Community Corner: Chasing Freedom with Elisabeth Epps

Published on: April 1st, 2019

Can you imagine the end of cash bail and pre-trial detention, the abolition of jail and prisons in their entirety? Elisabeth Epps can, and she’s working to make it a reality.

The website blackbailout.org is home to the Colorado Freedom Fund. The fund began in 2018, according to the website, which describes its initial efforts as follows: “With your love and support, in May we bought freedom for 17 of our Mamas and Sisters for Mother’s Day. In June we welcomed 18 more of our folks out of Colorado cages for Father’s Day and Juneteenth.” The goals of Colorado Freedom Fund (CFF) are described as “ (1) ending money bail in Colorado; while (2) mitigating its harmful effects on our people, until cash bond is a thing of the past.”

Epps is very much the face of the organization.

She knows all too well the indignities and harms that come from incarceration. She was herself arrested in 2015 while assisting a man having what witnesses and law enforcement described as a breakdown. Upon helping deliver the man safely to his family member, the narrative differs between officers and Ms. Epps. Police and prosecutors filed several charges as a result of the interaction, and all but one were dropped: “interfering with police”.

Aurora Judge Shawn Day asserted in court that Ms. Epps, herself an attorney, exhibited contempt towards the court and the rule of law. He issued her a jail sentence and, apparently acting on his frustration and perception of contempt for the court and the rule of law, stated, “There’s nothing that I can say that will change that. There may be something that I can do, though, with my sentence.”

Dave Russell, a supporter, wrote on Judge Day’s behavior in court: Judge Day pointedly and intentionally re-traumatized Elisabeth at her imposition of sentence hearing by recounting her arrest in explicit detail. There was no judicial reason for this other than to hurt her. During his vile attack, he described her as being “hobbled” as she was placed in custody. Hobbled. This one has stuck with me more than any of the other dozen instances of racism I witnessed in his courtroom. Here’s [one of] the Webster’s definition of hobbled: “to fasten together the legs of an animal, such as a horse, to prevent straying.”

She is not even human to him. Do not for an instant excuse his vile word choice.

My outrage distills down to this: A thoroughly mediocre white man, who is a racist, was allowed to sit in judgement of a brilliant, fierce black woman. And in the end he had the power to put her in a cage. This is white supremacy.

Supporters arrived early and filled multiple courtrooms in Aurora for Ms. Epps’s final sentencing. When Judge Day issued his final sentence, he provided an option for work release. Ms. Epps left the Arapahoe County jail each morning and returned each night devoting those hours to getting others free through CFF. She also posted brief FaceBook live videos to discuss the conditions of her detention, including that when she went in for her first night’s incarceration, while menstruating, no feminine hygiene products were available.

Ms. Epps’s frustrating experience with menstruating while incarcerated and her willingness to share it publicly may produce legislative action. Lawmakers are now, “looking at ways to [provide feminine care products] for local jails.”

Epps has continuing concerns about the impact on POC – like herself – when interacting with the police and the justice system. Judge Day chose to mischaracterize her statistically supported concerns as contempt. As a future attorney, I stand behind Ms. Epps and her behavior both in court and in public – protecting a man experiencing a mental health crisis from potential harm at the hands of police. Her statements were not made to express contempt for the court and the rule of law, as Judge Day would have us believe. Instead, she expressed a condemnation of a system that inspired attorney and law professor Michelle Alexander to write The New Jim Crow, a book Denver District Attorney Beth McCann gave to employees and discussed with them upon taking office. Ironically Ms. Epps was featured, with other prominent advocates, on the front cover of the January issue of 5280 Magazine.

Elisabeth Epps is now free and back to work bailing out others. –I am grateful, because the world is a better place with Ms. Epps in it.

If you would like to support the Colorado Freedom Fund and the work of Ms. Epps and others, you may contribute through the website: Coloradofreedomfund.org.

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