It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Editor's note: "Bound by Statute" was a story originally produced by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and co-published by Scalawag in November 2019. Reporter Ko Bragg investigated why a 13-year-old Black child in rural Mississippi spent a total of nine months in and out of solitary confinement at an adult jail, plus almost another year in a youth prison, all for stealing an iPhone with a BB gun. Ultimately, she uncovered a glaring racial disparity within the state's treatment of kids who are accused of crimes—an injustice enabled by laws created during Jim Crow specifically to oppress Black youth. In this essay, originally published in our final print issue in 2020, Bragg peels back the layers of the reporting process, showing the lengths it takes to get to the truth.
See also: Bound by Statute—In Mississippi, Jim Crow era laws result in a high rate of Black kids charged as adults
You can learn a lot from a local paper in a small town: How to make all sorts of cream cheese casseroles from any given "Chef of the Week;" The results of well-attended football games carried out ceremoniously under blinding Friday night lights; Where to pay cash for newly weaned pitbull puppies.
Town gossips in and around Philadelphia, Mississippi, can flip right to the middle of The Neshoba Democrat to peruse and judge the people who appear on the county jail docket, a list including the name, age, address, and charges of anyone booked into the jail since the paper hit the stands the previous Wednesday. Blurbs about the most sensational cases listed in that jail docket would sometimes make the front page—even if the defendants were still presumably innocent.
In September 2017, I picked up the latest copy of The Neshoba Democrat to see that the managing editor of the paper ran a front-page story about a 13-year-old boy named Isaiah who was booked into the county jail for felony armed robbery. He was the youngest a kid can be in Mississippi's adult system. The crime? Using a BB gun to rob a classmate of a cell phone in the parking lot of the bowling alley in the center of town. The article was only a few sentences, the last of which included a kicker from then police chief Grant Myers, who is also the son of the now-retired editor.
"We didn't recover the gun," Myers said. "Even if it was a fake gun or a BB gun, you can still be charged with armed robbery if you present it as a real firearm."
After reading the article about Isaiah a dozen or so times to make sure I wasn't fabricating the details, I picked up the phone and called the jail.
"Ma'am, are you holding a 13-year-old in the jail?" I asked
"He still here," a jailer on the other end of the line responded.
The newspaper led me to Isaiah's doorstep quite literally. The next morning when it got to a decent hour to doorknock, I put the address that accompanied Isaiah's front-page article into my GPS, and hopped in the car before I talked myself out of it. To calm my nerves, I gripped the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white, and a few miles later pulled into his driveway.
Standing on the porch step, I heard a television blaring, but no one came to greet me. Growing up with Black folks who peered through the blinds inconspicuously, and rarely unlatched the door for an unfamiliar face, I knew to bring my notebook to leave my contact information. I scribbled a plea for anyone who picked up the note I pushed through a hole in the screen door to please call me about Isaiah anytime day or night.
That afternoon, I heard from Felicia Hickmon, Isaiah's mother. She was training for a new job after recently moving her family to Philadelphia, Mississippi, from a town about 30 miles away in a neighboring county. She was utterly confused as to what was happening to her son, who had been in solitary at the adult county jail for days. Her son had been taken, and her folks weren't in this new place, making Felicia feel exponentially more isolated—at least in her hometown she would've known the folks she was dealing with, and they would've known her and maybe that would've been enough to keep Isaiah out jail.
But she was in Neshoba County now, infamous for its bloody civil rights history, laid plain with the Mississippi Burning murders of Freedom Summer, 1964. It's still a place where white officers can arrest a scrawny Black middle schooler after fourth period and interrogate him for hours without a parent or lawyer present, then throw him into an adult county jail because the law says so. In so many ways, this place was still that place where white folks had gotten drunk with pleasure calling grown men boys while working boys like men.
While Felicia figured out bond, I got busy looking for documents. I had been out of grad school less than a couple of months. I had no idea that there would be no official court files until Isaiah was indicted, so once the circuit clerk with a bless-your-heart attitude shooed me away, I walked across the street to the police station to get a copy of the incident report. Seeing a familiar face at the counter, I thought it'd be easy. But once I explained what I'd come for, things got cold.
