By Venetia Busby
Large blue and gray tents housing tubs of clothes, underwear, snacks, water, Gatorade, masks, gloves, medical supplies and hand sanitizer, sit outside of the Mecklenburg County Detention Center. Every day, dozens of volunteers wait for the magistrate’s office doors to open across the street.
The moment someone walks out of the double doors, volunteers turn their heads and shout, “Did you just get out of jail?” Loud clapping and shouts of excitement quickly fill the area as volunteers greet the recently released inmates with essential supplies and support.
Steam from hot food, provided by community chefs and bakers from Feed The Movement CLT, fills the area as people line up to nourish their bodies. Smiling and laughing volunteers circle around the tent playing games, passing out supplies and offering support.
Charlotte Uprising, an activist group that formed after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in 2016, formed Jail Support, the supply hub and resource center that sits in front of the Mecklenburg County Detention Center.
Jail Support helps transition people from jail to life in society.
“We created Jail Support because there was a need in the community to support people who were released from jail,” Charlotte Uprising organizer Ash Williams said. “There are volunteers who greet and assist people who are released with a ride home, temporary housing, cash and anything that they need.”
Jail Support started as a care center hub for protesters during the George Floyd protests in Charlotte. Protesters could stop by anytime for first aid care, snacks, water, rides home and emotional support. Jail Support is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because the arrested protesters can be released from jail at any given time. Jail Support volunteers cheer on the recently released protesters and make sure they are taken care of upon release.
Additionally, Jail Support runs a hotline that protesters can call if they are arrested, and a bail fund to help them be released from jail.
Since its beginning, Jail Support has evolved in many ways and now serves more than just protesters. It provides services to the disabled, the homeless, inmates in jail, recently released prisoners, and anyone that walks up to ask for help.
Jail Support is fully funded and supported by the community, with no grants or donations from government entities. It receives all of its supplies and funding through crowdsourcing donations. It also hosts various supply drops throughout Charlotte, where people can donate supplies.
Beyond the prison gates
Another goal of the Jail Support community is to defund and eventually eradicate the police system.
“The direct response for the police locking people up and throwing them in cages is Jail Support,” volunteer Ke-TayJah Morris said. “Jail Support could not exist without jails. The only way we’re ever going to stop providing these services is when the prison system is abolished. Until then, our people need us.”
As police officers walk by the tents, volunteers scream the Migos song “F*ck 12” at the top of their lungs to express their disdain and distrust with police. Sometimes, the radical words of N.W.A’s “F— Tha Police” blare through the loudspeakers as volunteers sing along.
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden has adamantly worked toward the removal of Jail Support’s tents and services. On June 18, McFadden gave the Jail Support crew four hours of notice to remove its tents and relocate by 2 p.m.
The volunteers refused to leave and held a sit-in instead. They posted on social media sites and asked for as many bodies as possible to come to the Jail Support site.
Hundreds of people gathered to protest the removal of Jail Support. Squad cars and paddy wagons multiplied, filling every space on the one-lane street. At around 2 p.m., it seemed like the entire Sheriff’s department was at Jail Support – there were about two officers for every protester.
Then, blue and red lights flashed and a loudspeaker turned on.
“We have requested for you all to move,” a police officer said. “We are giving you all a few minutes to disperse before we take action.”
The words echoed for minutes.
Still, the protesters remained, prepared for whatever came next.
“Our work is essential, just like you think yours is,” Charlotte Uprising leader Glo Merriweather said. “You requested us to move and we denied your request.”
Immediately, the officers swarmed in like a pack of wolves. Armed with zip ties and handcuffs, they circled around the protesters.
In the blink of an eye, the officers started grabbing protesters, pinned them to the ground and arrested them.
That day, 43 protesters were arrested for trespassing, but with the help of Jail Support’s hotline, all of them were bailed out of jail.
Advocating for more
The arrests were only a minor setback for the Jail Support group – they didn’t let this interfere with their work.
After the mass arrest of volunteers, Williams called for the crew to move their tents and supplies from in front of the jail to across the street.
“We need Jail Support,” Williams said. “Jail Support is essential because no one else is doing it.”
McFadden claimed that he holds his own jail support through a re-entry program for recently released inmates. He said that it provides housing, clothes and job resources.
The Jail Support team does not think his program is enough.
“I’m not sure what McFadden means by his re-entry program because literally, inmates who have been released always come to Jail Support asking for help,” volunteer Mariah Davis said. “And there are so many times that I’ve seen people walk out of that jail without shoes on their feet. You know how dangerous it is to walk outside without shoes? People are released in blue paper shirts or sometimes no shirt at all. Their basic necessities are being stripped away from them inside that jail and they don’t get the proper support after serving their time.”
Since opening, Jail Support has helped thousands of released inmates and has bailed out over 200 people in the Charlotte area.
The Jail Support team does not plan to move their tents or supply bins anytime soon.
Edited by Anne Tate