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Nov 16, 2019

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A mom gets word that her seventh-grade son has gotten into trouble, but she doesn’t know what kind. By the time she shows up, police already have questioned him and sent him to the county jail. Her 13-year-old is being charged as an adult. Reporter Ko Bragg takes us to Mississippi to learn about a set of laws that automatically send kids into the adult legal system for certain crimes. 

Bragg’s reporting comes to us from Reveal’s Investigative Fellowship program.

Dig Deeper

Read Ko Bragg’s article: Bound by Statute: In Mississippi, Jim Crow era laws result in a high rate of black kids charged as adults

Credits

 This week’s show was produced by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Priska Neely and edited by Jen Chien. Reported by Ko Bragg and Melissa Lewis.

Bragg’s work comes to us through Reveal’s Investigative Fellowship program.  

Special thanks to her editor, Andrew Donohue, plus Martin Reynolds, Imani Khayyam, Julia Riley and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. 

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Najib Aminy and Amy Mostafa. Our host is Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Found, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. It's early evening at the Neshoba County courthouse in Philadelphia, Mississippi. If you've heard of this Philly before, it may be because of the infamous 1964 murder of three civil rights workers here, the Mississippi Burning case. A towering statue of a Confederate soldier keeps watch from the courthouse line. Inside, Felicia Hickman, a tall woman with a calm demeanor, is taking the stand.

 

Speaker 2: [inaudible] the truth, so help you God.

 

Speaker 3: Would you state your name, please, ma'am.

 

Felicia Hickman: Felicia Hickman.

 

Al Letson: Felicia's son, Isaiah, sits at the front of the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit. He's handcuffed and chained. Isaiah is only 14, but in today's hearing, he's being treated as an adult. We've bleeped his last name to protect his privacy.

 

Speaker 3: Ms. Hickman, um, you are the mother of Isaiah?

 

Felicia Hickman: Yes.

 

Speaker 3: Uh, Isaiah is indicted for the crime of, um, armed robbery, is that right?

 

Felicia Hickman: Yes.

 

Al Letson: Isaiah is tall, like his mom. So from the back, he blends in with other adults in the court that day. But up close, his doe eyes and lack of facial hair give his youth away.

 

Speaker 5: Just briefly, um, Ms. Hickman, [inaudible 00:01:26].

 

Felicia Hickman: I don't think so.

 

Al Letson: The judge and the lawyers are questioning Felicia to determine whether Isaiah's case should be transferred to the youth system. That would mean getting out of the county jail, where he's been waiting for a court date for nine months. Nine months in adult jail. That's the length of a whole school year. So how does this happen? Reporter Ko Bragg has been following Isaiah's case, trying to figure that out. Ko came to us through Reveal's Investigative Fellowship Program, and she's been working on this story for the last year. So Ko, how did you first find out about Isaiah?

 

Ko Bragg: So two years ago, I had just finished grad school, and I'm bumming it at my parents' house, and I pick up a copy of the local paper, and there's this headline right beneath the fold, and it says, "13-year-old Charged with Armed Robbery Over a Cellphone." And so there's not much context in this article, and I read through it a bunch of times, and I ask myself, how does this happen? How is it that someone this young is sent to jail over stealing a cellphone?

 

Al Letson: And then, how did you follow up on it?

 

Ko Bragg: And so this paper, like a lot of papers in Mississippi, publishes people's addresses after they've been arrested, including children if they're in the adult system. So I put that address, I put Isaiah's address in my GPS and I drive over to see if someone is home. And I knock, but no one answers. And so I stick a note through a hole in the screen, and I say, "Please call me anytime, day or night. I really want to talk about Isaiah." And so Felicia calls me and we talk, and she's really concerned, and I don't have any good answers for her, but I keep trying to follow this case through the system.

 

Al Letson: Ko starts to learn more about Isaiah's case, and in the process ends up uncovering a larger pattern of unequal treatment for black kids in Mississippi's legal system.

 

Ko Bragg: Of Felicia's six kids, Isaiah falls right in the middle. She remembers he was a chubby baby.

 

Felicia Hickman: They used to call him [Lithumos 00:03:28]. Oh, and he was fat and had some big old legs. He started walking before he turned one. He wasn't no crybaby. Anybody could hold him. He would go home with anybody. He was pretty good.

