By Mandie Sellars, CJPC Board Member
It wasn’t until I saw the coffin-sized metal box above my head with the name Wake County on it that I froze. My body could no longer move, as tears streamed silently down my cheeks. The box bore three simple pieces of data: the name of the county I had lived in for much of my life, the name George Taylor, and the date he was mutilated, shot over 100 times, and hung from a tree by four white men: November 5, 1918. This act of terror happened right where I grew up, and I could no longer claim ignorance. My body was consumed by truth, with water on my cheeks and fire in my heart.
In April this year, the Equal Justice Initiative opened a ground-breaking memorial and museum in the heart of Alabama that I was lucky enough to visit recently.
EJI’s National Memorial for Truth and Justice makes America’s unspoken past of racial terror viscerally present. Body-sized metal boxes, engraved with the locations, dates, and names of those who were lynched stare you right in the face when you enter. You can reach out and trace your fingers over the letters. As you walk down through the memorial, they rise above your head, forcing you to reckon with their brutal, senseless murder. The victims are present in a way that is both dignified and chilling.
I saw the name of my state on box after box. The state I call home, where I raise my children, was also home to 123 documented lynchings and hundreds more that weren’t recorded. People of color were tortured and murdered in North Carolina for “allegedly stealing a ham” and “frightening a white girl.” A crowd of over 1,000 white North Carolinians cheered as a Black man was mutilated and hanged, posing with the body for photos.
In this memorial, EJI honors a past America doesn’t seem to want to remember. At their nearby Legacy Museum, the complete narrative of the kidnapping, terror, segregation, and overincarceration of people of color in America is made fully present. Personal stories and overwhelming data, historical accounts and interactive exhibits, all shine bright spotlights on the violence, brutality, and injustice that did and continues to happen.
In one exhibit, a man who is alive today reflects on his life: arrested at age 15, and spending the next 42 years picking cotton in a Louisiana penitentiary. He spoke of abusive guards, who only whistled their commands, rather than speak directly to those who were incarcerated. A stark reminder that modern-day slavery in our justice system is alive and well.
As a board member of the Carolina Justice Policy Center, I came back from this experience both deeply saddened and fully renewed in my desire to fight for those still being marginalized, abused, and killed by a broken justice system. Because many Americans, especially those in power, haven’t fully reckoned with the sins of our past, we perpetuate injustice today.
Real and lasting change will only come when more and more Americans fully face what was and is being done to people of color today. The work of advocacy and education must be done to light a fire for change in their hearts.
This work must be done tirelessly, carefully, and deliberately. Supporting one victim of police violence at a time. Sharing one story of a life destroyed by an unnecessary arrest. Attending one meeting and speaking truth to power. The work CJPC is, and hopefully will continue to do, with your support. It is nearly impossible to change a broken system if people don’t know or believe it needs fixing. Together we can, and we must, use our truth to light a fire for change – one heart and one mind at a time.
The prison safety issues in North Carolina are representative of a larger, national issue. Federal prisons nationwide are understaffed and have been so for some time. However, the hiring freeze at the beginning of the Trump administration and emphasis on reducing the size of both the government and the budget has intensified the problem under the Trump administration. Since the staff sizes at many federal prisons has been reduced, many support workers have had to step in as guards. This has made many prisons more vulnerable to violence, including assaults on prison staff.
In North Carolina, prison safety issues have been coming up for some time, and many prisons are overcrowded in addition to being understaffed. Reform advocates also point to the fact that much of the staff is undertrained and lacks adequate equipment. In October, there was an inmate attack in Elizabeth City at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution that left 4 staffers dead. Earlier this year, there was a stabbing at Lanesboro Correctional Institution. Inmates and a corrections officer were injured.
Read more about prison safety in North Carolina here, and reforms being planned by lawmakers here.
Read about the issue in a national context here.
From 1998 to 2017, 12 people committed suicide in the Durham County jail by hanging themselves from window bars or ventilation grates. Although public records show that Durham County officials were aware of the suicide hazards, the last updates are just now being finished to fix these hazards.
Although 144 of 576 windows were fixed after the 1999 death of Gregory Gibson, budget considerations prevented the rest of the windows from being altered. Five more people hung themselves before they were fixed for $88,900 in 2017.
Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs responded to public comment about recent deaths, including 17-year-old Uniece “Niecey” Fennell in October of 2017, by asking her staff to research what caused the delays. While documents from the Sherriff’s Office seem to suggest that the office lacked the funding to make the improvements, the office does have to request funding from the commissioners in order to get it. Evidence suggests that the funding was not always requested, although county commissioners have consistently been in favor of addressing the hazards quickly.
As far as the ventilation grates go, Sherriff Mike Andrews has been working to fix them slowly since 2012. So far, 164 vents in 82 cells have been modified, and 988 vents in 494 cells remain. All of the window bars have been fixed.
Read more here.
In mid-June, the North Carolina Senate passed House Bill 774, “Amend Certificates of Relief.” Courts can issue “certificates of relief” to individuals. With this certificate, if that person is hired and commits a crime involving their job or employer, the employer is not held liable. Because the new law gives people with criminal records more opportunities to gain employment, it has the potential to reduce recidivism.
Kim Ogg, the District Attorney of Harris County, Texas, has made the decision to stop prosecuting cases with very small amounts of drugs, known as “trace cases.” Ogg ran on a promise to make these changes in her 2014 campaign and successful 2016 campaign for District Attorney, and hopes to make better use of resources by not spending them on these cases. This change follows the end of the use of roadside field tests by the police department in July 2017 to decide if suspicious substances were drugs.
In trace cases, the amount of drugs is small enough that they cannot be tested or even used. Hundreds of innocent people in Harris County have pled guilty to drug charges for it to be later discovered that the substances they possessed were not drugs.
Learn more here.
Satana Deberry won the primary on May 8 to become the next District Attorney for Durham County, unseating incumbent District Attorney Roger Echols. She will begin her term in January.
Deberry, who has done criminal justice advocacy and policy work for 18 years, ran as a reform candidate, recognizing issues such money bail, police accountability, and racially discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system.
The Color of Change political action committee, which is part of a large racial justice organization, helped raise awareness about the District Attorney campaign, a race that does not always get attention.
Deberry’s goal is to create accountability for the office of District Attorney itself, from both inside the office and from the community. For example, she plans on doing research on what prosecutions are occurring and why. Additionally, by ending the money bail system for low level felonies, she hopes to keep less people in jail. Read more here.