"Well, can't you just read what's been written in the paper?" the woman at the front desk asked me.
"Well, no, ma'am," I responded. "I need to see official documents."
She sent me to the city clerk next door who asked who I was kin to and asked for press credentials before sending me back to the police department. On that sweltering day, those clerks batted me back and forth between overly air conditioned offices like a badminton birdie until my acquaintance at the police department's front desk got off the phone with the police chief and handed over a totally unredacted incident report on yellow paper. The irony.
Isaiah would spend eight days in the detox cell at the front of the county jail, where adults usually sweat out methamphetamines and too many beers before Felicia could get him out with a property bond. The relief she felt in bringing her son home quickly faded as she realized how people and supposedly supportive systems fall away like a line of dominos the moment the criminal justice system claims you.
Isaiah got kicked out of school because of the altercation with his classmate. And so he sat at home, or spent way too much time out with friends, until he got indicted and briefly rebooked into the jail a few months later in January 2018. A jury of his elders had concluded there was enough evidence to send his case to trial.
Things only further complicated when Isaiah, like so many children thrown into the adult system, got re-arrested—this time for theft charges that normally would've been handled in youth court. But Mississippi had marked that lanky boy a man in the eyes of the law, and sent him to spend his fourteenth birthday in adult county jail.
Isaiah's court-appointed lawyer wanted to get him out of the adult system, and out of that adult jail, so he filed what's called a transfer motion to petition the judge to send the case down to youth court. The first failed. But everything was different by the time a second court date was set for another transfer motion in November 2018: Isaiah was invited to his own court date this time, and Felicia came to take the stand, facing her shackled son. I sat in the front of the courtroom with my radio equipment, the only reporter in the building, and watched as Felicia pleaded for Judge Mark Duncanto let her son to come home. She said he had been off his ADHD medication at the time of both incidents that led to his arrest, and still went unmedicated in jail. Felicia promised everything would be better and her son would get the prescriptions he needs if he could just come home.
"I appreciate his young age, but I also appreciate the crime he's charged with," Duncan said in his ruling. "I appreciate the Legislature in its wisdom making [this crime]] a felony for people that are 13 or 14 years old, whether you agree with it or not."
He continued for seven minutes.
"I'm going to take a chance on you and grant the motion," Duncan said. "But I want you to understand this: I took a chance on you one time, and I got burned. If I get burned again, it will be the last time I take a chance on you." It was the first time anyone had spoken to Isaiah during a hearing.
Felicia left as soon as the hearing was over. I ran down the narrow steps at the courthouse to try and find her. We stood face to face for the first time. She was taller than I had anticipated—making it immediately clear where Isaiah gets it from. I got her new number that day and she went back to work. I went to the jail to sit and wait for Isaiah to be released. Almost two hours passed. And then two nights did before anyone bothered to finalize the paperwork to free him.
Out in the November cold, I got to hear Isaiah's voice for the first time.
"How was it in there?" I asked.
"It was aiight," Isaiah mumbled.
"I could work with it," Isaiah said.
Standing outside of the jail, Felicia said that after waiting those nine months, the length of a full-term pregnancy, Isaiah's release felt just like having another child again.
I sat with Felicia at their new house a couple weeks later, after Thanksgiving. She was worried and without answers. As is my usual parting question, I asked her if she had anything to ask me, any curiosity at all about what I was working on. She looked around and said no at first, and then she landed on something that would widen the scope of my reporting.
"Is the first time a kid as been charged as an adult here?"
"No, no," I said, before launching into a muddied explanation about this database I had been constructing out of 15 years of those jail dockets published in The Neshoba Democrat. But why wasn't there a straightforward number about this crisis? Why hadn't anybody at least counted? I promised Felicia that I would answer her.
That answer took almost a year to finally tease out with the help and resources of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Along with my co-reporter, the data genius Melissa Lewis, we went through 25 years of court data provided by the State of Mississippi and read through thousands of pages in dusty, fragile books at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to get not only the first count of kids charged as adults in Mississippi since 1994, but how we ended up with these laws in the first place.