 

Ko Bragg: When Isaiah turned seven, his teacher says he's really smart, but he's been acting out. Testing shows he has ADHD, which explains the hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsiveness. So Felicia starts him on medication.

 

Felicia Hickman: And from then on out, he was all A's. He could sit there and he could concentrate, and he wasn't so easy to get upset.

 

Ko Bragg: As Isaiah grows into a lanky teen, he keeps a close bond with his mom.

 

Felicia Hickman: He was just the one that was always real close to me. Like if I was having a bad day, he was going to be that one that say something to kind of brighten up, make me laugh. He said that he was going to graduate, he was going to college, and he was going to buy me a house. He told me my first vehicle, he was going to buy me a Cadillac Escalade, and I said, "Okay, you know we're holding you to that now."

 

Ko Bragg: When Isaiah gets to middle school, he doesn't want to take the medication anymore. He tells his mom it makes him feel funny.

 

Felicia Hickman: I said, "How? Explain how it's making you feel funny." "It make you sleep too much and I be wanting to go out and be with my friends." I said, "Well, this medicine is to help you, to keep you out of trouble, so if you don't take it and you go out to be with your friends, you get in trouble, then what?"

 

Ko Bragg: Felicia's intuition is spot on. Isaiah is cutting school and getting into trouble with his friends. Then the family moves to Philadelphia, Mississippi. Felicia hopes it'll give Isaiah a fresh start. That's not what happened.

 

Felicia Hickman: Well, it seems like when I moved to Philadelphia, I moved into hell.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah feels differently about the move. He loves Philadelphia.

 

Isaiah: Then I started going to a school I like, and meet new folks. Then they've got a bowling alley. I was going like every Friday and Saturday, meet at the bowling alley.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah keeps staying out late with his new friends. Felicia gives him a curfew and the talk that a lot of black parents give their kids.

 

Felicia Hickman: I told him, I said, "Well, you know you don't want to end up getting in trouble, and you're going to end up in jail." And he was like, "Nah, Mama. Ain't nobody doing that. We just going to the bowling alley, or we just hanging out." He just kept on hanging out and hanging out until he got caught up.

 

Ko Bragg: It's at that bowling alley one Friday night in September 2017 that Isaiah makes a decision that would change his life. He brings a BB gun with him, and then he shows it to his brother.

 

Isaiah: They were like, what you doing? And I took off running.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah sees a kid he knows from school. He makes a spur of the moment decision to rob him with the BB gun.

 

Isaiah: When I saw his face, I was like, oh yeah, he sure enough thinks it's real.

 

Ko Bragg: The classmate thinks it's a real gun and hands over his cellphone to Isaiah. The classmate's mom files a police report. The next week, Isaiah gets called into the principal's office around fourth period. The cops are there, and they take him down to the station for questioning.

 

Isaiah: I just confessed to having a gun on me that night, the BB gun. They were like, well, you did it then. And I'm like, if you say I did, I did then.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah is up front about having the BB gun, but he never confesses to a robbery. He says officers promise he can go home soon. He still doesn't know how serious things are about to get.

 

Isaiah: I thought the charge was going to be like going to juvenile, like going to the detention center or something.

 

Ko Bragg: But there will be no juvenile detention center for Isaiah. He's going straight to the county jail for adults. It all has to do with that BB gun. In Mississippi, gun crimes automatically put kids 13 years or older into the adult system, even if the weapon is just a BB gun. So just like that, this seventh grader becomes an adult in the eyes of the law.

 

Paloma Wu: Everything that is meant to protect people in the criminal justice system is lost on children tried as adults.

 

Ko Bragg: I talked to Paloma Wu, who's a senior attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She says the juvenile system is designed to better protect kids. Youth court records aren't available to the public or the media, and children must have a parent or lawyer present during a police interrogation. But if a child is in the adult system, cops can talk to them without a parent, and kids don't always know they have the right to ask for a lawyer to be present. Isaiah didn't.

 

Paloma Wu: If you tell a 13-year-old, "Just tell us about the gun and you can go home," do you know what they do? They tell you about the gun. What takes less time, getting a 13-year-old to tell you what you tell them they have to say to go home or finding a gun?

