It’s amazing the sorts of everyday abuses you can find in the nooks and crannies of our criminal justice system.
The state of Tennessee locked Regenia Bowman in solitary confinement for more than six months because she had a skin infection.
Bowman wasn’t violent, and she hadn’t threatened anyone. She was free on bond when she walked into a courtroom in Bledsoe County in April 2014 to answer charges of selling prescription painkillers, a violation of her probation on a similar charge. During the hearing, when it looked like Bowman was headed to jail, her lawyer revealed she was sick with what turned out to be MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection.
The judge suggested sending her to a “special needs” facility in Nashville. Bowman, now 54, assumed she would be going to a clinic or hospital.
Instead, she was driven more than 120 miles to the Tennessee Prison for Women, which usually houses people already convicted of a crime. There, without understanding why, she was dressed in white, the uniform of maximum security prisoners. She was placed in solitary — locked down 23 hours a day with three showers a week and fed through a slot in her cell door. The MRSA cleared up in about two months, she said, but records show she was held in these conditions for 189 days.
An investigation by the Tennessean newspaper and the Marshall Project found that, over a six-year period, more than 300 people in Tennessee found themselves in a situation similar to Bowman’s — being declared safekeepers.
The law is intended to relieve a financial burden on local jails and get pretrial detainees necessary care or protect jail staff. Some safekeepers have allegedly attacked guards or fashioned crude weapons. But interviews and court records show people are sent to safekeeping because they are juveniles, pregnant, wrestling with severe mental illness or simply too notorious to remain in county lockup. They have not been convicted of a crime, but all of them are shipped far away from their families and defense lawyers and placed in cells usually reserved for the state’s most unruly, dangerous inmates.
One of at least eight states with a safekeeping law, Tennessee has no formal review process to determine if and when inmates should be returned to their original counties.
A survey of people in “safekeeping” on Dec. 31 last year found that the average person had been incarcerated without trial for 328 days. In most of these cases, these people are getting extra punishment — and pretty severe punishment at that — simply because the local town or county can’t accommodate their “special” needs. (I put special in quotes only because there’s nothing particularly unique about being pregnant, or a juvenile, mentally ill. These are all conditions that jails ought to be adequately prepared to handle.)
This seems like a good time to revisit another disturbing statistic: About a half million people are sitting in America’s jails while still awaiting trial. That means they’ve yet to be convicted of a crime. They represent about 60 to 70 percent of the total jail population. That includes about 60 percent of women currently locked up in U.S. jails. According to one survey, 70 percent of people in jail had a job at the time they were arrested. A New Orleans man was recently released after waiting in jail seven years to be tried on charges of growing marijuana. And, of course, there is Kalief Browder, who waited without trial for three years at New York’s Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was never convicted, but ultimately committed suicide.