Women on the Rise / Photo via Facebook

Formerly Incarcerated Women Fight for Abolition

Women on the Rise is a group of formerly incarcerated Black women working to help free unjustly imprisoned people in the Atlanta area.

The group was founded in 2013 and serves the community through two major functions. One function is activism, where the women lobby for policy, lead campaigns, attend city council and public safety meetings, organize sit-ins and marches, and spread awareness of unjust incarceration and inmate abuse through social media.

The other function of the group’s work consists of offering direct services, support, and resources to incarcerated women reentering society. Currently, the group has a contract with Grady Memorial Hospital and Fulton County behavioral health to help 100 women reenter society. This process starts while the women are still incarcerated and consists of trying to secure mental health care, housing, a MARTA bus card, and employment.

Upon release from jail, many people are thrown back into society with no employment or housing and a felony record that can prohibit them from getting either. Sometimes this leads to people being arrested again after engaging in illegal activities for survival.

“You can’t say you want a society where people can thrive and grow, but they can’t get an apartment because of something they did in the ’80s,” campaign and community organizer Dominique Grant told Georgia Voice.

 Often, women the group work with are mentally ill and might face homelessness upon release. This is why reentry services are vital to the safety of formerly incarcerated people, the goal being to create a secure foundation and support system.

Atlanta Community Detention Center

While these direct services provide life-changing assistance to those coming out of prison, the organizing side of the group often works to free people and prevent them from being arrested in the first place. A large area of focus for the group has been the years-long campaign to close the Atlanta Community Detention Center.

Through successful efforts to decriminalize petty crimes like cannabis possession, the population of the center has shrunk over the past decade. By the beginning of 2022, the population was down to around 50 people.

“Inmates currently at the detention center are typically people that are unhoused, kept on charges of public nudity — for things like peeing in public — public intoxication, those types of crimes,” Grant said.

After years of activism, the campaign finally reached a victory point when former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms committed to closing the detention center for good. Excited to create positive change for their community, the group of activists began doing renderings to determine how the space could be used and working with major companies to discuss providing job programs.

These plans were derailed last summer when the new mayor, Andre Dickens, stopped responding to the women after already agreeing to work with the group to close the detention center.

In August, Atlanta City Council approved a plan to let Fulton County use the detention center to house up to 700 of its inmates for the next four years.

Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat said that the space was needed to address overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail, which faced a string of inmate deaths while hundreds of inmates were sleeping in cots on the floor.

In September, the city council approved a plan to convert the bottom two floors of the detention center into a diversion services center modeled after a mental health jail diversion program in Texas.

Mayor Dickens expressly stated that after four years the space will no longer be used to jail anyone.

The agreement also called for a jail population study, which found that over 3,000 people in Fulton County jails were held on charges eligible for prison diversion programs and that several inmates simply couldn’t afford bond. Others hadn’t been indicted yet and more than one third only had misdemeanor charges.

“You have people sleeping on the floors for petty crimes,” Grant said.

Grant said that if nonviolent things like drug use were decriminalized and if people had access to housing, these crimes wouldn’t exist in the first place. She pointed to the study mentioned above, noting that the obvious choice would be to free the thousands of people sitting in jails for poverty and petty crimes and instead invest in mental health care, housing, and drug abuse resources.

Instead, the county and city decided to move the inmates, a process which they have not expedited.

“When I was there in February, they still hadn’t moved them in,” Grant said. “The men are still on the floor.”

Moving forward

Over the next four years, the group will continue bailing people out, keeping track of inmates’ well-being and detention status, and pushing for a record redemption program that clears someone’s record after seven years without charges.

Grant said that people who want to help the unjustly incarcerated get involved by working with abolitionist organizations and like-minded causes, like the movement to stop cop city. She also suggested listening with empathy to the stories of people who have been incarcerated.

Formerly incarcerated Black women interested in joining the organization are encouraged to reach out using the contact information found at womenontherisega.org.

To donate to Women on the Rise or shop their merchandise, visit womenontherisega.org and click “How to Help.”