 

Ko Bragg: Paloma says children should be treated differently than adults, and the Supreme Court agrees. In the 2012 ruling Miller versus Alabama, the justices banned life without parole for kids, calling it cruel and unusual punishment. They cited studies showing that the part of the brain that controls impulses isn't fully formed until your 20s.

 

Paloma Wu: Kids that people say, "You do the crime, you do the time," right? We have in every other part of our law said that kids are treated as kids. But when kids do something where a cellphone gets lost, all of a sudden, we're talking about these kids are not kids anymore.

 

Ko Bragg: Paloma focuses on Mississippi, but in more than half of America, states are allowed to charge kids as adults automatically. Nationally, black and brown children like Isaiah are disproportionately represented in the adult system, and they're also at higher risk for suicide, depression, and getting arrested again.

 

Paloma Wu: This is who people say deserves essentially civic death, because when you're 13 and you have a felony, you're not going to college, you're not getting a job, you're not getting housing. Your life is pretty much over in the civic sphere. So what do we say about ourselves and our communities when we let kids essentially been thrown away in this way?

 

Ko Bragg: After interrogation, officers take Isaiah to the county jail. He's already been questioned without his mom, and without a lawyer. Now he's about to be thrown into a facility designed to handle adults. Kids aren't supposed to be housed with grownups, under the Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. So in a bizarre attempt to protect them, a lot of adult facilities put children in solitary confinement. That's what happens to Isaiah. He says he doesn't get a shower for several days, and he's hungry but he can't eat.

 

Isaiah: My first night and then the first day, I didn't eat nothing. It just, I ain't have no appetite. I was just thinking about what I did. It just ain't no normal feeling.

 

Ko Bragg: Paloma says no one should be treated this way, especially children.

 

Paloma Wu: In order to keep them away from being raped, we put them alone, which is one of the worst things that you can do to a kid, is to put them alone in a box. I mean, it's been called torture for adults. It's even more damaging for children.

 

Ko Bragg: After eight days in solitary confinement, Felicia gets Isaiah out on bond. He's been expelled from school so he's supposed to stay home, but he breaks his mom's rules and falls right back in with his old friends.

 

Felicia Hickman: He started sneaking out, and sometimes I would get off and ride around to see where he was. I mean, I can't watch him all times of the day. I work during the day, and then at night, he's supposed to be in the bed. He would get out the window or just leave, and I would get up, and he gone.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah ends up getting arrested for allegedly stealing cars. That's a bond violation that lands him back in adult jail, where he spends his 14th birthday behind bars. He also gets put back in solitary at times, and the more he's alone, the more his thoughts pile up.

 

Isaiah: I was just really thinking like, how are my people going to feel like? Do people miss me? Mostly I was thinking about my mama. I just wanted to let her know I was okay.

 

Ko Bragg: And Felicia, she's worried about how solitary confinement is affecting her son's mental health.

 

Felicia Hickman: I kept telling them that I felt like he needed to be on medicine by him being in there, locked in that cell by himself. And they kept telling me, you've got to call the nurse, the nurse at the jail. And I called the nurse several times, and she never tried to get no appointment set up for him to go nowhere, no kind of help for him to get no medicine. And nobody never got back with me, so he never had any medicine the whole time that he was locked up.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah says altogether, he spent three months alone in his cell. Research shows solitary confinement can make ADHD symptoms even worse.

 

Isaiah: When I was in there by myself, I would just try to sleep. I sleep through breakfast and lunch. By the time I get up, it'd be about 3:00.

 

Felicia Hickman: He wasn't getting any schooling. He said he was reading the bible.

 

Isaiah: I ain't ever been away from home this long. I was thinking like when it's going to be when I go home. From all that time, like man, this is a lot of time going passed by. That's something I can't get back neither. It's gone.

 

Felicia Hickman: I felt like it just wasn't any hope, because they already had their mind made up what they were going to do with him. I felt like, that he wasn't mine anymore. He belonged to them. I felt like, they done took him and it ain't nothing else I can do about it.

 

Ko Bragg: At this point you might be thinking, this is a kid who got in trouble once, gets out of jail on bond, and then gets in trouble again. Shouldn't he be punished? But the question is, why does the criminal justice system treat so many black kids like adults? What rights are they losing? And can a kid like Isaiah ever recover from a mistake he made before he could even shave?

