“One day closer to home.” Those were the words etched on the wall above the bunk bed in cell 212 at Dekalb County Jail. They were the first thing I saw when I woke up between 3 and 5 a.m. for the first food delivery of the day. They were also the last thing I saw around 10 p.m., as I meditated on all who had laid in the bunk before I was arrested — an arrest that felt more like a kidnapping in the forest — and forced myself to sleep by covering my face with a blanket, shielding my eyes from the omnipresent lights.
I came to Atlanta to camp among the swaying pines of the Weelaunee Forest in solidarity with the people of Atlanta. I answered the call to help Stop Cop City. If two days of public testimony to the Atlanta City Council overwhelmingly rejecting the proposal to build Cop City did not stop the project, perhaps my joining the camp would show those in power that a different future is desired by all. I came to Atlanta because I did not want the NYPD to have a policing playground in which they would be indoctrinated even further to see the people of NYC as enemy combatants. I came to Atlanta because of the calls demanding that neighboring Black communities be heard in their rejection of the proposed Cop City — and their desire to rename Intrenchment Creek Park to honor Indigenous nations and illuminate the manipulation of city processes by corporate interests. I came to Atlanta because the police assassinated Tortuguita, a forest defender, and tried to cover it up by posting photos on Twitter of a standard police-issued handgun “found” on the site.
I came to Atlanta because it’s where I was born. I grew up between there and Murfreesboro, Tennessee in the 1980s. Both sets of my grandparents were from Atlanta. My father’s family settled in Avondale Estates in the 1940s, and my Grandfather Grim was a lecturer in the School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech in the ‘60s and ‘70s. My mother’s parents moved to a house on Diamond Head Circle in Decatur in the 1970s, following my mother to her new home and fleeing the unrest of New York City. It was their second new home after they had both left Puerto Rico to escape colonialist violence at the hands of the United States.
My Abuelito would insist that my brothers and I wake up at 7 a.m. to climb into his car filled with our towels, snacks, and toys for trips to the now-closed beach at Stone Mountain. Being Puerto Rican, he would always find a beach or beach-type place wherever he landed. While at Dekalb County Jail, I would watch the sunrise over the mountain in the mornings from my narrow cell window and remember Abuelito’s smile and hugs. I would remember our trips to the International Food Market and nights of never-ending domino games, even as my thoughts were disrupted by the loud banging of metal doors slammed shut or of people screaming from their cells, desperate for anyone to notice their pain.
Lashawn Thompson, the man revealed to have been eaten alive by insects in Fulton County Jail last year, is not the only one who suffered from torture at the hands of jailers in the Atlanta area. 31 days in Dekalb County Jail were enough for me to provide eyewitness testimony of this torture. While in my podcage in the women’s section of the jail, 4 Southeast, I saw six people locked into cells 24/7 because of their mental health classification, one of whom attempted suicide during my time there. Another one of the six people did not have running water in her cell, so others used saved bags from food deliveries, filling them with water and sliding them under her door to stop her from drinking her urine to survive. Another woman found herself on permanent lockdown after she started running around the common area naked. After days of screaming to be let out, she knotted a bed sheet and tried to hang herself. Others watched her through the transparent glass of the door. When our podcage comrades yelled at the guards to come help her, the guards laughed and slowly strolled over. After they took her to medical, a sergeant arrived and told us that the entire podcage was on lockdown. We were collectively warned not to cause “further trouble.”
Instead of our jailers, who chose to lock in and isolate a woman in her cell as “mental health care,” it was we who were blamed for her suicide attempt. Half of the people in the podcage witnessed this suicide attempt, and instead of grief counseling, we were locked into cells — most of which had broken toilets and no running water — for the following four hours.
When I first arrived, all I wanted to do was to take a shower and lie down to sleep. My first cellmate was, like many in jail, without a home and incarcerated because of complications that happen when you have no home. She had only a few days to go on her nine-day-long sentence for alleged trespassing, which she was charged with after not waiting to leave a hospital before she was well. She tried to acclimate me to jail life. I paid attention and attempted to remember all the tips for cleaning and maintaining the cell. The painted cinder block walls reminded me of public school buildings and state university dorm rooms. I wondered if the same people built those structures.
Screams often erupted from the lower level of the cell rooms.
“She’s a ‘22,’” Raja tells me, explaining that people with extreme mental health challenges are classified as such and locked into their cells 24/7.
“How do they receive medicines or therapy?” I naively asked. Raja shrugged. New screams from the lower level of the podcage reverberated off the walls to inform us that lunch “sacks” of bologna sandwiches had arrived. She remarked that the food arrived early, likely because of the other activists and myself. I learned she was right. It wasn’t long before we were back to the normal shifts of receiving food just twice a day, every 12 to 14 hours, depending on the moods and temperaments of the guards on shift.
