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?