In Our Backyards: Money Bail in McMinn County
McMinn County Overview
The first community we visited was East Tennessee’s McMinn County, an hour’s drive southwest of Knoxville and home to 52,000 Tennesseans. Like other rural counties in our state, in recent years, pretrial detention has continued to steadily creep up, leading to overcrowding in the expansive McMinn County Justice Center.
In 2018, the pretrial detention rate in McMinn County was 1.6 times higher than Tennessee’s rate of pretrial incarceration and 2.6 times higher than the national rate. In January of 2021, 55.4% of people incarcerated in the McMinn County jail were being detained pretrial. A year earlier, the jail had been above 100% capacity, which led to many inmates having to sleep on the floor because of overcrowding – a common, repeated occurrence, according to the people with whom we spoke when we visited Athens. In keeping with a statewide trend, McMinn County’s incarcerated population is disproportionately Black. Of the three counties we visited for this project, McMinn County had the highest rate of incarceration for Black people, with 3,852 per 100,000 Black residents being incarcerated – compared to the incarceration rate for white people: just 931 per 100,000 residents. Shockingly, Black people made up only 3.9% of McMinn County’s total population but constituted 15.6% of its jail population in the most recent years that these data points were available.
Additionally, like many rural counties in our state, McMinn County struggles with poverty, hosting a poverty rate of 14.5%, and whose county seat, Athens, Tennessee has, per capita, more than 60 unhoused residents living in the small, 13,000 person town. As we learned in our visit to Athens, one of the myriad of challenges people who are struggling with being unhoused in McMinn County face is the fear of incarceration, including the practice of being charged with criminal trespassing because one has entered or approached property without the consent of the owner. According to those with whom we spoke, some people in Athens who are unhoused do not receive notice that they have been banned from an establishment or they are unclear about which spaces from which they have been banned, which can lead to their arrest and a high bond amount. Community members in McMinn also cited the prevalent addiction problems in the county, with 13.2% of the population struggling with alcohol abuse and an opioid prescriptions rate of 1,183 per 1,000 Tennesseans in McMinn. As our storytellers demonstrated with conviction and clarity, the relationship between not having access to housing, addiction and incarceration in Athens and the larger McMinn County community is a toxic and hopeless cycle, from which those with low incomes or those living in poverty see no escape.
From McMinn County, we spoke to:
- Stephen, a former track coach and “Teacher of the Year” at the local middle school, who discusses both his own experiences with the bail system and those of the city’s growing communities battling addiction and struggling with being unhoused;
- Nikola, a mother of three whose recent struggles with chronic illness and being unhoused have accelerated into an endless cycle of criminal trespassing arrests, exorbitant bonds, and brutal experiences of incarceration; and
- Jessica, a single mom who recounts her years cycling in and out of the criminal justice system for low-level crimes, culminating in a six-month stay at the McMinn County Justice Center.
“A lot of people’s lives are being discarded. But they have enormous value. Every single one of them.”
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“I’ve kind of had a lucky life,” Stephen says as he sits by the window in the St. Paul’s Community Outreach Center on South Jackson Street, a framed poster bearing the Narcotics Anonymous gratitude prayer – “My gratitude speaks when I care and when I share with others…” – hanging behind him.
“The difficulties in my life were of my own making… I’m talking about the addiction issues there. My track coach used to say, ‘You learn a lot more by losing than winning.’ And I’ve learned more from being an addict in recovery than anything else in my life.”
Stephen moved to Athens in the late 1980’s to teach English at Athens Junior High School, where he also coached the cross country and track teams. He became a fixture in the small town’s education community, serving a few terms as president of the Athens Education Association and even winning “Teacher of the Year” once, a distinction he mentions with pride.
But eventually, tensions with the administration and the overload of standardized testing left him feeling burnt out, and he decided to retire from the profession.
That was when things started to unravel.
“When I left teaching,” Stephen explains, “what I didn’t understand was how much I’d miss the kids … it was just like a gigantic hole in my life. I didn’t know how to replace it. And the alcoholism just got worse and worse.”
