Skip to content Skip to footer

Activists Are Reclaiming Jails as Community-Operated Social Service Facilities

Grassroots organizers in Atlanta, Georgia, are showing other cities how to approach transformative justice.

Marilynn Winn, co-founder of Women on the Rise, speaks at a press conference for a "ban the box" campaign on October 26, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Jails have emerged as a key focal point of the struggle against mass incarceration. Several trends are in motion at the same time. In jurisdictions like New York and Los Angeles, grassroots-led struggles have closed facilities and blocked others from being built. By contrast, in many rural areas, local authorities are manipulating the opioid crisis and bail reform into a jail-building platform.

But another important trend has captured far less attention. In a number of cities and counties, struggles against building jails have morphed into popular campaigns to create new non-carceral facilities designed and operated by community members.

In Atlanta, the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaP Co.), a Black trans and queer-led group, is aiming to build popular power to “force systematic divestment from the prison-industrial complex and [direct] investment in the services and supports” that benefit the community. Since 2013, the Collaborative has won several reforms, including halting arrests for small amounts of marijuana and eliminating some 40 “broken-windows policing” ordinances. These changes helped cause a drop in the population of the city’s jail, the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC). Originally designed to hold 1,100 people, by mid-2019, less than 100 were in the jail. Current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recognized the declining viability of the facility and signed legislation to close the ACDC in May 2019.

The closure of the jail came simultaneously with a community-driven proposal to convert it into a multipurpose social service facility, addressing the needs of formerly incarcerated people, those without houses, and other marginalized sectors of the community. Since fall 2019, with the support of Mayor Bottoms, community members have been actively participating in a task force to drive a process called Reimagining ACDC, which has hosted town halls for formerly incarcerated people, LGBTQ folks, as well as the general public to conceptualize the redesign and repurposing of the jail. The task force will culminate its work this spring, then face the next stage of pressing city officials into action.

While the current mayor has expressed a great support for Reimagining ACDC, the key to success lies in the ability of formerly incarcerated women like Marilynn Winn, director of Women on the Rise in Atlanta, as well as SNaP Co. and other grassroots forces to keep up the political pressure for change.

In this interview, Winn discusses how the campaign to repurpose the Atlanta City Detention Center developed and what lessons other cities can learn from this historic example.

Ivie Osaghae: Tell us about yourself and how you got into this work.

Marilynn Winn: I got into this work because I’m formerly incarcerated. I’ve been in juvenile [detention], jail and state prison. I’ve been tied up in the legal system since I was 6 years old. It about makes me cry every time I think about it. I’ve been tied up in [the] legal system since I was 6 years old.

I do this work for women like me. I really didn’t have a choice. After prison, I really couldn’t have a life because of society’s rules and regulations against formerly incarcerated people, so I got into this work to change that, starting with “ban the box” on job applications so I could get a decent job. We won “ban the box” in Georgia and I just kept going. I realized all the stuff that the system had done and what needed to be changed. I’ve been doing this work for about 10 years now.

What do you think is the most important thing people should know about the campaign to close the jail in Atlanta?

I think the most important thing people need to know is that formerly incarcerated women of color closed this jail — that’s historic, never heard of before.

The work to close and repurpose the jail isn’t being done by the white developers that are only interested in making money. It’s done by people that have been impacted by the jail to get all our folks the services that they need so they don’t have to go to jail, so they don’t have to have a record.

And now Black and Brown people who have been preyed upon by the system — folks who have been depressed and oppressed, walked on, racially profiled, criminalized — can see our work and think, “Wow, if they can do this, we can, too!” That is one of the most important things to me. For people to see this campaign and think, “I don’t have to settle for less in life. I’m deserving of this.” That is one of the most important things to me — for people to be encouraged by the work that we do.

Some people went to that jail for traffic violations. They never had a record, [but] they lost jobs, they lost homes, they lost a lot of things because they were just too poor to pay a fine. So some people lost a lot.

They lost time. They lost their livelihood.

Right. And now that jail will be turned into a facility where people can get the services they need and not have to go to jail or get a record. Can you imagine?

So it’s also about ending “broken windows” policing and repealing the ordinances that landed people there. We need to ensure that closing the jail changes how police are policing and that people no longer have to go to jail because they’re ill, because they’re drug addicted, because they’re uneducated and all of that stuff. And that’s why most of us go and continue to go.