Here's a summary of what we found:
- This reporting focuses on a set of laws Mississippians call "original jurisdiction," which automatically allows kids charged with certain crimes to be put into the adult system. Twenty-six states have laws like this, often referred to as "statutory exclusion."
- In the 1940s, Mississippi lawmakers set the minimum age to be charged as an adult at 13 and created a kids' prison unit called a training school at Oakley State Farm, specifically for "delinquent Negroes." It's still open and now called the Oakley Youth Development Center.
- Training schools were first created in 1916 by Governor Theodore Bilbo, a known Klansman.
- Between 1877-1950 white Mississippians committed the most known lynchings of any state: 654, including children, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
- Through a manually constructed database using jail docket reports posted in The Neshoba Democrat dating back to 2005, we found 7 dozen children who'd been booked into the Neshoba County Jail. Cross referencing that list with records at the Neshoba County Courthouse, we found that Isaiah was the only one transferred from adult court to youth court.
- At least 5,000 children have been charged as adults in Mississippi over the last five years—75 percent were Black like Isaiah, even though Black and white kids match up nearly one to one, according to Mississippi census data.
- Black children also serve significantly longer sentences than white children in the adult system, our analysis found. Cases involving breaking and entering, car theft, and grand larceny—all considered property crimes—result in five-year sentences across the board. But white kids are only serving a year for these crimes, while Black kids serve two on average.
- Even when given longer sentences, white kids get out sooner. For example, for crimes involving weapons and explosives, white kids were sentenced to eight years on average, while Black kids got five years. However, white kids ended up serving 366 days of those sentences on average. Black kids, meanwhile, served three years.
- White kids are also over twice as likely to get a plea bargain known as a "non-adjudication of guilt." That's when a judge, acting on a prosecutor's recommendation, will withhold ruling on a guilty plea if the child completes "a program of good behavior."
As we researched and talked to experts, Isaiah sat in prison. That successful transfer down to youth court didn't mean freedom. In January 2019, The youth court judge sentenced him to spend up to a year at Oakley Youth Development Center, where he spent yet another birthday behind bars.
One thing Isaiah's case shows is that, in the South, history is very much alive. To that end, it was very important in telling Isaiah's story to also tell the story of how a kid his age would've been treated from chattel slavery to the era of convict leasing to the post-Reconstruction lynching era to our modern day prisons that were established to legally continue the legacy of the aforementioned sytems. It's important that storytellers put it plainly: A 13-year-old was thrown into an adult county jail, detained there without a conviction for nine months only to spend almost another year of his life in a kids prison because we still operate systems that stem from and continue slavery. So what does that say about us?
By the time Isaiah was a newly minted teenager in an adult jail, so many systems—so many adults—had failed him. The school officials who allowed him to be arrested during the school day, the police officers who interrogated him without an advocate in the room, the person who took his mugshot and released it to the local news, The Neshoba Democrat, the jailers who escorted him into the detox cell over and over again and slammed the door behind the boy each time, the court-appointed lawyer who Felicia said she could never reach, the district attorney who claimed he was stunned by the racial bias we found in sentencing patterns in his district, the ruling circuit court judge who upheld the "wisdom" of Mississippi's (white) legislature, the youth court judge who didn't honor any of the time Isaiah served in county jail. The list is enormous.
What's more is that Felicia carries the guilt that none of the adults in power bear, the ones who feel they were just doing their job, following the law. That Isaiah's mom felt the least powerful in a situation involving her own flesh and blood is the painful legacy of family separation that has always underscored African-American life.
Felicia never read any of the articles about Isaiah's arrests or watched any of the evening news stories that flashed his mugshot. So many so-called reporters feed stories like this. They get the mugshot from the police department, use officers' account of what happened, scare the public into locking their doors at dusk, rinse, and repeat without blinking, even if the person arrested is a child. It's propaganda that reads like civic obituaries, a term inspired by what Paloma Wu, senior attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, calls civic death.
"This is who people say deserves essentially civic death," she said of Isaiah in an interview. "Because when you're 13 and you have a felony, you're not going to college, you're not getting a job, you're not getting housing. Your life is pretty much over in the civic sphere. So what do we say about ourselves and our communities when we let kids essentially been thrown away in this way?"