Almost immediately, what Stephen refers to as years-long functional alcoholism morphed into full-blown alcoholism that quickly derailed his life. Over a few years, Stephen was arrested three times for driving under the influence. But unlike so many in the justice system, Stephen’s financial security gave him a leg up: each time he was arrested, he was able to make his $500 bond and go home, hire an attorney and prepare for his day in court.
“The bail bonding system, if you have the money, then you can get out real quickly and then you can hire a lawyer while the iron’s still hot. That lawyer has a good chance of getting the best result possible. If you can’t pay a bond, then you’re stuck in jail.”
Ultimately, he served a total of 100 hours in jail — although he admits that to hear him talk about his disillusionment with the jail system, you’d think he’d been in much longer. And later, during his probationary period, he learned again how access to money gave him an advantage in the system: when he was making his monthly probation payment, the clerk told him that if he had the money, he could just pay off his entire probation then and there and be done with it.
“Well until that point, nobody had told me that. I’d like to think they just assumed since I was on probation, I didn’t have any money,” he explains. He easily made the payment in full. “I paid to get off probation and never received any kind of counseling or rehabilitation [or] anything like that.” The purpose of the probation, he realized, hadn’t been to prepare him to successfully re-enter society or prevent him from reoffending and ending up back in jail.
It had been about money.
After his experience in the jail, Stephen worked to stop drinking. But not long after finally quitting, a friend offered him a pill – ten milligrams of hydrocodone – to ease Stephen’s low-level back pain. Stephen took it. “It did absolutely nothing for the pain – nothing at all. With the alcohol it took decades for my addiction to fully develop. It took one opioid pill to addict me.”
He soon found he was part of a larger trend, like so many of his neighbors in Athens and people across the nation: the opioid crisis.
“Of the ten counties in the United States that have the highest rate of opioid addiction, three of those counties are in Tennessee,” he says. In McMinn County and the surrounding areas, “a lot of the pain clinics have closed. What you’re seeing in Athens right now is because pills are harder to get [and] they cost more, then you have the unintended consequence of heroin and fentanyl.”
Stephen has educated himself on the ties between the country’s current mass incarceration crisis and the so-called War on Drugs, the policies first implemented by the Nixon administrations in the 1970s that have pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into law enforcement, led to the incarceration of millions of people — disproportionately Black — and done nothing to prevent drug overdoses. As widespread addiction rates have soared in rural, predominantly white communities, contemporary attitudes have shifted from describing addiction as a criminal justice issue toward describing it as a health crisis, a shift Stephen readily acknowledges is rooted in systemic racism. But still, the community in Athens, he says, is being pummeled by addiction, and those who struggle with addiction are often the same ones who are getting caught in the mass incarceration machine.
Just as he had fought to overcome his addiction to alcohol, Stephen fought to end his reliance on opioids and soon found help and community in the local Narcotics Anonymous chapter at St. Paul’s. As he overcame his addiction, he soon became a fixture in Athens’s recovery community, just as he’d been a fixture in its education community. Sitting in the meeting rooms at St. Paul’s, he quickly realized how drastically different his experience with the justice system had been from most of the people seated in the chairs next to him.
The difference, he realized once again, was about money.
For the people at the meetings with him, the predatory, money-based incarceration system only compounded the difficulty in getting sober. The endless cycle of the incarceration system seemed to feed on people suffering from addiction. “You know, just being in these rooms over the last six years, I’ve just heard so many stories about incarceration,” Stephen shares. “People get out of jail, they’re addicts, it’s hard to get a job, you can’t live in public housing until you have years of quote-unquote ‘good behavior.’ We let people out and there are no services… [The system] is set up to keep the rich, rich and to keep the poor, poor. There are all kinds of rules…they reinforce those cycles.”
Even though his own days in the criminal justice system were long behind him, Stephen is still dealing with the impact of the bail system. When his brother Joe was arrested for a drunk driving incident in 2018, Stephen and his friends were able to pull together to find $5,000 to bond Joe out of jail. But then the judge tripled Joe’s bail and the bond increased to $15,000, and Stephen couldn’t pull together that kind of cash. Fearing for his brother’s health while he languished in jail, Stephen was forced to sell his childhood home to pay for the bond and lawyer’s fees.
