Well before the pandemic, jailing was failing in Tennessee. Last year, 57% of people incarcerated locally in Hamilton County were held pretrial, meaning they hadn’t been convicted of their crime and were presumed innocent. Although eligible for release, many of those defendants couldn’t afford their bonds; often negligible amounts. The overcrowding of local jails has resulted in enormous expenses, with our two facilities costing the county over $100,000 per day. Similar stories multiply across the state. In rural Hamblen County, TN, a lawsuit was recently filed over excessive bond amounts and resulting overcrowding, with the jail operating at 170% over capacity. In the state prison system, 39% of people sentenced to state facilities are there for “technical violations;” non-criminal violations of probation or parole restrictions.
COVID-19 now threatens these overcrowded facilities like fire near an oil tanker, and the alarms are sounding. Because incarcerated people are unable to follow recommended restrictions on separation and social distancing, transmission is an extreme risk. Correctional officers in Memphis have already tested positive for the virus. On March 24th, 40 organizations filed a petition to the Tennessee Supreme Court seeking immediate steps to decarcerate; their recommendations follow many clear and longstanding calls for reform. The following day, the Supreme Court extended their Order prohibiting in-person proceedings while requiring local judges to submit a plan for decarceration. According to Chief Justice Bivens, “There are low-risk, non-violent offenders who can safely be released and supervised by other means to reduce local jail populations. Judges, law enforcement, and attorneys must work together to identify and create an action plan to address this issue.”
On Friday, March 27th, the Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judges filed their plan. It lists the past month’s reductions in the jail populations for the Hamilton County Jail (-5.6%), as well as Silverdale (-21.7%). For the duration of the Tennessee court response to COVID-19, magistrates can change warrants for nonviolent offenses and technical violations to court summons. The court also encourages law enforcement to use criminal summons in lieu of arrest at their discretion. Officers look to be taking the recommendation seriously; weekly jail bookings have dropped by 65% from the first week of March. Clearly when there is the will to act, substantial changes can be made.
This same commitment to reduction hasn’t affected the state facilities, and the Tennessee Dept of Corrections states that "there are no plans for early release because of the coronavirus." Yet there is plenty of room to act. Tennessee should stop locking people up for behaviors that, for people not on parole or probation, would not warrant incarceration. If parole officers initiate the revocation process, schedule revocation hearings after the public health concerns have subsided. There are also opportunities for “compassionate release” for elderly offenders whose incarceration poses an extreme risk during the pandemic. Individuals eligible for parole or probation over the next six months should be released.
In our work maintaining the Hamilton County Community Bail Fund, CALEB continues to help individuals and families whose only barrier to freedom is wealth. We too share the goal of community safety, but we recognize that the incarceration system that we’ve inherited also produces community harm. Criminal sentencing shouldn’t come with the threat of deadly illness. Governor Lee can make decisions that support more proactive local efforts.
That's why CALEB has joined with Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) and Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and HOPE (MICAH), sending a letter to Gov. Lee to add our voices to the call for more effective decarceration measures within the Department of Correction. Our letter can be seen below.
Tennessee Freedom Caucus Asks Court for Immediate Action in Light of COVID-19
This week the Tennessee Freedom Caucus and 40 signatory organizations submitted a petition to the Tennessee Supreme Court asking that the court issue directives to release currently incarcerated people due to the added susceptibility in jails, prisons and detention centers to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unless a clear threat can be shown by release, identified groups for release include:
-individuals held on misdemeanor charges;
-individuals whose age leaves them particularly at risk;
-individuals held pretrial;
-children detained on delinquency charges;
-individuals held for (noncriminal) technical violations of parole or probation.
You can read the full petition HERE.
We likewise support the requests of this petition. The coronavirus pandemic presents an extreme threat to incarcerated people who are unable to take the recommended precautions of social distancing. Jails are not a secure environment, and Tennessee's overcrowded jails could become outbreak centers if meaningful preventative measures aren't taken.
If you want to show your support for these measures, you can reach out to Governor Bill Lee’s office, as well as Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker.
You can Contact Governor Lee’s office HERE, or by calling 615-741-2001.
You can Contact Commissioner Tony Parker’s office at TDOC.email@example.com, or by calling (615) 741-1000.
The Gamaliel Network calls on state and national leaders to decarcerate in light of growing pandemic
CHICAGO, Illinois—The Gamaliel Network will host a Facebook Live event on Thursday, March 19, 2020, at 12:00 p.m. CT / 1:00 pm ET calling for immediate decarceration of vulnerable populations in our jails, prisons, and detention centers.
“With the rapid spread of COVID-19,” said Rev. Dr. John Welch, Chair of the Gamaliel Board of Directors, “No individual, community, or institution is invulnerable to its effects, and that includes the jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers in this country which are particularly vulnerable as a result of overcrowding, limited health care options and supplies, and the constant movement in and out of these facilities by corrections staff. It is essential that we take steps immediately to protect the most vulnerable among us—including those who are incarcerated—and limit this potentially historic pandemic.”
The Facebook Live event will include testimonies from impacted people, as well as a demand for action with immediate steps that key decision-makers can take to drastically reduce the incarcerated population and reduce the potential for wider spread of the coronavirus.
