Whitney Gipson was one of three women bailed out of jail before Mother’s Day thanks to the efforts of St. Louis activists. Expect Us raised nearly $3,000 through an online fundraiser.
Members of Expect Us met with other advocates at the St. Louis Justice Center on Saturday. The event included food, children’s activities and short speeches by local demonstrators and leaders, including Democratic Missouri Rep. Bruce Franks.
Gipson, 26, told a small crowd about her experiences while staying at the city’s two jails.
“All I can say is, they really treat us like we trash in there,” she said.
She said she was accused of property damage and assault after women started an altercation in a sandwich shop. Gipson said she was in jail for 10 days on a $1,000 cash bond, but couldn’t afford to pay. It was her first time in jail. First, she was at the Justice Center.
“We were sleeping on the floors. We were sleeping on top of each other,” Gipson told the group of a few dozen. “There were probably about 12 girls.”
She said the women were brought to the Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse, because of overcrowding. There, she said conditions were worse.
“It just stank so bad,” she said. “I didn’t have a bed. I didn't have a mat. I was sleeping on a bed pan for like six days before a trainee woke me up outta my sleep and told me, ‘Oh, you need a mat.’”
She said “mildewed” water and roaches in the living quarters were other things she experienced. A lawsuit was brought against the Workhouse last year for inhumane conditions.
Gipson said she was thankful for the financial help to be released from jail and to be with her child.
“I feel like I got a friend. I feel like somebody really care,” she said. “I was telling the girls in jail,.I can’t afford to get out. I mean a $1,000 we all talk about having money, but I don’t have $1,000 cash at all. I don’t have no savings.”
Gipson’s experience is one that resonated with many other black mothers who were in the crowd on Saturday. Before Gipson arrived, event organizers asked women to form a row in front of the jail.
Leaders asked participants to step forward each time they could answer yes to a question about incarceration, including had they or a loved one been in jail. At the end of the exercise the handful of women standing at the front were black.
St. Louisan Sharon Adkins was one of the women who stepped forward. She said incarceration takes a toll on the whole family.
“It’s a learning experience,” Adkins said, “But you don’t want to see your loved ones in that predicament so that it has to teach the rest of them.”
She said she wanted to support the Mother’s Day cause to stand with others in the community.
Kirkwood resident Rachel Leonard brought her two sons with her to the event.
“We’re talking a lot about social justice in our household and trying to teach them that criminalizing poverty is not acceptable in our community,” she said.
Organizer Ebony Williams said she agrees that women should not remain in jail because they can’t pay cash bonds, especially for minor offenses such as traffic tickets.
Williams said the women they selected had been in the Workhouse for around two weeks or more. She said the group received a list of those women, interviewed them and helped the ones they could.
“We have to start supporting each other,” Williams said. “We know that the Justice Center is not working for us, so to have somebody step up and say, ‘Hey, I know you can’t pay that. I’ll do it for you,’ that’s a blessing for them.”
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.