 

Paloma Wu: The extent of the brokenness of the system can't be overstated, and the terror of being a child or a parent in... The system [inaudible] isn't Draconian. It's un-American.

 

Ko Bragg: Five months pass. It's summertime, and Isaiah is still behind bars. Then Isaiah's court appointed lawyer does something most don't. He files what's called a transfer motion. It's a petition to send the case from the adult system down to youth court, kind of like an escape hatch. Cases in youth court have more protections, anonymity, expungement, and juvie instead of adult prison. But very few kids meet the criteria to transfer, or their lawyers don't even try. I asked Paloma about that. What would have happened to someone like Isaiah without this motion?

 

Paloma Wu: I know a kid who after serving many, many months in jail after being accused of armed robbery, his public defender came and told him, "If you don't take this plea, you're never going to see your mom again." So he pulled out his dreadlocks. He was sobbing and pulling out his hair. He could not stand the thought of not seeing his mom. So then he pled. We have the mighty weight of the state coming down with totally unmitigated force upon children.

 

Ko Bragg: On the day of the transfer hearing, Isaiah isn't brought to the courtroom, and no one really explains to him what's happening. The DA, Steven Kilgore, argues to keep Isaiah in the adult jail, and he wins. When Isaiah finds out, he doesn't understand what's going on.

 

Isaiah: And I was like, man, I'm supposed to be going home today. What happened with all that? I was like, man, I ain't going nowhere. I wanted to cry that day.

 

Ko Bragg: Just before Thanksgiving, Isaiah gets another chance, a new transfer motion hearing. He rides over to the courthouse with the others being held at the Neshoba County Jail. Shackled and chained, they walk past the Confederate soldier statue into the building and up the stairs into a holding room, where they pray before court starts

 

Isaiah: I really just wanted to hold my head down. Didn't want to look at nobody, just wanted to get it over with. Like when I walked in, I just looked around and just hoped for the best, that everything go well and I get to go home with my family.

 

Speaker 3: Would you state your name, please, ma'am.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah sees his mom-

 

Felicia Hickman: Felicia Hickman.

 

Ko Bragg: ... and gets choked up.

 

Isaiah: It'd be like the tears right there, like they want to fall. It's like I could feel the crying coming, but it just won't come.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah is in an orange jumpsuit. His waist chains reveal a slender boyish frame. Ankle shackles hover just above his sneakers, a pair of red and black Jordan 13s. Felicia takes the stand, facing her son.

 

Felicia Hickman: It was stressful. I felt like they was trying to throw him away, send him to prison.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah's court appointed lawyer questions Felicia about her son's history with ADHD. The judge asks District Attorney Kilgore if he has any objections. He simply says, "No, sir." Next, Judge Duncan questions Felicia.

 

Judge Duncan: What assurance can you give me that the same thing won't happen again?

 

Felicia Hickman: I feel like if he's back on his medication, like he was supposed to be in the first place, I felt like it wouldn't have happened in the beginning.

 

Ko Bragg: Felicia explains how she's tried to get Isaiah on his medication, how she asked the jail nurse there to help out and never heard back. But Duncan doesn't seem to buy it.

 

Judge Duncan: Well, why didn't you go up there?

 

Felicia Hickman: I guess I had to set up appointment for... Because she's not there all the time, because I've been up there several times.

 

Judge Duncan: I go out there often and I see her just about every time I go.

 

Felicia Hickman: Well, I've been several times and she wasn't there.

 

Ko Bragg: By this time, Felicia is starting to look visibly bothered by this line of questioning.

 

Felicia Hickman: I really was angry. I really was upset.

 

Ko Bragg: But she promises to get Isaiah back on his meds if the judge just lets him come home. Duncan spends seven minutes unspooling his decision.

 

Judge Duncan: I appreciate his young age, but I also appreciate the crime he's charged with. I appreciate the legislature in its wisdom making that a felony for people at 13 or 14 years old, whether you agree with it or not.

 

Ko Bragg: Judge Duncan takes into account what the law requires. What would be best for Isaiah? What would be best for justice? He says he doesn't know, and that the ruling was giving him heartburn.