The event is open to the public. To join, go to the Gamaliel Network Facebook page: facebook.com/gamalielnetwork
Members of the media are asked to register at: https://forms.gle/tHjKwrbfsy1XGmUK8
“This is no time for business as usual,” said Welch. “We have a moral obligation to act immediately and aggressively to stop the spread of the virus and protect ALL of the members of our communities.”
Chattanoogans In Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence (CALEB() is an institutional coalition of faith-based, labor, and community groups working to build power to affect change in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, TN. CALEB is a Gamaliel affiliate.
Gamaliel is a faith-based, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and non-partisan grassroots organizing network located in 15 states and 44 communities whose mission is: a) to train ordinary people, primarily in low-income communities and communities of color, to effectively participate in the political, environmental, social, and economic decisions affecting their lives; and b) to build a diverse corps of grassroots leaders committed to transforming the systems and structures that perpetuate racial and economic inequity.
General Meeting this Thursday, March 12th!
CALEB's general meeting in March is devoted to the Economic Mobility Task Force and the focus on a public platform.
Our city was recently highlighted as being one of the best towns to live in if you make over $100,000 a year; more than double the city's area median income. For those who fall below it, the reality is less celebratory. With local wages continuing to stagnate, housing costs exploding and critical infrastructure needs not being met, how can Chattanooga make better public decisions towards more equitable development? What part can we play in making that happen?
What: CALEB General Meeting
When: 6:30 pm to 8:oo pm, Thursday, March 12th
Where: The Oak Street Center, First Centenary United Methodist Church, 433 Oak St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
We're excited to announce that CALEB is growing! We're looking to fill a new organizer position in the month of March. Details are below.
CALEB is seeking a community organizer to build the capacity of affiliate leaders through training and resource creation, coaching and program development and to build a connection between neighborhood level issues and broader city- or statewide work through campaign planning and collective public action. The position is designed to identify, train, and work with new leaders through CALEB’s three task forces as well as through the “SWAY: The People’s Guide to Community Organizing” curriculum and focused outreach.
Responsibilities and Duties
Identification and Recruitment of partner organizations, specifically in the East Chattanooga area
Aid partner organizations in strategic leadership recruitment
Training and Workshop Facilitation
Public Meeting Facilitation
Media and Communications Coordination, Social Media posts, press releases
Fundraising and Grant writing
Weekly one-on-one meeting goals
Weekly supervisory meeting with organizing director
Qualifications and Skills
· Some level of organizer training preferred
· At least 2 years experience in direct actions, organizing, and leadership development
· Passion for community engagement and leadership development, especially in most impacted communities
· Punctual, reliable, and communicative
· Vision, creativity, enthusiasm and excellent interpersonal skills
· Ability to work effectively in diverse communities
· Willingness to travel to support affiliates in person, to engage in network events and to participate in learning, professional development, relationship building and fundraising;
· Deep familiarity with working from an anti-oppression lens in pursuit of justice and radical inclusion;
· Success as an independent, self-motivated leader with an ability to drive projects to completion in a fast-paced environment
Salary and Benefits
Expectation 45 hours per week
Salary: $40,000 / year
Expenses Budget: $1,000 / year
How to Apply
Please fill out online application form HERE. You may submit cover letter and resume as well at firstname.lastname@example.org
Economic Mobility means Housing Stability
The Chattanooga Times Free Press covers CALEB's award for a CLT study
CALEB is excited to take steps to determine what a community land trust (CLT) could do in Chattanooga. In 2016 Enterprise Community Partners was hired by the City of Chattanooga to conduct a housing and workforce development study. Their report, "Bridging the Gap," lists CLT development as a key recommendation. CALEB intends to take the next step, working with community leaders to commission a feasibility study that gets into the details of setup, governance, local market conditions, and available resources.
Community land trusts create and preserve affordable housing and other community assets for the long-term benefit of the local community; leverage and protect the precious and limited public private resources that are required to make the community assets available, affordable, and accessible in the first place; prevent the displacement of lower-income households from the homes and neighborhoods in which they live; preserve the character and culture of historic neighborhoods in the face of shifting populations and market conditions; provide ongoing support and assistance to homeowners who live on land owned by the CLT to bolster the prospects of their success; and ensure that the homes and properties in its portfolio are well-maintained and retain their value (even as CLTs protect and preserve their affordability and availability) for the long-term benefit of the neighborhoods and communities in which they are located.
From the Times Free Press:
"The Chattanooga Health, Educational and Housing Facility Board (HEB) earmarked as much as $25,000 for CALEB to hire an entity to conduct a feasibility study of establishing a [community land] trust in the city. The money will come from the city's Chattanooga Affordable Housing Fund.
Economic mobility for working families also means economic stability, and housing is a key part. Thanks to the city of Chattanooga and the HEB Board for their support.
CALEB organizes our work around three key issues. Want to get involved? Come to a task force meeting and see what organizing together can do!
CALEB is an institutional coalition of faith-based, labor, and community groups working to build power to affect change in Chattanooga, TN.