This Is by Design

Jail, Justice, and Race in Southwest Georgia

Last spring, in the dark, early hours of the morning, dozens of people waited to attend Sunday service with former President Jimmy Carter at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. The morning air was cool and humid and smelled of damp clay and wood smoke. Inside the small church, President Carter greeted his fellow congregants with his recognizable smile and a still-strong voice. He asked questions and conversed with us as he taught. “When did women get the right to vote?” he asked. “1920,” someone said. “That’s not true,” he replied. “That’s when white women got the right to vote. Black women did not get the right to vote until the 1950s.” He described segregation as wrong in the eyes of Jesus. “White people,” he continued, “accepted it because it was favorable to them.”

Sumter County, where Plains is located, is in the Black Belt of the Deep South, once in the center of the slave-based plantation economy of the United States, and then of the Confederacy. Andersonville, 30 miles to the northwest of Plains, was the site of a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War. During its 14 months of existence, nearly 13,000 Union prisoners died there of malnutrition and disease.

More than 150 years later, Georgia has extremely high rates of jail and prison incarceration of a different sort, along with high rates of probation. Almost everyone in the state has been—or knows someone who has been—affected by the justice system. Many of the people I spoke with in rural southwest Georgia, when discussing jail incarceration, transitioned fluidly to talking about the history of slavery, exploitation, racism, social control, and voter suppression.

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Southwest Georgia

Adam, a Black man in his mid-40s, works an evening shift at a fast food restaurant in Douglas. He is thin, soft spoken, and speaks quickly. When we met, he was wearing black cotton slacks and a polo shirt over a grey T-shirt. He tells me that he is a carpenter, and that carpentry, unlike his other jobs, is work that he actually enjoys doing. During the day, he assembles trailers and, in the evenings, works at a fast-food place. He also paints houses. He’s from and still technically lives in Dougherty County, a two-hour drive away, but spends a week or two at a time sleeping in his car while he works in Douglas.

Adam has a girlfriend who has been in and out of jail in Dougherty County, and he describes a tumultuous and uneasy relationship. Adam says that he feels safe sleeping in his car almost anywhere. “Except for up there,” he says, pointing in the direction of Nichols, the town where CoreCivic operates a more than 3,000-bed prison. “Is that because it is a prison town?” I ask. “Everywhere is a prison town,” he says. “It’s all a prison. It’s Georgia. It’s historical.”

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Southwest Georgia

A few years ago, Adam worked in a chicken hatchery just up the road. Georgia is the nation’s largest chicken-processing state. It’s an industry that relies on low-paid labor. Adam says that people make around $9 or $10 an hour and plants will hire pretty much anyone, including people on probation, returning from prison, or assigned to work there as part of the state’s work release program. “People work [at the chicken plant] from halfway houses,” he says. “Everyone is on probation. That’s how they make their money.”

Probation is big business in Georgia, much of it driven by for-profit private companies that charge fees to people on probation. Historically, probation was used as an alternative to incarceration for people convicted of felonies, but in some states such as Georgia, it has become the default sentence for even the most minor offenses. Since 1990, Georgia has expanded its use of probation for people convicted of misdemeanors and, in 1991, the state legislature authorized contracts for misdemeanor probation service between counties, courts, and private companies. By 2000, the state had removed all misdemeanor probation cases from Department of Corrections’s jurisdiction, allowing private firms to provide so-called probation services for an even further expanded set of low-level offenses, including for cases in which people could not pay traffic tickets. At the same time, in 2018, there were more than 250,000 people on felony probation in Georgia, up 25 percent over the last two years. Georgia has the highest rate of felony probation in the country—3 percent of adults in 2018. Although state-level criminal justice reform efforts have altered some elements of public policy—like prioritizing diversion programs and slowing rising prison incarceration rates—in other areas, the status quo remains. In 2018, Georgia was ranked 11th in the country in terms of prison incarceration.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of Georgians live under the threat of re-incarceration if they fail to show up to an appointment with a probation officer on time or violate other conditions of their community supervision. Probation conditions often include ongoing payment of fines and fees, which can accumulate over time due to interest, as well as employment; together, these conditions can pressure people to stay at low-paying jobs. This has a particularly devastating impact on Black people in Georgia, who are arrested and sentenced to probation at much higher rates than white people. The saturation of jail, prison, and probation in the state creates conditions for more intensive exploitation of low-paid workers, while at the same time directly extracting income, in the form of fines and fees, from some of the state’s poorest people.


