Putting Community Health First

Lessons Learned From COVID-19 and Criminal Justice

COVID-19 brutally demonstrates that local incarceration is not only about criminal justice; it is also about community health. Even before the pandemic, national health experts and the American Bar Association connected incarceration and public health with calls for holistic actions to address the root causes of both.

COVID-19 now proves indisputably how the criminal justice system itself is a root cause of individual and community health outcomes. The positive tests of incarcerated persons and staff at Louisville Metro Department of Corrections and deaths at Kentucky’s Green River Correctional Facility and the Federal Medical Center prison in Lexington are both public health concerns and human rights issues.

The massive challenges of COVID-19 call for powerful and caring responses. The convergence of COVID-19 and our criminal justice system reveals fundamental inequities, demanding strong and corrective actions. The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness Center for Health Equity originated a simple yet powerful image of a tree to guide actions for improving community health

This Health Equity Tree below, created by graphic designer Daphne Walker for LFJA, illustrates how individual health conditions are linked to root causes including criminal justice, and both are fed by current and historic systems of power.

The Health Equity Tree links the root causes of COVID-19 to individual health outcomes depicted as leaves, which indicate wellness or illness.  Like a tree, individual leaves are linked to root causes like employment, income and local criminal justice systems.  Employment and income, for example, are root causes of the health of individuals who are incarcerated in our local jail.  When any of us are unable to pay bail and must await trial, even though the courts cannot operate in a timely manner, the health of everyone in our community is affected.

The Health Equity Tree also asks us to consider the soil that feeds the roots, essential to the growth and development of the trunk and its leaves. COVID-19 shines a brutal light on racial inequities in the soil shaping our individual and community’s health.  At a recent forum, Louisville leaders spoke publicly about how historic systems of power like segregation and redlining are causing significant racial disparities in illness and deaths due to COVID-19.

Like COVID-19, criminal justice policies and practices are unequally punishing Black community members. More than 1200 men and women are currently incarcerated in our jail even as positive cases among corrections staff are increasing, endangering everyone inside. Of the 1213 people confined in the Main Jail Complex on April 27th, for example, 614, over 50%, are identified as Black. This is 2.5 times the 20% rate of our Black population, a significant racial disparity.

The Health Equity Tree also teaches us how our community can recover from COVID-19 through more healthy and just local actions. Nurturing the health of all individuals require immediate caring and equitable actions. For example, when treating individual health, the root causes of access to health services, neighborhood development, income, employment and the criminal justice system must also be addressed to be fully effective. Most importantly, we must put community first and examine and address systems of power, the soil in which our trees of health are planted, that create disparities in the root causes that feed our collective health outcomes.

Kentucky’s History of Confining African American Women Matters Now

Charlene J. Fletcher lectures at the University of Louisville Law School, March 2, 2020/Kyle Durbin, UofL Law School

“One thing is, in this country, if you’re not in the narrative, you’re not going to be in the policy.”

Reverend William Barber on the Political Power of Poor People, Intelligencer (Dec 5, 2019)

In the Health Equity framework, family violence and incarceration are leaves on the tree of health that we can easily see. The criminal justice system, involving policing, jails and prisons, the judiciary and re-entry, are the root causes that shape the behaviors we see. Unequal systems of power constitute the soil that is not always readily seen that feed the roots of the criminal justice system.  

If the stories of people most directly affected by violence and incarceration are not told, the policies we develop for our communities will not be equitable. Systems of power are sharply revealed in the story of York, unrecognized for his contribution to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and denied his freedom long afterwards. Now, our job is to create a new narrative that challenges long-standing systems of power while making our criminal justice systems more equitable for all.

At a public presentation at the University of Louisville Law School on Monday, March 2nd, Historian Charlene J. Fletcher proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the telling of history matters. Ms. Fletcher is a scholar focusing on black women’s history in Kentucky, a survivor of domestic abuse, and an advocate for social change. Her powerful presentation, combining experience, activism, and research, demonstrates the importance of lived experiences in transforming our criminal justice systems.

Charlene J. Fletcher presents the histories of Lila White and Fannie Keyes Harvey/Kyle Durbin, UofL Law School

Fletcher focused on now recovered histories of two women: Lila White and Fannie Keys Harvey and their stories of abuse, resistance, and confinement during the 1890s and early 1900s in central Kentucky. Lila White suffered severe abuse from her ostensibly respectable family, resorted to arson, and was confined first in prison and then a mental institution where she died.  Fannie Keys Harvey, deeply impoverished, committed a string of petty crimes and fought back against her abusive husband and the police officer that arrested her. She went in and out of prison and lived to testify in 1897 against the conditions in the state prison in Frankfort that housed both women and men then and until 1937. 

Audience members at Charlene J. Fletcher’s lecture/Kyle Durbin, UofL Law School

 These powerful personal stories, so important in themselves, also become a window into the systems of power that link domestic violence with incarceration in our city, state and nation today.  As a young woman, Lila White worked as a domestic, one of the few jobs opened to black women. She was only one generation removed from slavery, yet black women today still face inequalities in both job opportunities and wages. Lila’s abuse came from her own family, and she suffered long in silence, fearing shame, stigma and reprisals.  Today, it is estimated that only about half of domestic violence cases are reported. Fannie Keys Harvey grew up and lived in a section of Lexington that had no sewers, clean water or adequate housing. As income inequality increases today, there is still too little understanding of how poverty can be a root cause of crime and violence.

