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Scott sisters’ suffering: a sign of criminal justice failures

“After we are pardoned we want to go out across the country and speak out about abuse of blacks in prison,” Jamie Scott, 38, told a gathering of supporters. by Saeed Shabazz
NNPA News Service

NEW YORK – “After we are pardoned we want to go out across the country and speak out about abuse of blacks in prison,” Jamie Scott, 38, told a gathering of supporters who braved strong winds and a constant downpour to hear from her and her sister.

Jamie Scott

Gladys Scott

In January, the Scott sisters from Mississippi were granted “indefinite suspension” of 1993 life sentences for an alleged $11 robbery. The women served 16 years before a strong grassroots effort won attention of mainstream groups and their freedom.

“We are grateful for all of the letters that were sent in our behalf, and all of the support,” said Gladys Scott, 36, adding, “I can say we are grateful to black folks.”

A diverse crowd gathered in a basement conference room in Restoration Plaza in Brooklyn to talk to and listen to the sisters via Skype.

“Free the Land!” shouted Jamie Scott. “We dedicate our lives to all prisoners – we are their voice.”

The event was sponsored by the National Conference of Black Lawyers and the Malcolm X Grassroots Coalition, and moderated by April R. Silver, founder and president of Akila Worksongs, Inc., a Brooklyn-based public relations firm.

A panel discussed the sisters’ case and how it was connected to other issues. The group included Rukia Lumumba of the Center for Community Alternatives for Women, who also specializes in helping Black women with reentry issues; Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Columbia University professor and author; activist attorney Michael Tarif Warren; and attorney Chokwe Lumumba, the lawyer for the Scott Sisters.

Lumumba brought gasps of horror from the gathering when she noted there are 200,000 black women in prisons or jails – an 800 percent spike during the past three decades. Two-thirds of the women were incarcerated for non-violent offenses, she added.

“A 2005 study stated that 28 percent of the women were jailed for drug offenses,” Lumumba said.

Another telling statistic, according to Lumumba, came from a 2008 study that showed 45 percent of women in prison were white, 32.6 percent were black, and 16 percent were Latino.

Many women fit the same description of the Scott Sisters as “community prisoners” who “for the rest of their lives they will have to call a parole officer,” she said.

Analysts complained that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision to grant the Scott Sisters indefinite suspension, rather than grant a pardon or commutation of the sentence, has placed extra hardship on the women. They are required to undergo constant supervision, steer clear of any associates with criminal records, pay $52 a month to the state of Mississippi for upkeep and cannot travel without court permission.

Dr. Hill talked about the media’s role in criminalizing black women.

“The media insists on using certain behaviors to criminalize black women across the board,” he said. “There is a dominant message to the middle class in America that constructs an image that the reality for black women is that they deserve to be caged in prisons.”

The Scott Sisters told the audience two white sisters would not have been sentenced to life for a simple robbery.

“Black people don’t have a chance in the state of Mississippi, we are going to all have to be willing to fight the injustice,” said Jamie Scott.

Attorney Warren has been fighting for justice for the young black men in New York known as the Central Park 5. The teens were convicted of the rape of a young white woman in 1990, but the work of attorneys and black activists, led to their exoneration in 2002. A sex offender stepped forward saying he committed the rape alone.

Warren pointed to similarities in the Scott sisters’ case, such as a prosecutor who was willing to believe statements from the three Mississippi teens who actually committed the $11 robbery at gunpoint. The prosecutor believed the story, though one teen said the sisters had no hand in the crime, said Warren.

There are also questions about the trial judge, he said.

“The Central Park 5, just like the Scott sisters, are victims of conspiratorial behavior throughout the criminal justice system,” Warren said.

The Scott Sisters ordeal is a tragedy that happens daily in America, said Lumumba. “We have to use the power of the people to stop the destabilizing of our community,” he said.

As tragic as the Scott Sisters’ case may be, there are hundreds just like it throughout the South, Lumumba observed.

Jamie Scott told stories about daily oppression and racism the sisters witnessed while incarcerated.

“If a black woman slapped another black woman, the prison guards would say, go sit down. You slap a white woman you are going to the hole,” she said.

Suzanne Ross, co-chairwoman of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition-NYC, told The Final Call the forum made sense.

“I found it very moving seeing them, and hearing from them. We must support these two sisters; and we must smash the prison/industrial complex,” said Ross.

Lumumba stressed that activists are still working to see the Scott sisters pardoned. A rally for justice is planned for Sept. 30 in Jackson, Miss., and a two-day conference is scheduled for Sept. 14-15, he said.

(Special to the NNPA from the Final Call)

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