In 2015, criminal justice reform advocate and prison abolitionist Elisabeth Epps was arrested after intervening with Aurora, Colorado police while they were responding to a young man in a mental health crisis. Epps flailed about and went limp while being arrested, so she was convicted of obstructing a peace officer. Colorado Judge Shawn Day sentenced her to 90 days with a possible reduction to 60 days based on good behavior.
Almost four years later, after filing multiple appeals, Epps came before Judge Day once more in a final sentencing hearing on January 23rd. She was immediately remanded into custody to serve 27 days in jail while on work release.
Epps, who runs an organization responsible for bailing many low-income individuals and people of color out of jail, is widely loved and respected in her community. To the frustration of the court clerk, who had several heated exchanges with Epps’ supporters as she fumed at them for crowding the space, the courtroom overflowed with people wishing Epps love and luck. Denver resident Shaeyla Monteiro told ESSENCE, “ I was called to be here because of everything [Epps] does for the community. We need all the warriors we can gather.” After her sentencing was complete, Epps’ supporters gathered on the steps of the courthouse and chanted Assata Shakur’s famous words, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Wearing a pink tutu, Epps thanked each of the people who came to support her, most of whom were clad in #FreeElisabeth t-shirts and buttons. “Y’all are so extra,” she laughed. Then, turning serious, she said “My son… he’s having a hard time with this, but when he saw those [pins and T-shirts] he said ‘They’re looking out for you.’ It helped him.”
At another point before the hearing began, Epps suddenly said: “Can we have a moment of solidarity for anyone – but especially black women – who knows this pain?”
Many, including Epps and her lawyer, Sandra Freeman, see her sentence as just another example of the disproportionate impact the U.S. criminal justice system has on African-Americans.
Aurora, the city that Epps was tried in, is considered to be a pocket of racial diversity in the otherwise overwhelming white state of Colorado. Many believe this is precisely why people of color experience increased police brutality here and why the only people on death row in Colorado are three black men from Aurora.
One moment of particularly painful racial insensitivity came when Judge Day invoked George Washington, a slave-owning president, to chastise Epps for her social media posts about the case and the comments her supporters made about the case on social media, claiming they constituted an attempt to undermine “judicial independence” which George Washington held dear. The entire room emitted a low groan after this was said. Some even started silently crying.
Rebekah Henderson, the host of Off Color Podcast, is a close friend of Epps. Henderson told ESSENCE that she found the use of George Washington as a cudgel against Epps to be, “Infuriating… to invoke a Founding Father who wore the teeth of slaves in his mouth as someone we should be still holding up as a bastion of justice?”
To me, there seemed to be little mention of actual justice by either the prosecution or the court. Both espoused the paternalistic and illogical assertion that her fear of police and distrust of the judicial system (both systemically harm black and brown people) was dangerous and misguided enough to warrant her being locked in what Epps described to ESSENCE as a “cage.” The prosecution described Epps, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome after being assaulted by a police officer as an adolescent, as “anti-law enforcement.” They claimed she possessed a “lack of respect for orders of the judicial court” and a “misplaced mistrust of police.”
For Judge Day, the 48 letters he received from community members in support of Epps – sent by clergy, families, activists, politicians, and lawyers – as well as the aforementioned social media posts, were an attempt to use “social pressure” to influence him.
But it begs the question: If a judge refuses to allow himself to consider societal forces like race that shape our world, our perspectives, and our reactions, then how can he can he serve society well?
Day is sending Epps to prison in a county where she has been outspoken about their abuses and injustice. Now, those officials and officers will have control over Epps’ body and well-being for 27 days. One might argue that Judge Day’s insistence on incarcerating Epps is putting her in danger. During an MLK speech the Monday before she was remanded into custody, Epps told the crowd “Can I tell y’all something, just because I need a witness to this fact? If anything happens to me [in jail], let me be real clear: I didn’t hurt myself.”
Before she was sentenced, Epps told ESSENCE that she planned to make her time in jail as productive as she could, saying that she wanted the Colorado Freedom Fund to raise enough money to free 27 women – one for every day that she will spend in jail.
Through frustrated tears, Sandra Freeman, Epps’ lawyer said that Judge Day had “put her [Epps] in one of the most populous and diverse jails in the state,” which would give her more opportunities to organize with incarcerated people of color.
Some might say that the sentence Epps received was lenient, or that JudgeDay is a liberal judge who supports Epps’ work. Others might say that this whole saga is a grave injustice and that Epps is being punished for her advocacy of the criminalized, and for her strong positions on the role that police and courts play in the systemic oppression of Black and brown people. Others might say that her incarceration serves no purpose, except to make an “example” out of her.
Henderson told ESSENCE that, “What is she going to jail for? It just feels punitive. I think the only people who should be in jail are people who offer a clear and present danger. She’s not a danger. The only danger she is is that she is a social justice freedom fighter, and that is the thing that scares people like Judge Day.”