From Pennsylvania Ave. to Virginia Ave.
(Two Court Cases)
This is the story of two court cases that have captured the American imagination, and of the dangerously misunderstood American institution at the heart of each case: the local jail. Although many Americans do not know this, jail is not the same thing as prison. And the difference between the two institutions is not subtle: it is monumental. Prisons in the United States are the responsibility of state and federal governments, designed around the long-term incarceration of individuals convicted of state and federal felony offenses. Jails, on the other hand, are run by municipal and county governments and primarily hold people in three categories of legal trouble: people awaiting trial who have not been convicted of a crime, people on probation or parole awaiting the adjudication of an alleged violation of the terms of their supervision, and people serving short sentences for minor crimes.
Despite these differences, the two words—jail and prison—are often used interchangeably in talk about crime and punishment. This is no casual slip of the tongue; the confusion of the two terms in everyday conversation points towards a much broader confusion. We cannot understand mass incarceration in America without a clear understanding of what jail, in particular, is for. In the United States, jail serves two primary functions: to disrupt and to dispossess. The story I’m telling here will make these purposes of jail clear through a comparison of its role in the lives of two famous Americans—one black and one white—whose experiences of the institution could not be more different.
It was a traumatic experience and I’m happy to be back and be a part of what I call history.
—Meek Mill, shortly after his release from prison in April 2018
In late January 2007, nineteen-year-old Robert Rihmeek Williams, aka Meek Mill, was leaving a family home in North Philadelphia, a gun in his waistband, when he was surrounded by police officers from a narcotics field unit who claimed to have seen him selling drugs down the street. In Meek’s telling of the incident, the police beat him so badly that he lost consciousness three or four times, pushing him headfirst through a closed door and ripping a row of braids out of his head before arresting him and charging him with nineteen criminal counts, including gun and drug possession. Recalling the traumatic incident to reporters for Dateline NBC over a decade later, Meek mused about his mug shot from that arrest, “You know, no one has ever asked me how did my face get so beaten in like that. It was just like, normal that a black guy had a mug shot like that.”
Meek Mill’s hometown of Philadelphia has long held pride of place as one of the most prominent historically black cities in the United States, boasting a significant black population both in absolute numbers and relative to the total population of the city. Philadelphia has also ranked consistently high for the past several decades on the list of the United States’ most heavily incarcerated cities. Meek was young, black and poor, from a black and poor part of town. And so he spent the time between his brutalizing arrest and the adjudication of his case where those who fit that description usually spend their pretrial period: in Philadelphia’s municipal jail. Meek spent several months locked up before being found guilty at a bench trial—a trial in front of a judge alone, and a much quicker option than a trial by jury. He was sentenced to eleven to 23 months of incarceration to be served in the county jail, plus an additional eight years of probation. Meek was released from jail early, but probation proved to be its own form of captivity: in the years that followed, as his rap career took off, the demands of touring ran up against the strict travel restrictions of probation and resulted in several technical violations. A period of struggle with opioid addiction landed Meek in further trouble with the terms of his probation, and each violation came with consequences, ranging from incarceration to house arrest to mandatory drug testing, a $10,000 etiquette class and years added on to his probation sentence.
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If you like this essay, you might also be interested in other articles from
our “What is prison for?” symposium, such as “Another Justice,” a dialogue between
James Forman, Jr. Mychal Denzel Smith, and “Socializing Punishment” by Benjamin Ewing.
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In many states, contact with the police, regardless of reason or outcome, constitutes a technical violation of probation. In 2017, Meek violated his probation twice: once for getting into a fight in the St. Louis airport, and then again later that year for popping a wheelie on his dirt bike in Manhattan. Despite consensus from the prosecution and defense that Meek should not be incarcerated, the judge in his case sentenced him to two to four years in prison, telling him, “I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court.”
The idea that the rising star would spend years of his life in prison for something so minor as “popping a wheelie” outraged Meek’s growing fan base and his expanding network of influential friends. #FreeMeekMill became a trending hashtag and a movement, voiced both by protesters gathered outside the Philly courthouse and by high-profile supporters like Jay-Z. The co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, billionaire Michael Rubin, became an outspoken advocate for Meek’s legal case. In the long term, Meek’s appeal argues that his original 2007 arrest was based on false charges by an officer with a documented history of brutality and false testimony. In the short term, Meek’s lawyers argued that he should be allowed to go free on bail while his appeals are pending in court.
