Ashley Stewart sat behind the wheel of her Genesis coup at 9:15 am; head on the headrest, eyes focused beyond the parole office that her boyfriend, Danique Simpson, had just entered for a routine check-in. As the door closed behind him, Ashley breathed deeply, letting the warm air from the car heater and Fabolous’ “Nightmares Ain’t as Bad,” wash over her entire body. The soulful rap cooled her frustration and for a moment, replaced it with hope.
Ashley’s childhood was unstable. Her single mother struggled with mental illness and shifted their home environment constantly. In 2008, she moved them all in with Ashley’s aunt and grandmother. Three generations lived together in one stable household for five years. Ashley became a local model and enrolled at Middlesex College.
But at 20-years-old, Ashley’s world fell apart when the monster of mental illness reared its ugly head again. Beaten down by breakdown, Ashley’s mother left New Jersey for Florida with her grandmother and brother. Homeless, Ashley dropped out of college and couch-surfed between friends and family for two years.
Danique Simpson was a high school friend who recently returned from time served for high school gang activity. On Christmas Eve 2016—one year after Ashley’s world blew apart—the two found comfort and stability in each other. They moved in together, and with stable housing, Ashley found a good job sorting mail at the Post Office.
Ashley is my cousin. She shared these memories with me on a recent two-hour and 20-minute-long phone call, logged 15-minutes-at-a-time from the Middlesex county jail. She has passed two birthdays there, going the last 19 months behind bars without a trial.
That’s because 10 minutes after Danique entered the parole office on the morning of November 30, 2017, detectives exited the building, approached Ashley’s car, opened the car door and barked: “Are you Ashley Stewart?”
She answered, “Yes.”
“You are being arrested,” they said, “for an armed robbery charge.”
She heard their words, but they entered her ears like a garbled roar that can only be described as the sound a monster might make in the worst kind of nightmare. As Fabolous entreated her to dream, the detectives locked handcuffs around Ashley’s wrists and placed her in the back of their truck while they searched her car without a warrant.
New Jersey is a no-bail state. In January of 2017, the New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act decriminalized poverty in the state’s pretrial justice system. In America, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but in New Jersey’s former system, poor people, mostly Black, were treated as if they were presumed guilty; often locked up for years before a trial could determine their guilt or innocence. Bail reform eliminated the money bail system. Now, according to state law, all defendants, other than those facing a charge that mandates life imprisonment, are entitled to the presumption of release.
Ashley received the lowest possible score in the state’s assessment of her flight risk and danger to the community. Even so, she still remembers Judge Alberto Rivas’ rebuke directed to her from the bench during her bail hearing: “If you want to hang out with animals, you can be detained with them.”
Ashley was remanded to Middlesex County Adult Correctional Facility where she has been ever since.
On a June 2019 call to brief New Jersey faith leaders on Ashley’s case, Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, New Jersey and founder of Salvation and Social Justice, a faith coalition that pushes for bail reform, said the judge’s statement about Ashley’s detainment “reveals a concept of young people of color being viewed as animals who need to be caged rather than young people who made a bad decision, have particular proximity to a situation, or who may have been traumatized at some point in their lives and need help.”
In 2016 The Sentencing Project found New Jersey ranks worst in the nation regarding racial disparity in incarceration rates. African- Americans are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites in the state. Likewise, a 2017 Sentencing Project report states Black and white young people commit crimes at the same rates, but the Black/white incarceration ratio in New Jersey is 30:1. For context, Mississippi’s ratio is 4:1. Alabama’s is 3:1.
Worse, the Trump Administration announced a crackdown on gang-related crime in 2017. The Brennan Center reported in July of that year that overly broad federal conspiracy and accomplice laws demand “that anyone caught in proximity to a known drug trafficker suffer similar consequences.” According to the report, “These laws have helped ensnare women who were only minimally involved in criminal drug activity themselves.”
Ashley was charged, along with five other men, including her boyfriend, with various gang-related offenses, including armed robbery, theft, possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose, stolen vehicle, robbing a BP with a .45 caliber handgun, possession of a controlled substance and sale in a school zone. All of her charges took place over three separate dates from September to November 2017 and together could amount to more than 40 years in prison.
Ashley maintains her innocence.
“If they check my passport,” Ashley implored during our phone interview, “they will see that I was out of the country on a cruise with a girlfriend on the date they are accusing me of robbing a BP.”
In June 2019, presiding Judge Diane Pincus threw out the warrant used to arrest a key defendant in the case. The court found the warrant was granted on the basis of false officer testimony. Prosecutors are currently appealing the decision. Judge Pincus could have released Ashley pending trial, but did not.
As a citizen of the United States of America, Ashley is entitled to a speedy trial. As a citizen of the State of New Jersey, she is entitled to release from jail pending trial. She has received neither trial, nor release.
On any given morning Ashley rises before 6 am to set up breakfast tables as part of her job as a jail trustee. The rest of the day holds timed, in-door routines including moments in the common area where Ashley often dreams of the fashion boutique she will open one day.
That will have to come on the other side of her nightmare.
Lisa Sharon Harper is a writer, speaker, activist and president and founder of FreedomRoad.us. She is also the host of the Freedom Road Podcast. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.