Ali Winters: Tennessee locks up ailing, mentally ill, pregnant and juvenile prisoners, called safekeepers in isolation to help jails save money.
Three years ago, through unwavering support from SWASC, I embarked on an advocacy campaign to address the oppression and victimization of a small, vulnerable group of citizens in Tennessee called safekeepers. These are innocent people, only charged (not convicted) with a crime and too poor in most cases to afford bail. These safekeepers are sent to solitary confinement in the state prison system, primarily because the county jail in which they are held is insufficient to provide the necessary services they require. Juveniles, pregnant women, and the mentally or physically ill are locked away in a tiny cell 23 hours every day. While they have been convicted of NO CRIME, they are handcuffed and shackled every time they leave their cell. Based on outdated or absent policies at the Tennessee Department of Correction, these innocent Tennessee citizens have been held in solitary confinement with no ability to return to the county jail until their trial, in many cases for several years.
I worked with these safekeepers on the solitary confinement unit at Tennessee Prison for Women. They would come in to solitary confinement confused, not understanding in most cases why they were there. The safekeepers didn’t know it was a one-way ticket either. Once deemed a safekeeper, they have to remain in solitary confinement in state prison until their trial – and that can take years. I knew I had to do something. I had a sense of urgency to this cause and I reached out to Allen Author, a journalist fresh out of school in New York. Allen and I worked together for 3 years developing this story and SWASC continued to be a strong support during that time. I also tried to reach out to the ACLU here in Tennessee, lawmakers, and even the Tennessee Department of Correction. Nothing worked. Six months ago, The Marshall Project, along with the USA Today affiliates in Tennessee, picked up the story and supported our cause. They assisted with research and interviews with the ACLU, Tennessee Department of Correction, and even lawmakers. On Thursday, February 15th, 2018, an article appeared in The Marshall Project that represented the culmination of 3 years worth of work.
All six major newspapers in Tennessee picked up the story. Then, the Washington Post picked it up and TV news channels across the state were reporting on it. Check out the full story here.
To date, Tennessee’s Lt. Governor and 2 separate congressional committees are looking into how they can change the existing safekeeper law and state policies to help these innocent Tennesseans. For more details, see the full article here.