 

Judge Duncan: And given the fact that we know that the penitentiary is not really suitable for 14 year olds, I'm going to take a chance though and grant the motion. But I want you to understand this, I took a chance on you one time, and I got burnt. If I get burned again, it will be the last time I take a chance on this. If you're committing adult crimes, you're going to be treated as an adult from that day forward, at least as far as I'm concerned. Do you understand me?

 

Isaiah: I wanted to cry again then, but I couldn't. I know I was happy though. I was really happy.

 

Ko Bragg: Two weeks later, I go to Felicia's house. Isaiah is somewhere out with friends, and Felicia leaves the football game on while we talk for a couple hours. Just before I get up to go home, she asks me something.

 

Felicia Hickman: So I wonder, is this the first time a child has been charged as an adult here?

 

Ko Bragg: I start to answer her question, because I know this isn't the first time a child has been charged as an adult in Mississippi. But she got me thinking, exactly how many Isaiahs are out there? Over the next year, I set out to answer that question.

 

Al Letson: Ko's quest for answers leads her back into the roots of Mississippi's legislative history.

 

Robby Luckett: Well, you're talking about a regime that is explicitly racist and explicitly built on white supremacy, so they absolutely would have been thinking about black children, African Americans, right? By the time you get to 1940, this system of power is total power, and it is 100 percent rooted in white supremacy.

 

Al Letson: That's coming up on Reveal.

 

Speaker 11: From PBS comes a groundbreaking documentary, College Behind Bars. Follow the struggles and successes of incarcerated students as they work toward a college degree while in prison. It's an intimate look at the power of education to change lives, exploring such questions as, what is prison for, and who deserves an education in America? Ken Burns presents a film by Lynn Novak. College Behind Bars premiers Monday, November 25th at 9/8 Central, only on PBS.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. 14-year-old Isaiah has just been freed from a Mississippi county jail for adults after nine months. His case has been transferred down to youth court. But reporter Ko Bragg still has a lot of questions, including one Isaiah's mom Felicia asked her. How many Isaiahs are out there? Ko starts by going back to when original jurisdiction, the set of laws that got Isaiah automatically locked up as an adult, first got on the books. Her research takes us back over a century.

 

Ko Bragg: I'm a pretty big history nerd, so I wanted to track down when original jurisdiction laws came to be. I head to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. This is mind numbing work to do alone, but I know of a savvy data reporter with southern roots who can help, Reveal's Melissa Lewis.

 

Melissa Lewis: It is very bright out here. Beautiful trees outside of a regal stone building. It's nice to read literally the laws as they existed at the time.

 

Ko Bragg: The archives are housed in a big building with high cathedral ceilings in the heart of Mississippi's capital city, Jackson. It's always way too cold inside, but freezing your butt of is worth it. Okay, so I have to whisper because we're in archives, where we've been going through the legal history of how juvenile courts were founded in Mississippi and how they took shape. Both the Mississippi House and Senate publish a record of all the bills in a particular legislative session. The records dating all the way back to 1821 are bound in thick books you can only access in person.

 

Ko Bragg: It feels exciting. It feels like we're pulling apart a puzzle. Being here is important because we can cross reference laws being passed and the discussion among legislators about their decisions to make those changes, like their reasoning behind it. Sifting through these heavy old legal journals from the 40s, we find lawmakers pass a lot of legislation to incarcerate kids. It blows my mind to come in here and see that pretty much the same language that's in our active laws today stems from the 40s. These laws are from a period in history where black people were not free, so what does that mean? That's what we're trying to find out with this research.

 

Ko Bragg: In 1940, lawmakers set the minimum age to be charged as an adult at 14. Two years later, Mississippi lawmakers wanted to take it even further, so that children of any age could face adult charges. Democratic Governor Paul Johnson, Sr. doesn't go for that, because he already set up a kid's prison unit at Oakley State Farm, specifically for quote, delinquent Negros. Mississippi calls it a training school. He's saying, why should we worry about putting younger kids in the adult system? There's already a place for black children. This detail is easy to overlook. I almost didn't find it, because it's only a couple of sentences in the back of an old book.

 

Ko Bragg: But this is one of the rare times when it's clear that lawmakers had black children in mind when they were making this system, and this made me realize, I need to get a better handle on what the climate of Mississippi politics was at the time. I meet up with Robby Luckett, a civil rights historian and professor at Jackson State University. So who are these people, these representatives in the 1940s who are creating these laws about charging kids as adults, and who would they have been holding in their mind who could be adultified in that way?

