On May 29th, when people in Louisville and across the nation marched in protest of the most recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, LFJA community photographer Layfierre Mitchell knew it was a historic moment. He “stands behind the movement,” he says, because “he is living the movement” and “some people have to be involved.” On June 23rd, he returned to downtown Louisville to photograph “Injustice Square,” at 6th and Jefferson Street, still being occupied by people demanding justice for Breonna Taylor.
“My pictures are a platform for me to influence how people feel. Pictures are a visual representation of the world.”
“Having a camera is sharing your experience. When I take pictures I want the camera to show what I saw.”
“When I do photography, I have to think about how my pictures are going to look after I take them. I think that taking my pictures is like giving a gift.”
“When I take pictures of people, I am always thinking about the people seeing the pictures and what they will think of them. That means you have to empathize and put yourself in the place of the viewer.”
On June 17th, Louisville Family Justice Advocates, ACLU-KY and The Bail Project-Louisville created a Virtual Forum centering on author and journalist, Sylvia A. Harvey’s important new book: The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family. The Forum, linked here and below, integrated a keynote from Harvey, first-hand stories from Christina Walker and LeTonya McNeal, two courageous mothers featured in the book, State Representative Attica Scott, and Amanda Hall, ACLU-KY Policy Strategist. This powerful combination inspired participants to reimagine family justice and consider what it means in our community.
As Harvey demonstrates, the shadow side of mass incarceration is its impact on families, especially children. As incarceration increases, child welfare programs in states across the nation become shadow systems of the criminal legal system. Family Justice policies and practices operate in the intermediary spaces between these two systems, often filled with barriers and blind spots.
Harvey explains, “These systems are not communicating because they have distinct missions.” The criminal legal system’s mission is not the safety or well-being of the family, but to punish individuals. In the process of punishing one person, whole families are thrown into disarray. At the same time, what should be the safety net for the family — the child welfare system — hasn’t yet figured out how to truly protect children and does not take into account the challenges of parents and caregivers who want to reunite with their families after incarceration.
Harvey’s research for her book brought her to Kentucky. Here, as in many states, the “child welfare system” includes Child Protective Services, mental health services, foster care, adoption, care by extended family members, psychiatric hospitals, and an array of residential programs and group homes. When a parent is charged with a crime, judges, social workers, and court staff also make decisions about removing children from caretakers deemed inadequate.
Kentuckian Christina Walker shares her story of how her children were removed from her custody 3 days after she was arrested for failure to appear before a judge for nonsupport. After her release from jail eighteen days later, she spiraled into substance abuse, drew more serious charges and was adjudicated into a recovery program in another city. Being distant from her children prevented her from visiting them weekly and meeting other requirements of child welfare programs. Finally, faced with termination of her rights to custody of her two children, she agreed to their adoption.
Harvey’s book highlights families in two other states, Mississippi and Florida, and in all 3 locations, she points to stark racial disparities in both the carceral and child welfare systems. LaTonya McNeal shares her story as an African American woman about the racial and economic inequities she experienced in both the criminal legal and child welfare systems.. Growing up in the housing projects of Chicago during the War on Drugs, she witnessed disparities in policing and sentencing for poor African Americans. Like Christina, she was incarcerated and lost her children. After being adjudicated into a recovery program in Louisville, she saw visible racial disparities in community access to medical services and educational programs. She also witnessed harsher penalties for African Americans when they relapsed, inevitable in recovery. Disparities in incarceration, sentencing, recovery and reentry of African American parents are inextricably linked to disparities in the welfare of children.
Harvey’s book is a wake up call not only to reimagine but also to remake Family Justice in Louisville. Mass incarceration and its shadow system of child welfare hits Kentucky’s children hard. Currently fifteen percent experience the incarceration of a parent. Since 2014, the state has seen massive increases in child removals and currently has the highest rate of child neglect and abuse in the country. The number of safe and healthy foster homes has not kept pace with the rapid increase in the number of children removed by the state. Until recently, Kentucky has relied on residential facilities and group homes, the least safe and healthy alternative for the children.
What does remaking Family Justice look like? During and after the Forum, participants identified key policy changes for remaking Family Justice in our community:
State Representative Attica Scott supports requiring the Kentucky State Legislature to create Racial Impact Statements for all pending legislation to eliminate disparities.
Kentucky Youth Advocates asks for prioritizing investments for children who have experienced abuse and neglect by supporting kinship caregivers.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Building on that trust and unity, Dreama presented an introduction to Casey’s Results Countframework. 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.
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.
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.