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Americus, Georgia

Americus, the seat of Sumter County in the agrarian region of southwest Georgia, is a small city of 17,000 people, about 40 miles north of Albany. It was an important cotton distribution center before and after the abolition of slavery and a key locus of struggles against racist exploitation and violence. In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was locked up in the Sumter courthouse jail after being arrested in Albany and, in the years following, local activists in the Sumter Movement fought for desegregation in the county. Today, Sumter County is majority Black, and agriculture is still the economic base, with roughly 35,000 acres of cotton under cultivation.

Sumter County has an active NAACP chapter, which shares a building with a local Black-owned paper, the Americus Sumter Observer. One afternoon last spring, the Reverend Mathis K. Wright, president of the Americus-Sumter County NAACP branch, and Dr. John Marshall, a family physician and the editor of the Observer, spoke about their efforts to improve the justice system in Sumter.

Wright and Marshall used their influence—and the platform of the Observer—to work with local judges to drive the private probation companies out of the county and to inform the people of Sumter County of their rights. “They [private probation companies] were so ruthless,” said Marshall, “that they had people thinking that if you didn’t have the money, you would go back to jail. . . . We try to teach the people that all you have to do is report. You don’t have to have the money [for probation payments]; you can’t always have the money.”

Samuel Merritt is the chief public defender for the Southwestern Judicial Circuit. Based in Americus, the Southwestern Judicial Circuit consists of six counties: Lee, Macon, Schley, Stewart, Sumter, and Webster. Merritt described how widespread use of probation in the area is connected to high rates of incarceration. “The judges, or the culture here, has always been you get probation for your first offense,” he said. “If you mess up, then we send you to prison. It’s a lot easier procedurally to send someone to prison if they’re already on probation: you don’t have to have a jury trial. . . . It’s sort of a shortcut for the system—have fewer jury trials, but still get the same people in prison.”

Merritt’s office has sought to raise awareness of this problem. “[W]hen we started our office we had a lot of resistance, because there was a culture of ‘Hey, it’s just probation, why are we fighting over this case, if it’s just probation,’” he said. “And we started pointing out, look it’s not just probation, it means they have to pay a fine, they have to go report, they can’t vote, and any criminal history makes it difficult to get a good job. . . . For me, it’s the, ‘You’re going to have a crappy economic outlook for the rest of your lives’ that’s the main collateral consequence [of probation] I’m worried about."

I also spoke with Ashley (not her real name), a young white woman in Americus, about incarceration in rural Georgia. “I went to jail [in Sumter County] for a DUI,” she said. “The cops around here are mean, and they’re everywhere.” Ashley is blonde, in her early twenties, and was wearing a grey sweatshirt from a 2013 school field trip. She moved to Americus from a nearby rural county after high school, following a friend who made the trip a year earlier. One evening, she and her boyfriend were drinking with friends in an Americus bar. Ashley was the more sober of the two and offered to drive home. But she was pulled over and booked into the Sumter County Jail, where she sat until her boyfriend bailed her out. When it came time to go before a judge, she pled guilty. “I just took what they gave me,” she said. “I was afraid of being sent back to jail. I had no choice.”

Staying out of jail has been costly. “All in all,” she said, “I have to pay $2,800. That includes the ticket and the court fees. The court fees are more than the ticket even, about $1,700. The DUI happened in July last year, and I didn’t get a court date until November. I would have sat in jail that whole time if my boyfriend hadn’t bailed me out. I got two years’ probation as well.”

Ashley reports to probation once a month with a $182 money order that takes her about 20 hours of work to earn, given that she earns $9 an hour. “I can barely afford to pay my bills,” she said. “I really just had two beers. Coronas.”