 

Robby Luckett: Well, you're talking about a regime that is explicitly racist and explicitly built on white supremacy, so they absolutely would have been thinking about black children, African Americans, right? By the time you get to 1940, this system of power is total power, and it is 100 percent rooted in white supremacy.

 

Ko Bragg: A lot is going on in the 40s. World War II was at its peak, and as soldiers of all creeds fight fascism abroad, white lawmakers continue to fortify power they've held for decades. Okay, now before we get into this history, you should know that you're going to hear offensive words and disturbing stories about how black people were treated. You can get an idea from this 1946 campaign speech.

 

Speaker 13: And now, Senator Bilbo.

 

Ko Bragg: It's a scratchy old recording of Theodore Bilbo, a former Mississippi governor and a known Klansman.

 

Theodore Bilbo: My friends, I want to be [inaudible 00:26:01]. Yes, there is a race question in this country. There is a race question [inaudible 00:26:08]. And my views on this question [inaudible 00:26:13].

 

Ko Bragg: As governor, Bilbo was the one who created training schools, which were basically prisons for kids convicted of crimes. But the court also sent kids there if they'd been abandoned by their parents, or even if the court thought they might one day commit a crime. And Bilbo, he built his political career on racism.

 

Theodore Bilbo: And I'm convinced that mongrelization will destroy the white race and white civilization, the integrity of the blood of my white race, white American civilization, the [inaudible] life of the Republic and the people's rights and freedom.

 

Ko Bragg: In this speech, Bilbo says the N word nearly 30 times. In response, black Mississippians file a petition and the fallout leads to a congressional investigation. Bilbo dies of cancer before the matter is resolved, but he lives long enough to see the day Mississippi lawmakers set 13 as the minimum age to be in the adult system.

 

Robby Luckett: By controlling these children and by at least having the option to control these children, you can control their economic power, and you can control their parents and what their parents may or may not do, because if your child is in prison, you're probably not going to push for advancing civil rights or human rights or any kind of basic recognition of human dignity.

 

Ko Bragg: The system that allows Mississippi to try kids as adults is called original jurisdiction, and it's still on the books today. It's the reason why in 2017 Isaiah gets put into an adult jail. These laws were not established in a vacuum. Between 1877 and 1950, Mississippians commit the most known lynchings of any state, 654.

 

Robby Luckett: If you do that math, that's a known lynching every six weeks for 73 years in the state of Mississippi.

 

Ko Bragg: And these lynch mobs also target children. I found an incident that happened in 1942, the same year lawmakers started charging kids as adults. 14-year-old Charlie Lang and 15-year-old Ernest Green are best friend, growing up in Shubuta, Mississippi. They're accused of threatening to rape a white girl. There's no proof, only rumors. Still, Ernest and Charlie are thrown into county jail, but they never get their day in court. A group of white men kidnap them.

 

Ko Bragg: The next morning, a crowd gathers to witness what some call a necktie party. A group of men cut the rope down, and they load the boys onto a timber truck heading to town. Someone snaps a photo of them in the truck bed, laying side by side, the nooses still secured around their necks. That photo gets wired across the country. Governor Paul Johnson, Sr. condemns the lynchings as murders, and he assists an FBI investigation that goes nowhere. The white mob who dragged the boys from jail are never charged. Few ever are. And at the same time, white lawmakers keep crafting ways to stay on top.

 

Robby Luckett: This tension between those politicians who would have been explicitly racist demagogues and those who were more pragmatic in their approach to maintaining white supremacy and thought, let's not shout the N word at the top of our lungs. Instead, let's create policies that don't necessarily speak explicitly to race unless we absolutely have to.

 

Ko Bragg: It's like how original jurisdiction laws written in the 40s don't actually say they're intended for black children, but that's how they were designed. And at the same time, Jim Crow laws are disenfranchising black people from voting.

 

Robby Luckett: And if you can't vote, if you can't elect someone to represent you, if you can't change the laws, if you can't even serve on a jury, you can't do anything about all of the other auspices of power. And so you will see attempts throughout the state legislature to craft codes that enables localized places to have as much power as possible. It's rooted in that whole tired old theory of states rights.

