Race, Social Justice

Elisabeth Epps’ jail time shows just how broken the justice system is

Elisabeth Epps fights for people targeted by the criminal justice system, was her sentencing revenge?

Criminal justice reform advocate and Colorado-based prison abolitionist Elisabeth Epps will be released from jail after serving 16 days of her controversial 27-day sentence.

The activist’s sentencing took place on January 23. Her crime? Allegedly obstructing a peace officer almost four years ago.

Epps runs the organization Colorado Freedom Fund, which posts bonds for people unable to afford bail. The non-profit organizes to bail-out people who risk spending months in the criminal justice system because they cannot afford to pay $10 or $25. In 2018 they ran a successful and heavily-publicized bail-out drive for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Epps is a well-known and well-respected activist whose work is vital to the community. She is also outspoken about how the U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately punishes poor people and minorities.

The event that led to her arrest occurred in Aurora, Colorado, in 2015. It began at a pool party Epps attended where she noticed a young man outside the complex who seemed to be in crisis. The man was hitting a tree and his hands were bleeding. Concerned for his mental health, Epps said she approached the man because he seemed scared and non-violent. She was able to help him contact his step-mother who promised to pick him up in her car.

It was at this point that police arrived on the scene. Seeing that he became agitated when they began asking him questions, Epps informed the man that he did not have to speak to them if he did not feel comfortable. She informed the police that she knew the man and had contacted a member of the family, and they began to walk around the block to see if his step-mother had arrived.

The police continued to follow them and ask them questions. The man became distressed and tried to climb a fence. Epps put herself between the man and the police as they attempted to subdue him. The man’s girlfriend then arrived and escorted him to the parking lot, where his step-mother was waiting.

The police asked Epps to leave the building but gave her permission to collect her belongings. They continued to follow her, and Epps again stated that she did not have to answer any of their questions.

The officer then grabbed Epps and slammed her against a fence. Epps claims the police did not inform her of her arrest until after she was handcuffed in the car. The police claim that she swung her arms and went limp as they placed her in a “control hold.” They then charged her with trespassing, resisting arrest, and obstructing a peace officer.

During her first sentencing, the court dropped the charges of trespassing and resisting arrest, but the judge would charge Epps with obstructing a peace officer. The ruling meant 90 days in jail with a possible reduction to 60 days on good behavior. Epps appealed the conviction.

The charge of obstructing a peace officer is rarely used in the criminal justice system today. The pursuit of this questionable and minor conviction shows how desperate the justice system is to get rid of activists like Epps, despite their contributions to society.

Epps’ activism is so valued that locals wrote hundreds of letters asking for her sentence to be reduced on the basis that her loss would have a negative impact on the community. The judge who oversaw the hearing claimed that this was an attempt to use “social pressure” to influence him and invoked the words of the slave owner, George Washington, to reprimand those involved in the campaign, saying ““A fundamental concept of our country,” is the “ability of courts and judges to perform their duties free of influence.”

The judge who oversaw the hearing claimed that this was an attempt to use “social pressure” to influence him and invoked the words of the slave owner, George Washington, to reprimand those involved in the campaign, saying ““A fundamental concept of our country,” is the “ability of courts and judges to perform their duties free of influence.”

He has since faced criticism for these insensitive remarks.

On the day of the hearing, Epps’ supporters packed the courtroom, even sitting on windowsills and knees to find space. Epps then began her appeal by asking for a moment of solidarity for other black women who have faced similar situations.

After her sentencing was complete, Epps was immediately remanded into custody. Her supporters gathered outside the courthouse and chanted Assata Shakur’s famous words. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Today, Epps now plans to raise enough money to free 27 women, one for each day of her sentence.

Women in prisons face many issues such as the unaffordability of menstrual products and a lack of access to education and information. In fact, Epps has talked about developing post-traumatic stress disorder after an event with the police that occurred when she was 14. She states that she has not been discouraged by this newest incident. Rather, she is even more inspired to fight for change.

Rebekah Henderson, a close friend and host of the Off Color podcast said “what is she going to jail for? It just feels punitive. I think the only people who should be in jail are people who offer a clear and present danger. She’s not a danger. The only danger she is is that she is a social justice freedom fighter, and that is the thing that scares people like Judge Day.”

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