“The entire block is moving differently ‘cuz of y’all,” she drawled. Later, my last cellmate Dulce confessed that when she saw a group of youngish white women, she thought that we were all sex workers, but our appearance confused her because we did not seem to be the usual type. One of the women we were in the holding cell with during processing, Divinity, told the others about our domestic terrorism charges. One by one, we started to make friends as we shivered in the podcage, which was kept under 60 degrees at all times.
I was especially sensitive to these temperatures because I am perimenopausal and tend to have a very high body temperature. My time in jail is the first time in five years that I have been actively cold for an extended period of time. I keep my Brooklyn bedroom around 60 degrees all year round to avoid hot flashes. The podcage was much colder, and I shivered to sleep for a week before receiving thermal underwear that I had to purchase through the commissary. Until we organized our podcage mates to submit grievances about the cold climate, which we did through the jail’s third party-monitored grievance system, extra blankets were forbidden. I saw more than a few extra blankets violently taken and thrown out of cells in a sadistic ceremony.
Friends shared their struggles. The struggles I heard about and experienced convinced me that the state of Georgia does not run county jails — it runs concentration camps that it calls county jails. The last local seat of responsibility for these county jails seems to be the elected “Chief Executive Officer” of the state’s counties. All of our grievances are connected to the strange and cruel corporate structures found in the elected offices of the United States of America.
Our new comrades had no idea that the rate of local incarceration was lower in other major cities, or that serving two days to a week in jail because of a traffic violation is unheard of in places like NYC. The other activists and I spoke about the movement to abolish jails, prisons, and police. We talked about other alternatives both in development and in dreams of replacing this system. We had a lot of time to talk about a lot of things, as we were rarely taken into the outdoor recreation area — an area that we could see from the podcage.
In my 31 days in Dekalb County Jail, I and the others in our caged community only received three hours of sunlight and fresh air in the outdoor recreation area. The inmate handbook, available in a digital kiosk on the wall, stated that we were entitled to five hours a week. Dulce had been incarcerated without a formal charge for over 15 months. She stated she could count on her hands the hours of sunlight she experienced in jail. During her time there, she was held for seven months in a windowless room in medical solitary confinement because she was pregnant when arrested, could not pay her bond, and had such high blood pressure that the jailers were afraid she would have a stroke, killing both her and her baby in their cage.
During the second week, we were caged, our comrade Myla woke with an excruciating toothache. She tried to convince one of us to help her pull it out of her mouth. On further discussion, we all decided it would be better to file as many grievances as possible, see who had Tylenol to share, talk to the guards, and file a medical request. She had to wait three days before the jail’s dental team saw her. They put her on Tylenol with Codeine and gave her an appointment with Grady Hospital to pull her tooth. It was supposed to happen in four to six weeks, but I spoke to Myla recently — it has been three weeks, and she still has not had her tooth treated, nor has she been scheduled for treatment. She is still on Tylenol with Codeine, still brushing her teeth constantly to slow the inevitable compacted infection and protect herself from it turning lethally septic.
A new jail will not fix the problems of Atlanta’s jails. The people of Atlanta know that a new jail is not the solution because so many of them have spent time in Fulton and Dekalb County Jails. How will a new building solve the problems of jailers who see inmates as insects? How will a new building solve the problems of people with mental health issues caused by a life of economic crisis? How will a new jail solve the problem of tens of thousands of people being caged for the most minor of infractions?
In 2008 the city of Cincinnati closed down a city jail, the Queensgate Correctional Facility. What happened? A massive drop in arrests and violent crime. Officers with little bed space no longer used arrests as a default response to calls. Misdemeanor arrests dropped by over 30 percent, and felony arrests dropped by over 40 percent. Today, lives have been saved, the community is safer, and crime rates have continued to drop. The building of the jail is now being renovated to hold small businesses and artist studios.
The only way forward is to close down the jails of Atlanta, stop Cop City, and begin treating the people of Atlanta as if they are members of the beloved community. From NYC to Atlanta, we know that it is caring for each other — not brutality, cages, or cop cities — that will keep us collectively safe.
Scalawag is a journalism and storytelling organization that works in solidarity with oppressed communities in the South to disrupt and shift the narratives that keep power and wealth in the hands of the few. Read more stories from Atlanta organizers featured in Scalawag’s A Week of Writing: Stop Cop City.
Contribute to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund to support the legal defense of Forest Defenders facing domestic terrorism charges, and learn more about the ongoing fight to #StopCopCity and defend the Atlanta forest.
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