 

Ko Bragg: There's some people who still say the Civil War was about states rights. This is one of the oldest American lies. The fight was about upholding slavery. Mississippi's economy had been built on the backs of black people. So after slavery is abolished, white lawmakers use prison to keep black people, including children, in bondage. Black children have been going to adult prison ever since. In the early 1900s, the state builds a prison farm in the Delta where black people of all ages work the land. This is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. This work song was recorded there in the 1930s. The prison is till open today.

 

Robby Luckett: Acting as an 18000 acre operating plantation that the state of Mississippi make money off of, and I'd argue it still is to this day an operating plantation that the state of Mississippi makes money off of.

 

Ko Bragg: Parchman Farm is infamous for chain gangs, cotton fields, and Black Annie, the nickname for a thick leather strap used to whip prisoners. Children work black and white striped uniforms as they tilled the fields.

 

Robby Luckett: It is not so much what has happened in the past that is important, as why it happened and why we should care about it today, especially in this context of children and others of African descent who find themselves disproportionately subject to the fate of the criminal justice system in this country.

 

Ko Bragg: Over a century later, Isaiah ends up before a judge in adult court, at risk of going to Parchman. But remember, Isaiah gets out of the adult system. Judge Mark Duncan grants his transfer motion. In Duncan's ruling, he talks about original jurisdiction laws and appreciating the quote wisdom of the legislature. I ask Robby Luckett about that.

 

Robby Luckett: I believe that you have this system of white supremacy so deeply ingrained, that particularly the powerful white elite in this state can make pronouncements like this and just presume they're not being racist, right? And that is part of the power of the last century of white supremacy in Mississippi.

 

Ko Bragg: The district attorney prosecuting Isaiah upholds these laws too. Hey.

 

Speaker 5: Hey.

 

Ko Bragg: DA Steven Kilgore pulls me aside before Isaiah's transfer hearing.

 

Speaker 5: I know we've talked before on this case.

 

Ko Bragg: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Speaker 5: You're familiar with how it started and where we are in the process?

 

Ko Bragg: Well, yeah. I'm always wondering about... He wants to explain how and why he was prosecuting a kid Isaiah's age. Refresh me.

 

Speaker 5: The original plan was to send him back to youth court. Nobody wants a 14-year-old in the jail. The sheriff doesn't. We don't. Defense attorneys don't. He doesn't want to be there. His family doesn't want to be there. Nobody wants a 14-year-old to go to Parchman. That's absurd. But we're bound by the statute.

 

Ko Bragg: Bound by statute. The way Kilgore sees it, the Mississippi legislature tied his hands when they created original jurisdiction laws.

 

Speaker 5: We didn't choose to prosecute a 13-year-old. The statute says we have to. We have to start out-

 

Ko Bragg: I keep thinking about Felicia's question, how many other kids like Isaiah have been prosecuted as adults? This number wasn't something I could just google. No one is keeping track. But luckily, I get a tip. I find out that the state of Mississippi keeps court data going back to 1994, but the state doesn't have to give it out under public records laws. So after a few stern emails, I convinced the state to turn over 25 years worth of court data for just 25 bucks. My mama taught me from a young age to value my strengths, and sifting through nearly 700,000 is not one of mine. My colleague Melissa comes to the rescue.

 

Melissa Lewis: And when I opened it, I couldn't believe how much information there was. It was like the King James bible a hundred times. 700,000 records. More data than I'd ever seen on this topic, and it was really exciting because I saw like a timeline of what happened to each person. And there is knowing that a problem exists, and then there is being able to go through a ton of data to say like, this isn't something that people just feel is happening, but this is a definitive pattern. There are almost 5000 kids in the adult system in Mississippi since 1994.

 

Melissa Lewis: And so the next question is, does that population look like Mississippi in general? Is everybody going through this? Through census information, I found that kids in Mississippi, it's about even, black and white. But when I looked at the data for who is being sentenced as adults, I found triple the black kids over white kids. Three times as many black kids. It's not just a story. I mean, it is stories assembled into a pattern over 25 years. More people being sentenced, black kids having to serve longer time for the same charges. So there is overt racial bias in almost every aspect of this data. They are not having the same experience. It feels like history is repeating itself.