Some of our previous campaign wins include reclassifying marijuana offenses because we had people sitting in jail for a roach [the butt of a marijuana cigarette] — for a 12-month sentence and a $1,000 fine in the city jail! We also worked to get rid of 40 other broken windows ordinances we have in the city. But we still have about 40 more to go, so folks need to understand we’re taking a holistic view of this, it’s about invest/divest, it’s about decarcerating our city.

Tell me about what led up to the campaign.

It’s been a long road building up to this campaign and a lot of the history is tied up in the history of our sister organization, Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative. It really seems like it was all divine order now.

Our previous mayor [Kasim Reed] tried to banish sex workers from the city of Atlanta. So Xochitl Bervera, director of the Racial Justice Action Center and I said, “No, we can’t let that happen. These women live in these communities and they have kids. How can they ban a person from the community they live in?”

Soon we found out that it was trans women from Buckhead that they were trying to ban from the city of Atlanta. So that’s how we linked up with folks from the trans community, including Trans(forming) and La Gender, Inc.

We didn’t have a name then. But Mayor [Reed] actually helped with that. He said, “Y’all don’t want nobody to go to jail so y’all need to find a solution to this because otherwise, we’re passing the ordinance for people to go to jail.” So we started saying, “We want solutions, not punishment!” And so that’s how we got the name and formed Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, or SNaP Co.

We defeated the ordinance and went on to establish the Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative. We did a lot of work. But we won it and made up our minds that everything we did was going to divert people from going to ACDC.

Then we met the current mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms. She was on [the] city council at the time and fought with us there. But when she started running for mayor, she realized she couldn’t win without us. We told her that if she took up criminal justice reform — including bail reform and did something in the first 100 days of her being mayor — we’d support her and push others to support her. And she became mayor and got bail reform done in 100 days. So after fighting with us, she became part of us.

But when I launched the campaign and first started talking about it, people thought I was “crazy.”

We didn’t know how we were going to do it, but I’m a straightforward person, so my thought was to just go in and bulldoze my way in. I said, “I’m just gonna meet with all these councilmembers and see which one is going to take this on.” And we found a councilmember that had no problem taking it on, Councilmember Matt Westmoreland.

What do you think other cities need to know?

What I think other cities need to learn is how to replicate this model. Understand that jail does not work. It just does not work.

Jail creates more problems and even introduces people to new crimes. People need services. Anytime a person keeps going to jail, there’s something else wrong, right? People don’t like being locked up in cages. So something else is wrong. Cities need to find a way to support people finding a new way of life, a sustainable life. I think other cities and states need to look at why are they locking up folks, especially for these petty crimes, and then start moving away from relying on incarceration.

What’s next for Women on the Rise?

We’re going to keep doing the things we do! After closing the jail, there’s nothing else to do but to start trying to change some of these laws to break the barriers so people can really enjoy their lives. Record redemption would be that piece, so that’s our next campaign.

Through statistics and personal experience, I know that if a person hasn’t committed a crime in 10 years, they’re not likely to commit another one. They served their time, completed their sentence, are off of parole, yet they keep getting punished. It’s like they have a life sentence, only they’re not incarcerated.

What I mean is that I know some people who haven’t committed a crime since they were 17 or 18 years old and they’re my age now, and they still cannot move into a house for seniors or lease an apartment because of their record. It’s just not fair. I know people who work and they live in efficiencies, hotels, and all of their money is going to rent because they have to pay weekly more than what it would cost to rent a nicer apartment.

So we’re actually going to work in collaboration with Georgia Justice Project and the Southern Center for Human Rights on getting some legislation passed around petitioning the courts for expungements and having some offenses automatically expunged. But I want to be sure that things aren’t just expunged — I want to be sure that no one can see that record, that it goes away just like bad credit goes away after time. Did you know that you can owe millions of dollars but if you file bankruptcy, after seven years all that credit goes away? It really goes away! After that period, you can start to rebuild and renew your credit. It’s just like you never had it before. So that’s what I would like for record redemption to be.

A fresh start. So that’s what I’m hoping for and pushing for. After closing the jail and repurposing it into a Center for Wellness and Freedom that truly serves our communities, we need to start restoring people’s lives.

So that’s the next thing for Women on the Rise — and anything else that needs to be done along the way, we’ll pick it up and work on it and kept it moving, just like we’ve been doing.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Special thanks to Wesley Ware and Xochitl Bervera for assistance with this article.

We have 2 days to raise $29,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.