As painful as it was to part with his family’s home, and as fearful as he is for his brother’s future, he realizes that not everyone in his community is able to pull together the money to go home while they wait for their day in court. And even if they can, he knows from experience that for so many of them, the cycle of incarceration and addiction will just keep feeding itself, with no escape in sight.
He sits now in the familiar meeting room of St. Paul’s and a group of men – most of whom, Stephen observes, have been in and out of the criminal justice system for years – has gathered on the front porch, waiting for Stephen to finish his interview so they can come inside for that afternoon’s NA meeting. They talk jovially amongst themselves as Stephen collects his thoughts.
“Albert Einstein said that hatred is a failure of the imagination,” Stephen reflects. “When it comes to mass incarceration and to addiction, people say, ‘Oh, that can’t happen to me. They’re bad people’ or ‘They’ll have to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.’ I think what Einstein is talking about is the imagination [to] try to understand… how none of us are as far away as we think from that position.”
Outside, the laughter of the men grows louder. It’s almost time for the meeting to start.
Stephen glances out the window at them, his eyes filling with tears as he works to keep his voice steady.
“I wish people would imagine,” he continues, “I wish they would heed what Albert Einstein said. We’re all just a step away. I know from doing free lunches and being in twelve-step meetings that a lot of people’s lives are being discarded, who face an uphill battle that most of them are not going to make.”
He takes a deep breath, his voice catching in his throat. “But they have enormous value. Every single one of them.”
“When you’re broke like that and you’re in jail, you can’t bond out. And you know that your kids are taken away, your job’s gone, your house is gone… What do you have to live for?”
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Nikola didn’t think they had it so bad in the woods, all things considered. She’d loved camping when she was a kid, after all, and she and her boyfriend James had tried to keep up a good outlook, hanging mosquito netting and hauling out water. They’d even gotten a solar shower set up.
“We had a mansion out there,” she jokes.
Nikola, a union iron worker by trade, had moved to Athens in 2004 and raised two of her children there – her daughter, she proudly shares, graduated from McMinn High School with a 4.667 GPA. But after a decade in the town, Nikola’s life changed dramatically: in 2014 she found out she had cancer and soon couldn’t work. James suffered a traumatic brain injury and also couldn’t work. Things kept piling up. Within five years, she’d lost her home, joining the county’s quickly growing population of people who are unhoused.
In 2018, on any given night more than 60 people in the town of Athens could be described as unhoused. With a population of around 13,600 residents total, this makes the rate of people who unhoused per capita higher than that of Chattanooga, the fourth largest city in the state. Nikola and James were just the newest members of that quickly growing population.
For the first few weeks, she and James tried living in her truck. Then they moved into a storage unit they rented. Finally, they set up a camp site in a wooded area off Decatur Pike in Athens, nestled between a Baptist church and the local Walmart Supercenter.
That was around the time Nikola started getting banned from private property.
She was confused when the officers first told her she was banned from the shopping center where she was looking for food and blankets in a parking lot dumpster. At first, she thought they were mistaken. But as rates of people who are unhoused in Athens rose, local law enforcement was using authorizations of authorities, or AOAs, to make criminal trespass arrests, and, more and more frequently, Nikola observed, members of Athens’s unhoused community were the ones getting arrested. The AOAs allowed a business owner to request that a person be put on a trespass list with the local police. If the police found a person at that business, they could issue a citation or, if the person returned, arrest them for trespass. That way, the owners of the business didn’t need to call the police or even need to know that the banned person was on the property for the so-called criminal trespasser to be taken to jail.
After a series of stressful and frightening interactions with local law enforcement that left Nikola feeling unclear and confused about where exactly she was allowed and not allowed to be, she was charged with criminal trespassing while looking for boxes to use for storage in the dumpster behind the local Verizon store. Her bail was set for $27,000. Coming up with $2,700 to make her bond and get out of jail was out of the question. So she stayed in.