The stories of Lila White, Fannie Keys Harvey and all confined African American women matter. As Reverend William Barber, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, points out, “if you are not in the narrative, you’re not going to be in the policy.” Changing the narrative means examining the systems of power that maintain inequitable social conditions based on race, ethnicity, gender identities, economic status and physical abilities. Louisville Family Justice Advocate’s (LFJA) work is challenging current stereotypes about who is incarcerated and why, now and in the past.  LFJA asks: Whose story is being told and how is the story contributing to creating policy?

Justice, Health and Hope in Two Kentucky Communities: Berea and Louisville

Collaborative Learning Exchange Recap

On the morning following Hasan Davis’ powerful performance of  YORK: Explorer at the Kentucky Center, Louisville Family Justice Advocates and Partners for Education, Berea College gathered for our third of four collaborative learning exchanges.  Participants included teams from Louisville and Berea who work in health, criminal justice and the arts. Some have direct experience with the impact of incarceration.  All are committed to connecting our home communities across the rural/urban divide in our state.

Learning Exchange participants meet on February 5, 2020 in Louisville, KY/Hasan Davis

Hasan co-led this exchange with Dreama Gentry Davis, the Executive Director of Partners for Education. Both served as Children and Family Fellows at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Together, they combined arts-based strategies for energizing creativity with the Casey Foundation’s powerful Results Count framework. Working together, Louisville and Berea participants spent the morning building trust and imagining and mapping  shared strategies for capacity building.

Hasan introduced us to a River of Life art-based exercise that explores the successes and challenges that inform our current place and work. Each of us drew/mapped/graphed/illustrated our own river of life on a large sheet of paper. All designs or depictions were welcomed, and everyone’s river was unique. Drawing our river became a clear and visual way to explore the currents that shape us. Sharing what we drew with each other built trust and unity; especially around the advocacy work all of the participants care so much about.

Participant shares River of Life illustration/Hasan Davis

Building on that trust and unity, Dreama presented an introduction to Casey’s Results Count framework. She challenged us to think harder about the population we are focusing on in our work, asking who is at the heart of the central goal of our organization? You must be clear about the population you are serving to build the results you want. Through careful clarifications, it became clear that our focus is children and their families with incarcerated loved ones in our community. In other words, children are at the heart of LFJA as an organization.

While building results-oriented leaders to carry out our goals, Dreama pointed to the importance of recognizing that we all operate at three different levels in our social change work: individual, role, and system. The River of Life exercise helped us understand our individual motivations and values. Next, we discussed the importance of being aware of what role we are playing, or in other words, what hat we are wearing, in any given interaction. Are we speaking as a friend, co-worker or advocate? Likewise, it is important to be clear on what system we are trying to change. For example, the criminal justice system, encompasses policing, judicial decision making, incarceration, and re-entry. 

And this artmaking and results-thinking happened all in one three-hour session! We all left more inspired and informed than when we arrived.

We witnessed: the power of art to express our deepest feeling; the importance of building trust and working in collaboration; and the importance of being clear about our role and impact at the system level. This session lived up to the title of our Collaborative Learning Exchange about justice, health and hope in each of our two communities in Kentucky.

An Equity Framework Links Children’s Health to Systems of Power

The health of children and families with incarcerated loved ones in Louisville Metro is at the heart of our organization. We use a health equity framework to guide our analysis of the power systems that shape criminal justice in Louisville.

Louisville Family Justice Advocates grew out of weekly artmaking activities of The Special Project. In 2017 and 2018, the Special Project partnered with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellbeing and Center for Health Equity to assess how an incarcerated parent affects the health of a child in Jefferson County.  This Health Impact Assessment Report shows that parental incarceration harms children’s health and disproportionately affects black children in our community. You can read the highlights of this report here.

Working together, the Special Project Team, Louisville Metro, and the Center for Health Equity developed the image of tree as a metaphor to understand an equitable framework for health.

Leaves The leaves of the tree represent visible health outcomes for individuals, such as well being or illnesses.

Roots Beneath the tree, under the ground and often out of sight, are the root causes, such as income, employment and housing, that lead to individual health outcomes.

Soil The soil which feeds the roots, represents historical and current systems of power, like racism and sexism. This shapes how people experience the root causes and contributes to overall health. 

This tree is LFJA’s framework for creating more equitable policy in our local criminal justice system.

In 2020, LFJA is focused on three criminal justice policies and practices:

1. Create art activities that decrease toxic stress and increase protective factors for children and families in the Visitors Lobby of the Louisville Metro Jail.

2. Improve visiting policies and practices in the Visitors Lobby.

3. Work with District Judges to create Family Responsibility Statements for consideration with defendants who are parents.

Using the health equity framework means LFJA must work on all three aspects: children’s individual health (leaves), root causes (roots) and systems of power (soil). Collecting and analyzing health outcomes and root cause data is essential, and understanding systems of power is equally important. Personal stories, past and present, are creative pathways to realizing how systems of power develop. Through stories, we see how individual choices are shaped by the soil and roots where they are planted.