In addition to probation costs, court fees, and the ticket, she lost her license, which she needs in order to get to and from work, and had to pay $210 to get it reinstated. “I feel like what they were trying to do with me when I lost my license,” she said, “was to make sure I got in more trouble before I got a new one so that they could take more money. They don’t care. They want your money.” Still, the threat of jail hovers over her daily life. “If I get pulled over again,” she says, “that’s a probation violation, and I serve out the rest of my sentence in jail.”

As she related her story, Ashley also spoke about the general economic situation for working people in the region. “They put bench warrants [an order written by a judge authorizing an arrest] out for people who don’t show up in court for a seat belt ticket,” she said. “We don’t have enough jobs here. It took me seven months to get a job when I first moved here and I was looking every single day. Albany is worse, though.”


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Albany, Georgia

The seat of Dougherty County, Albany is a city of around 76,000 people that serves as the urban hub for the surrounding agricultural counties of southwest Georgia. Albany is 73 percent Black, and one-third of all its residents are living below the poverty line. In 2015, one in every 100 people in Dougherty County between the ages of 15 and 65 was incarcerated in the county jail on any given day, a rate double that of Georgia as a whole, and three-and-a-half times the national average. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, 114 people were incarcerated in the county’s jail for every 10,000 residents. That’s down from the peak in 2003 of 164 per 10,000. But it’s still nearly three times the jail incarceration rate of Fulton County, where most of Atlanta is located (42 per 10,000 in 2015).

The current Dougherty County Jail, a low, sprawling, pink stone building in the fields outside of Albany’s city limits, opened in 1995 and was built as a 624-bed facility. The county immediately began double-bunking (housing two people per cell) after it opened, bringing the capacity above 1,000. Colonel John Ostrander has been the county’s jail operations director since 2009. “This is a 1,230-bed facility,” he said, “which makes us the largest or second-largest jail facility in the state. About 75 percent of the population here is pretrial.” Ostrander explained that when the jail population crossed 1,100 in the early 2000s, he and other actors in the local criminal justice system got together informally to try and better understand their various roles, with the goal of reducing jail incarceration in the county. “When we crossed the 1,100 threshold,” he said, “we needed to intervene.”

Ostrander came across as the consummate law enforcement professional, concerned with both his employees and the efficient operation of the facility. And, like many people in Albany, he discussed the jailing of one in every 100 people in the county as a normal state of affairs.

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Dougherty County Jail

Karen Lawrence, who has lived in Albany her entire life, spoke with me one afternoon about the ways in which mass incarceration in Georgia, and jail incarceration in particular, has meant the criminalization of Black social life and the targeting of Black youth in rural counties. Lawrence works as a community organizer for the Southwest Georgia Project. “Incarceration is historical,” she said. “Historically, we have been incarcerated.”

The rural counties in southwest Georgia, in her view, are places where young people are being targeted by the justice system for, in essence, socializing with one another. “Young people,” she said, “go to jail for being Black and out of place. If a group of kids gather in a place, outside a store for example, someplace where there is light, that is an issue [for the police].” Lawrence contrasted this with the ways in which the police deal with white youth. “For the white kids,” she said, “they’re going to call mom. But the Black kids will be brought to jail.” Lawrence described the central role that incarceration plays in maintaining the economic status quo in the region. “[Incarceration is] a way to keep people in poverty,” she said, “to keep families struggling. And our families struggle. Poverty is really high.”

I spent one morning speaking with a retired Black politician who had lived much of his life in Albany about the high rates of jail incarceration in the city and the region. “It's by design,” he said. It’s not just happenstance. This is by design.” He continued: “The main problem is the municipal court. People get arrested for loitering, night clubs, disorderly conduct. It’s the same situation they had in [Ferguson] Missouri: the municipal court subsidizes the city government. They want to fine you. It’s been a problem for such a long time, that most people in the area have no idea. Fines for loitering, for open container, for disorderly conduct. If you don’t pay the fine, you go to jail. There is a mentality to the people in this area, a ‘lock ‘em up’ mentality. Law and order, and fines.”