On April 24, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that Meek Mill be released on bail. Within hours, Meek was in a helicopter on his way to ring the opening bell for the 76ers in the final game of the first round of the NBA championship series. His fans across the country were exuberant. Since his release, Meek has been using his fame and the high profile of his case to shed light on the United States’ system of criminal punishment. He has found an unexpected ally in his home city’s newly elected and reform-oriented district attorney, Larry Krasner. A former defense attorney and civil rights litigator, Krasner made headlines this past year when his memo went public outlining new guidelines aimed at fighting, rather than perpetuating, mass incarceration. The new guidelines instruct prosecutors to decline prosecution for a list of minor crimes and insist on highlighting the cost of incarceration to the taxpayers (estimated at between $40,000 and $60,000 per person per year in Philadelphia). Any time a prosecutor recommends incarceration, Krasner’s new rules require that they also calculate and justify the cost. When asked to comment on Meek Mill’s release from prison, Krasner lauded the decision as a step in the right direction, adding pointedly, “the irony here is that no one lifted up a poor person.”
There’s money, and there’s really big money.
—A friend of Paul Manafort, quoted in the Atlantic, March 2018
In 1980, 31-year-old Paul Manafort opened a political lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. with his partners Roger Stone and Charlie Black. By 1992, the firm had made an unthinkable fortune and was on a short list of organizations known as “The Torturer’s Lobby.” During the Cold War, the United States had begun to spend vast amounts of money to support anti-communist projects across the globe. Manafort’s firm charged extravagantly to provide authoritarian regimes with a public image that appealed to right-wing politicians in the U.S. That public image was then translated into funding and arms deals. Reporting on Manafort’s business highlights in particular the firm’s work to support the dictatorial regimes of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, among others. Manafort’s lobbying firm is credited, notably, with facilitating both the supply of arms and the political climate necessary to sustain a protracted civil war in Angola in the late Eighties; a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of people while making Paul Manafort and the CIA-backed head of the Angolan guerrilla group UNITA, Jonas Savimbi, millions of dollars.
In 2016, Manafort signed on as the campaign manager for Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. As federal investigators and journalists alike began pursuing information about ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian state interference in the U.S. electoral process, Manafort quickly became a key figure in those investigations. In the fall of 2017, a series of indictments against Manafort were filed in multiple federal courts, outlining charges that ranged from money laundering to conspiracy against the United States. Manafort was given the opportunity to voluntarily surrender to federal authorities, which he did. Judging Manafort to be a flight risk due to the nature and severity of his charges, each court opted to place the defendant on house arrest. Manafort owns multiple homes in multiple U.S. states, and was granted the liberty of spending his pretrial period at the home of his choosing, in a gated community in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, far from the jurisdictions overseeing his cases in Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia.
In June of 2018, prosecutors in Manafort’s case requested that the terms of his pretrial release be revoked on the grounds that while on house arrest Manafort had tampered with witnesses in his case. On June 15th, in what she described as an “extraordinarily difficult decision,” the federal judge in Washington, D.C. overseeing his case remanded Manafort to jail. In the order of detention filed in court, she explains that although Manafort does not represent a “typical” threat to the community as would an individual accused of selling drugs or illegally possessing a weapon, his case represents a more abstract threat in the form of “harm to the administration of justice” and “harm to the integrity of the courts.” Manafort was subsequently booked into the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia where he was assigned a “VIP” status classifying him as someone to be kept separate from the jail’s general population. He was, during the writing of this piece, appealing his incarceration from the relative safety of the same single-occupancy jail cell that once held star NFL quarterback Michael Vick.
Do Not Pass Go
Do Not Collect $200
So how might we understand the two very different paths taken to jail by Paul Manafort and Meek Mill, and how are those paths shaped by trauma, by history and by really big money?
Meek Mill was just a nineteen-year-old kid when he was arrested, beaten and criminally charged based solely on the word of a corrupt police officer (currently on the Philadelphia district attorney’s list of police officers who cannot be relied upon to testify truthfully in court). Meek subsequently spent several months in Philadelphia’s municipal jail before being released to the supervision of Philadelphia’s Adult Probation and Parole. He continues to face serious prison time today based on technical violations of that supervision, despite the lack of evidence that he ever committed a crime in the first place.
Paul Manafort, on the other hand, was a full adult when sent to jail as a last resort, facing mounting evidence of serious crimes committed not only prior to indictment but throughout his pretrial period. His judge agonized over the decision. It is telling that upon booking into jail, Manafort was placed in housing designed to protect him from the conditions in general population. These conditions—including crowded cells, isolation, lack of access to clean water and food and regular exposure to physical and sexual violence—are tolerated for the more than 600,000 people locked up in American jails on any given day. And yet they are immediately understood to be unacceptable for Manafort, whose amenities in the jail included a personal bathroom and shower, access to a phone and laptop, regular and sufficient meals and all-day access to a room in which he could meet with his legal team.