At first, Nikola was adamant that she hadn’t done anything wrong and planned on pleading not guilty. While she was new to the criminal justice system and found court confusing and humiliating, she was warned not to resist. “Everybody in the jail was like, ‘you don’t need to argue with [the judge],'” she recalls. “‘You don’t need to stand up to him because you’re gonna be in here longer. Just go along with the program. Do your time, and just get out of town.’ That’s just the way this town is. Once they’re on you, they’re gonna constantly be on you. And I’m telling you, that’s exactly the way that it was.”
She decided to plead guilty. And the people in the jail were right: the police were on her now – constantly.
It now seemed like every interaction she had with an officer ended with her learning that there was another place she couldn’t be. First the shopping center. Then the Goodwill. Next the Verizon store. The K-mart. And she’d find out she was no longer welcome when a police or sheriff’s cruiser would pull up and, terrified, she’d learned that she’d been banned. First she’d get a ticket, and then, if they found her there again, an arrest. And that meant more bail she couldn’t afford and more time in jail.
Another time she went to jail for criminal trespassing and couldn’t make her $2,200 bond, Nikola’s truck sat in the Goodwill parking lot for four days before being impounded. When she finally got out, she was told it would cost her another $3,000 to get the truck back. With the help of her social worker, Nikola managed to negotiate the fee down to $500 — still an astronomical amount that pushed her even further into poverty.
Those weren’t the only expenses that came with getting arrested, she quickly learned. When you’re in jail and trying to make bail, Nikola explains, “you make calls to your family, trying to get this big bond money from them. You’re calling 20-30 different people, and by this time, you’re calling collect. So you’ve got another $300-$400 in phone calls — that is a debt. It just wears you out. You just can’t imagine… So you’re just sitting there, okay? That’s it. There’s no hope.”
The cycle of bans, arrests and jail time continued. By the last weeks of 2019, Nikola had reached her breaking point.
On December 21, Nikola was back out behind the Verizon store, once again trying to find supplies in the dumpster. And once again, she was soon joined by a police officer who was ready to arrest her.
“‘Please don’t arrest me,'” she remembers pleading, “because it’s four days before Christmas.”
“‘Well,'” she says he replied, “‘you’ll be able to bond out.'”
But Nikola knew that wouldn’t happen.
That night, after she’d been booked at the Justice Center, Nikola told the other women there that she wanted to commit suicide. Sitting in the jail’s infirmary, she broke down, telling the nurse interviewing her that she was physically and emotionally exhausted. “I’m sick and tired of running. I’m sick and tired of cops coming to get me. I’m not working. I don’t have the money to bond myself out. I just feel like a total loser. I’m just tired.”
She remembers how desperate she felt that night. “”When you’re broke like that and you’re in jail, you can’t bond out. And you know that your kids are taken away, your job’s gone, your house is gone… What do you have to live for?”
Just as she’d told the officer who arrested her, Nikola couldn’t make bail. She was incarcerated for 23 days. She spent Christmas in jail.
Once she was out, Nikola had missed Christmas with James but she hadn’t missed winter or the cold. As temperatures dropped, Nikola, like many of the people in Athens who don’t have homes, was worried about going to one of the local cold weather houses. The people at the shelter would offer help, food and warmth, but there were rumors that the local cops were keeping tabs on who showed up because they didn’t have anywhere else to stay. If you were unhoused and went to the shelter to stay warm, it was said, the cops would be on you now. And they’d be on you constantly.
For Nikola and others, it felt safer to risk the cold.
“Jail gives you a debt and that debt just keeps adding up. When you’re that poor, you can’t afford to pay the debt [and you’re] just stuck. There’s no alternate escape. You’re stuck and powerless and helpless.”
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When Jessica remembers the McMinn County Justice Center, she remembers the cold and she remembers her socks.