See also: Wake County promised to reconsider cops in schools. When they didn't, students took to the streets.
This is how "crime reporting" goes in the small town my family has called home for nearly a decade—and so it goes in many other places all across the South. Reporters are not stenographers, and this type of coverage has to change if we want other aspects of our justice system revolutionized as well.
While working on this story, I taught at a kids unit in an adult prison, a post the Mississippi Department of Corrections has since removed me from. However, I stay in touch with most of my scholars. I'm a firm believer in the philosophy that Brian Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative frequently talks about: The power of proximity. So much is wrong with our justice system because we "other" people, and there are significant portions of the population that never have to rub up against its realities.
These writing samples come from children serving time in Mississippi prisons on adult charges.
"We need to find ways to get closer to the people who live on the margins of society, to find ways to get closer to the poor, the neglected and the excluded, the disfavored. It's necessary that we see the anguish," he said when he was awarded the 2018 ABA Medal. "It was my proximity to the condemned that radicalized my view of the law. I got close to condemned people, talking about what it's like to struggle for justice."
This goes for reporters too. What gets lost when we only tell the State's side of the story is the truth. Isaiah is the perfect example of that. Without sitting down with him, I never would have known that he immediately panicked after he pulled the BB gun on his classmate, or that he didn't shower the entire first week he spent in solitary, or that he constantly worried that his family missed him, or that he got stressed that his mom didn't know that he was doing alright, considering the circumstances. We would have lost out on so much of his humanity—like the fact that he wanted nothing more than to buy his mother a house once he finished school and became a rapper with a barbershop on the side.
But I also wouldn't have known how mismanaged the carceral system is on every level. Federal law says that children held in adult facilities have to be separated by sight and sound from anyone over the age of 18 so I assumed Isaiah had been in solitary confinement every minute he spent in the Neshoba County Jail. Instead, he told us about a 19-year-old also named Isaiah with whom he shared a cell. He learned the sign language others in the jail used to communicate between cells. He also learned how to ink tattoos on himself using materials he could get his hands on: baby oil, a piece of cardboard, vaseline, shampoo and a needle.
Let those whose lives are shaped by the systems we interrogate be the experts, including children.
I learned the most powerful lesson of my two years of reporting when Melissa and I brought the data findings back to Felicia. The day after we conducted a three-hour interview with District Attorney Steven Kilgore, we showed Felicia that our analysis uncovered thousands of youth charged as adults, but very few 13-year-olds.
"So I feel like, well, why did he have to go through it?" Felicia asked. "What was so bad about him that he had to go through it?
Just a few weeks later, Felicia came up with her own findings. She had gotten a call that Isaiah was getting out early from the kids prison. In her mind, the accountability interview with the district attorney and the early release are inextricably connected.
"I believe they said, with these fools checking into this, trying to see why did they lock him up, you know, and him being at that age, it was a threat," she told me on our car ride to pick up Isaiah. "Y'all might find out something that they've done wrong, what's really going on. You might better let him on out. That's what I think did it. That's what I think happened."
The last interview I did for this story was the most important. I sat on an ottoman across from Isaiah while he slumped on a couch in his living room one overcast day in September 2019. After about two hours of questions and him intermittently scrolling on a cell phone, I pulled out the yellow folder where I had tucked away the police report and the 2017 print article about Isaiah's arrest. I asked Isaiah to read the article aloud and tell me what he thought of it.
He was frustrated that the article's framing made it seem like he committed the robbery for the cell phone itself. He shook his head and described the inner workings of seventh-grade social dynamics.
"Ain't no more of these?" Isaiah asked while holding that yellowing copy of The Neshoba Democrat.
"I mean, do you want to keep that?" I asked. "You can keep that. I've held onto it. Don't lose it, now."
Isaiah kept scanning over the article.
"Like, then they left a lot of stuff out…" Isaiah began. "This ain't me. This is one mistake. This was just one dumb thing I did. This ain't really me. To let them know that, I'm just going to have to show them. They gonna hear about me one day."