As the disparity in treatment experienced by these two men makes visible, the local jail exacerbates the racial and economic disparities of the U.S. prison system. Because jails are primarily places of pretrial detention, the outcome of a criminal case does not determine who spends time in jail. Instead, the experience of jail is determined by one’s race, wealth and social status. At the start of a typical criminal case, a judge can issue three kinds of orders: during the time leading up to the case’s conclusion, the defendant may be released without any conditions attached, incarcerated with no option of release or released with certain conditions. Of these, conditional release is the most common, and the most common condition set is bail. Thus, for the majority of arrestees, bail amounts set by local judges set a cash price on personal freedom. Those who can afford the price go free. Everyone else goes directly to jail.
From the perspective of the court system, jail is often understood as a transitory space: a legal anteroom on the journey towards either freedom or prison. Increasingly, however, the time people spend in jail is anything but temporary. As over-policing of poor black and brown spaces fills overburdened courts with criminal cases, case-processing times across the country have ballooned. In municipalities like Philadelphia, with a significant number of residents living below the poverty line, long case-processing times mean long stays in jail for people unable to afford bail. Larger jail populations mean high expenditures on incarceration for municipalities that can no more afford the cost of incarceration than can their residents afford the cost of freedom.
In part because they are imagined as temporary, jails are much harder places to live than prisons. Prisons are, for example, constitutionally required to have law libraries; jails are not. Prisoners in state or federal prisons can expect to spend some limited time outdoors; prisoners in local jails cannot. Jails are also much more unstable environments than prisons: there is constant turnover as people are booked and released, and jails are disproportionately filled with people actively detoxing from chemical addictions. Because incarceration is both disempowering and degrading, jails and prisons are both spaces in which everyone is more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, whether as victim or aggressor. The instability of jails only heightens this reality. Jails are also places in which people’s mental health tends to rapidly decline. Particularly for those already struggling to maintain composure, the longer one spends in jail the harder it is to stay sane: thus, jails are both the primary providers of mental-health care in most municipalities and the primary trigger of the very psychological symptoms they aim to manage.
Every day a person spends in jail is a day they risk losing their job, their housing and custody of their children. Every day is a day they are likely to either be harmed or bear witness to harm. They may be abruptly denied—or forced to accept—medical care that is often both inadequate and inhumane. They will certainly feel lonely, hungry and have trouble sleeping. Though the Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, it does not specify an exact speed: for many individuals held captive in local jails, the pace of the trial is greatly outstripped by the pace of their own declining life chances. The possibility of a path out of jail is a serious temptation for many, even and often when that path leads towards a different form of captivity. Remember, for example, that Meek Mill chose a bench trial—a relatively speedy court process that limited his stay in jail to a few months—and paid for the quick resolution of his case with a lengthy probationary period that ultimately landed him in state prison. And in a very real way, this was a wise choice. Readers may remember the story of Kalief Browder, who was fiercely committed to receiving a fair trial for a minor charge, and who paid for that commitment with three years in New York City’s municipal jail, and, ultimately, his life.
Jail is thus, crucially, a weapon in the hands of law enforcement. Individuals held captive pretrial have an incentive bordering on desperation to end their court case quickly, giving prosecutors incredible leverage in court. Across the United States, experts report that somewhere around 94 percent of state felony cases and 97 percent of federal cases do not end in a trial by a jury of one’s peers, but in a plea deal—essentially a guilty plea negotiated between lawyers for the defense and prosecution, the terms of which are affected not only by the evidence in the case but also by the amount of pressure on the defendant. An individual permitted to spend his time pretrial in the safety and comfort of his own home with access to quality medical care is much harder to pressure into a plea deal than someone incarcerated in a local jail. This begins to explain a recent headline by Vice News, in the wake of Paul Manafort’s jailing: “Prison is going to make Paul Manafort much easier to flip, prosecutors say. ‘If convicted, he will die in jail.’”
Though accurate in its intended meaning, the headline is wildly inaccurate in fact. It would be accurate if it read, “Jail is going to make Paul Manafort much easier to flip … if convicted he will die in prison.” The ease with which a major media organization might misunderstand the institutions at stake twice in one headline is symptomatic of a broader refusal to care for the difference between jail and prison. And, tellingly, the argument itself—that jail tips the scales for the prosecution—is true for every person currently incarcerated in an American jail. But it only became newsworthy when applied to Paul Manafort.