In his telling, the jail is part of the apparatus that makes these fines possible, part of a longer legacy of exploitation of Black people—and poor people—in a state that built its interstate with prison labor. We went on to discuss the relationship between jail incarceration, probation, and labor in southwest Georgia today. “Incarceration fits in like this,” he said. “If you've got a record, you're at the mercy of an employer. He can hire you if he wants to, or not. And if he hires you, he can tell you what he's going to pay you. You can't demand a higher wage, because you're lucky to have a job. . . . Incarceration cheapens labor.” In addition to systematically creating insecurity in people’s lives, he pointed out, widespread incarceration also diminishes the ability of people to address these conditions. “A lot of people can't vote because of prior records,” he said. “That impacts elections quite a bit, when you've got a significant amount of African Americans and 25 percent of them can’t vote.”

Recent research shows that even short jail stays on misdemeanor charges can have substantial impacts on voter turnout. Jail keeps people from voting, and the criminal justice system can be an instrument of voter suppression that goes far beyond felony disenfranchisement.


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Sumter County Jail

Olivia Pearson is a city councilor and Black civil rights activist in Douglas, Georgia, a majority Black city in majority white Coffee County. In 2016, the Coffee County district attorney indicted Pearson for voter fraud. The charge stemmed from Pearson’s explaining to a first-time voter how to use a voting machine in 2012. Pearson fought the charges, which carried a possible sentence of five years in prison.

Pearson was tried in Coffee County in March 2017 after refusing a plea deal, but the local jury was unable to reach a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial. Ian Sansot, the assistant district attorney handling her case, then retried her in a neighboring county, where a jury took just 20 minutes to acquit her. The details of the case have been covered in the New York Times, receiving increased attention in the lead up to the 2018 gubernatorial election in which the Republican candidate, Secretary of State Brian Kemp—who was the chairman of Georgia’s State Election Board, the very entity that referred Pearson’s case to the local DA—was accused of purging the voter rolls in his race against Democrat Stacy Abrams. Pearson’s case was seen by many advocates as a representative example of intimidation of local Black community leaders in rural south Georgia.

Pearson grew up in Douglas and returned after going to college in Atlanta. She was elected as Douglas’s first Black city council member in 1999 and has served on the council ever since. On a warm, sunny day last autumn, Pearson and I ate lunch together in Douglas. She spoke at length about her experience growing up in south Georgia and her political work, as well as jail and incarceration in south Georgia. “I really wish I knew the reason for all of it,” she said, speaking of her ordeal of the past two years. “With my situation, I mean. I have a theory that it’s because I’m a Black person who is outspoken. A Black woman who is outspoken.”

Since the late 1990s, Pearson has frequently spoken out against the targeting of Black youth by the police in her hometown. “There have been some sensitive issues here,” she said, “with me being on the city council, concerning race. When I first got on the city council we were having a lot of problems with the police. . . . There's an area here where Black kids usually hang out, and there was just a lot of issues. The police . . . would just go up and sit up there, which would intimidate some of the young kids.” Pearson explained that she saw differences in the ways in which police and law enforcement were treating Black and white youth in the community, and that she used her position in the city government to speak out. “[I was] trying to make things better,” she said, activity that made her a target to the local white elite.

In the mid-2000s, when Pearson’s son was in his late teens, her son was arrested at a party for disorderly conduct, for singing loudly. The local paper ran a headline about the arrest, pointing out that he was the commissioner’s son. “They made a big to-do out of it,” she said, “and so after then he was always a target. They were always stopping him. The police would stop him; Douglas and the County.” During one stop, while driving his friends home, the police found marijuana, which the friends claimed was theirs. The local prosecutor decided to indict anyway. Pearson’s son, who was in the midst of planning his life beyond Douglas, died 30 days later under circumstances that remain unclear to her.

Pearson told me about the intimacy of political repression in the small city where she grew up and that she has dedicated her life to improving. “They must have known you would fight this [indictment],” I asked. “What they didn't know,” she replied, “was that I had the connections that I had. I've met so many people through my work. They knew that personally that I don't have money. But people came to my aid.” Now that she has won her case, Pearson is thinking about the broader implications of her indictment. “If they will come at an elected official who really did not commit a crime,” she says, “what are the chances for other people?”

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Sumter County, Georgia