michelle Byrom. Stop all the executions.

 

(Trip Burns / Jackson Free Press)

Where do the children live? Prison

I’ve been here for two weeks, and this is my third time in. I’m in the sixth grade. I was in placement but I ran away. They accused me of assault against my mom, but she scratched herself and said I did it. My dad lives in Atlanta and works in a barbershop. -E.Y., age 11 Juvenile Detention Center, Houston, Texas.

For the past forty years, the planet has been engaged in a global prison lockdown and a worldwide prison – building binge, which have resulted in the confinement of more women than ever before. This build up of lockdowns began in the United States in 1973, and has since blossomed, or mushroomed, into a global frenzy of incarceration of working class women of color and indigenous women.

The hyper-incarceration of women affects children, especially in those communities in which single women predominate as heads of households. The assault on children is more direct, however. At the same time that women, especially working class women of color and indigenous women, are being caged, their children are also being locked up as never before.

What is a child? A child is one’s offspring, a child is a minor. A child is a child, and tell me, where do the children live?

Given the prison boom, there are more offspring behind bars than ever before. Typically, the task and labor of maintaining social and sustaining contact is left to mothers, secondarily to female partners.  This is the lesson of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, in California. When children are sent to prison, mothers are launched into a global reclamation and reconstruction project that, for many, never ends.

For example, Diana Montes-Walker’s son is an adult man in his 20s, living with bipolar disorder, complicated, predictably, by alcohol and drug dependencies. Equally predictably, her son `encountered’ the state criminal justice system, in this instance the California system. Ever since her son has been in prison, he has suffered one form or another of solitary confinement. Either he was in solitary in prison, or he was in solitary in so-called medical facilities that are actually prisons for inmates with `special needs’. In the latter, he is in solitary, but, according to his mother, with a little more freedom. He made it into the `better’ solitary confinement because his mother pushed, shoved, organized, shouted, wrote, met incessantly with everyone. And now, Diana Montes-Walker drives back and forth to scheduled meetings with doctors and social workers who don’t appear. And her son stays in solitary, and she has no idea how he’s doing.

Why is this happening to Diana Montes-Walker’s son, and so many others like him, young men and women living with mental disabilities and illnesses of one form or another? Why is he in prison? He is in prison because public mental health budgets have been shredded and then vaporized. Prisons are the new public mental health institutions. Meanwhile, Diana Montes-Walker, inhabits a State-sponsored hell, built because it’s more efficient to have her run around and take care of her son, more efficient and less costly.

Where do our children live? In prison.

In Turkey, close to 500 children live in prison with their mothers, who have been convicted. Why are they in prison? “Financial difficulties”.  For the children, three to six, there might be a kindergarten. For those under three years old, they spend the entire time in the cell with their mothers. These children are not in prison because of their mothers’ “financial difficulties”. They are in prison because of the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the State and because of the social structures that support that State.

Because of `financial difficulties’, Mississippi’s one juvenile detention center is run by a private corporation, the GEO Group. According to parents of the children being held there, the place is a horror, another State-sponsored hell. Fights break out, and the staff ignores calls for help and protection. Worse, the staff is accused of brutalizing children. Parents gaze upon their wounded and maimed children and feel a pain they describe as torturous. The lawyers describe the prison as barbaric and unconstitutional. The children describe the place as a war zone.

War zone is too nice a phrase for a place in which civilians are butchered for profit.  Child prisoners, children’s bodies and lives, bloat the coffers of private industry. They are an extractive resource whose market value continues to grow. Where do the children live? They live, and often die, in prison.

 

(Photo Credit: Richard Ross, Juvenile In Justice http://richardross.net/juvenile-in-justice)