She describes the tiny, cramped pod where she was incarcerated as “a meat locker,” it was kept so cold. She remembers having to snuggle up to other women in her pod to stay warm at night, but at least at that point she had a bed. For the first two months of her sentence, the jail was so overbooked that she slept on the floor. By the time she’d earned a bunk by what she calls her “seniority,” she felt lucky to have gotten a full blanket. But at least she could count on her podmates to pull together and share what little they had.
“Have you ever known what it’s like to be without a pair of socks when you’re in a meat-locker, and somebody gives you a pair of socks for your feet when they don’t know if their socks are gonna come back from the laundry or not?” she asks, her eyes growing wide with emotion.
Many of them, like Jessica, were mothers. And many of them, also like Jessica, were in the Justice Center to serve an automatic, no-bond-offered, six-month sentence for failing to afford to pay child support, an all-too-common reason that many parents in Athens and the surrounding communities found themselves at MCJC.
That was the kind of bond she formed with the other women locked up alongside her – women lending each other a shoulder to cry on, sharing food. Sharing blankets. Sharing socks. The kinds of things mothers provide to their children.
The six-month stint for child support wasn’t Jessica’s first time being locked up. She’d been in jail “a bunch of times,” she says, for misdemeanor offenses – public intoxication, disorderly conduct – all incidents she attributes to her lifelong battle with addiction and untreated mental illness, including borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. From her youth, Jessica would try to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. It was like a switch would get flipped inside, she explains, and she’d find herself in the backseat of a McMinn County Sheriff cruiser with another P.I. charge on her record and another $700 bond to try to pay.
Sometimes her father would bail her out. But other times, she explains, he would “get fed up and be like, ‘no, you’re gonna sit there.'” When that happened, she’d end up losing whatever job she had at the time. Then she’d spend her time in jail waiting to be arraigned and worrying about whether or not she would be able to pay her bills.
Those jail stays were dehumanizing, she says, like her dignity had been taken away: “We feel like a piece of property when we’re bought like that,” she says. “When we’re incarcerated and can’t make bail. We feel trapped. Like rats.”
But at least, she says, she never lost her child because she couldn’t make bail, not like some of the women she met at the Justice Center. She recalls being arrested one weekend, and the fact that she happened to have enough money at that time for bail kept her family together. If she hadn’t, she would have been forced to stay in jail until being arraigned the following Monday. “Then C.P.S. would’ve taken my child and that would’ve crushed my world,” she explains. “But that didn’t happen — thank God. Thank God I got out on bond [that] time. Because it saved my life.”
A few years later, as she worked hard to put her life together – getting sober and staying in recovery, finding faith and getting involved in a local church, starting her own small business cleaning houses — Jessica learned that trying to navigate the criminal legal system without money didn’t get easier for people even after they were no longer incarcerated.
Now, struggles to pay bail morphed into struggles to pay monthly and weekly fees as part of her probation, just another bill she could hardly afford, another step in what she calls the justice system’s never-ending cycle of incarceration and debt.
For poor people, she says, “jail gives them a debt. It puts a debt over their head and that debt just keeps adding up. When you’re that poor, you can’t afford to pay the debt. It just adds up and then you add the monthly fees to it… [You’re] just stuck. There’s no alternate escape. There’s no alternate funds. You’re stuck and powerless and helpless. It’s mentally paralyzing.”
For people in Athens who are caught up in the justice system, Jessica doesn’t mince words. “If you don’t have money, you ain’t shit, basically, is what it feels like.”
While her time in and out of the criminal justice system is behind her, Jessica remembers the stress of living in the debt of incarceration just as well as she remembers how cold it got at night at the Justice Center. She thinks about all the people who head every day to the town’s misdemeanor probation office on North Jackson Street to try to pay their fees and reduce their looming debt just a little. Some of them might have been at the Justice Center when she was there. Some of them might even have been in that cold pod alongside her, sharing supplies and whatever support they could offer each other.
“It’s a never-ending cycle down there. You got people lined up in the door to probation just giving out cash or [who] don’t have cash.” She stops to consider just how much money must get handed over the counter every day.
“All that money that the probation is making,” she says, shaking her head. “Do you know how many socks you could put on people’s feet with that money?”