This particular disparity is deeply racial. Recall that Meek Mill was beaten and sent directly to jail for the type of gun-and-drug case described by Paul Manafort’s Washington, D.C. judge as a “typical” threat to public safety; while Manafort, responsible through his war profiteering for hundreds of thousands of deaths, was jailed only as an extreme and extraordinary last resort. Following his arrest and incarceration, Meek Mill was subject to a series of punishments, many of which seem more concerned with reminding him of his social standing as a black man raised poor than responding to any crime: mandatory (and expensive) etiquette classes for his manner of speaking in court and, ultimately, prison time for perceived disrespect. Sanction for something so subjective as “disrespect” is unimaginable, however, for Manafort, who is often described as someone who “thinks the rules don’t apply to him,” but whose whiteness and wealth guarantee him all the constitutional rights denied Meek Mill. When Meek Mill finally did regain his freedom, it was at a price that required billionaire friends to afford: in public statements following his release, Meek emphasized the great responsibility he feels to all the people he left behind who look just like him and who lack the monumental resources needed to get free.
The high cost of freedom is a profiteering game as deep and deadly as Manafort’s war profiteering abroad; and as reliant, too, on black death and dispossession. Take the commercial bail industry, for example. Journalist Shane Bauer, reporting for Mother Jones, found that in 2012 the 32 national surety companies that insure local bail bondsmen collectively underwrote over $13.5 billion in bail bonds. These companies extract the bulk of their wealth from poor families with a loved one in jail. They lobby heavily in state and federal legislatures to promote laws that support the structure of commercial bail and drive up the industry’s profits. Since the Nineties, the American Bail Coalition has worked closely with the infamous American Legislative Exchange Council to aggressively promote pro-bail legislation. And, over those decades, the use of commercial bail nationwide has more than doubled—so has the average cost of pretrial freedom, and the number of people incarcerated in the United States awaiting trial.
And national surety companies are not the only industries to profit heavily from jail. Although jails, unlike prisons, are not typically run by private corporations, they are built by private contractors and often contract with private corporations for many necessary services. The website of Correct Care Solutions, for example, boasts of servicing 333 jails; the company is currently facing close to 150 lawsuits over negligent health care. The $9 billion food-services corporation Aramark, which until recently received approximately $14 million a year from Philadelphia’s municipal budget, claims to serve 380 million meals each year to the incarcerated; Aramark has been plagued with accusations of rotten and maggot-filled food. Securus Technologies, which charges its captive market exorbitantly for phone calls to loved ones, currently pulls in close to half a billion dollars yearly in revenue. And the list could go on.
What is critical to understand here is that these corporations are not run by some abstract machine: they are run by wealthy men who, like Manafort, think the rules don’t apply to them. And they do not produce this profit out of nowhere. They violently extract and extort it from particular municipal spaces and from the people trying to make a life within those spaces. And they do so using the criminal court system as a weapon: it does not matter if you have committed a crime; if you are poor and black, an arrest will send you directly to jail and survival in jail will cost you and your loved ones dearly.
Consider the game of Monopoly as the cautionary tale it was originally intended to be. Designed in 1903 to educate the public about the dangers of concentrated wealth, game play progresses along capitalist logics of wealth extraction and concentration that encourage such heartless behavior that the game was banned in my home as a child. Jail plays a key role. It is a means of interrupting movement around the board and it is a tool of wealth extraction. In Monopoly, when you go to jail you go directly to jail. You do not pass “Go.” You do not collect the $200 that serves as the only source of income for players who do not own property. A player can get out of jail with a lucky roll of the dice (this is what distinguishes the game from the real world), use or purchase a “Get Out of Jail Free” card or pay cash. Those with property and access to Get Out of Jail Free cards needn’t worry about the effects of jail. For everyone else, jail makes it impossible to accumulate wealth while simultaneously siphoning off what little resources one has, preventing movement around the board and ensuring the concentration of wealth for the winning player.
Meek Mill, famous for the art he creates, was able to translate his fame into a Get Out of Jail Free card after twelve years trying. Paul Manafort, famous for the crimes he committed, has played many of the cards he was born with and was ultimately sent to jail. His trial began just a month and a half after the date of his jailing. When his trials conclude, he will leave behind in that local Virginia jail many hundreds of people accused of much less who have been incarcerated much longer, still awaiting their day in court.