 

Ko Bragg: Melissa and I take this analysis right to DA Kilgore. Hi. I'm Ko. I'm here to see DA Kilgore.

 

Speaker 15: Hang on just a second.

 

Ko Bragg: No problem. Thank you.

 

Melissa Lewis: Hi. I'm Melissa Lewis. I'm a data reporter for Reveal. It's nice to meet you.

 

Speaker 5: Nice to meet you.

 

Ko Bragg: Melissa has all types of charts and bar graphs to show Kilgore.

 

Melissa Lewis: I just wanted to show you that I broke up the data by DA tenure. So for example, I just added something so we can see individual numbers [crosstalk]

 

Ko Bragg: In Kilgore's district, as is the case statewide, black kids are overrepresented in the adult system. Melissa asks about it.

 

Melissa Lewis: I was curious as to whether you have a sense of why black defendants and I think especially among minors are overrepresented in these cases.

 

Ko Bragg: There's a long pause.

 

Speaker 5: No, I don't know why. I'm surprised that it's that high, as far as the amount.

 

Ko Bragg: As we speak, Isaiah sits in Oakley for the sixth month. It's not that farm for quote delinquent Negros anymore. Now it's Oakley Youth Development Center. It sounds like it could be a woodsy summer camp, but it is still very much a prison. Isaiah was relieved when he finally got transferred to the youth court system. But when he went through that process, he was sentenced to more time behind bars, up to a year, and he doesn't get any credit for the time he already served in the adult county jail. How could it be that someone who's 14 could spend nine months in a jail and now have to spend more time in jail? Is there any room in the system that credits him?

 

Speaker 5: If he were sentenced on any felony charge in our court, he would have gotten time for every day he spent in jail. How that translates to youth court, I don't know. I feel confident that the youth court referee looked at everything. I feel confident she did what she thought was best. I do. I have full confidence in that.

 

Ko Bragg: Kilgore has been in Philadelphia, Mississippi all his life, and he comes from a legal family. Before the judge in Isaiah's case got on the bench, he was the DA, and he recruited Kilgore a decade ago. Kilgore blames sentencing disparities on a legacy of racism. He says it's hard for white people who grew up in the 50s to be fair.

 

Speaker 5: I'm 38. I grew up in Philadelphia, and it's a completely different Philadelphia than the Philadelphia my father grew up, in the Philadelphia that my grandfather grew up in. You know, there aren't separate water fountains anymore. Things, people aren't openly treated differently.

 

Ko Bragg: But Kilgore thinks his district will do better under his leadership.

 

Speaker 5: And I think that it gets better with every generation. I think we're more accepting than the generation before us, who's more accepting than the generation before them. There's still lots of overt racism, but I think that it is getting better.

 

Ko Bragg: Kilgore says he's made it a point to hire younger employees. Still, all the prosecutors in his office are white. Melissa and I have one more stop to make. Hey. Good morning. Felicia is in the middle of braiding Isaiah's sister's hair when we walk into her living room. We've come to show her what we showed DA Kilgore.

 

Melissa Lewis: Yeah, so Ko is extremely cool and got a ton of court data and shared it with me and asked me to look at it and examine how unusual Isaiah's case is.

 

Ko Bragg: We tell Felicia that in terms of age, Isaiah is among just a few dozen kids who have been charged as adults at age 13.

 

Felicia Hickman: God.

 

Ko Bragg: How do you feel kind of looking at the numbers? Most of the kids are black. Most of the kids are not 13. How does it feel that your son still kind of went through the system?

 

Felicia Hickman: So I feel like, well, why did he have to go through it? What was so bad about him that he had to go through it?

 

Ko Bragg: As we're talking about Isaiah, Felicia pulls something from her purse.

 

Felicia Hickman: This is a letter Isaiah wrote. I'm ready to come home. I'm just not fixing to keep being something I'm not.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah isn't doing well at Oakley. He says he's gotten two months added to his sentence for misbehaving.

 

Felicia Hickman: I've been sitting back in my cell thinking something about the way I was at the county is the reason I can't comply with this program.

 

Ko Bragg: That's the thing about solitary. Even when you're out, you're never really out. The symptoms follow you. Pangs of paranoia, abrupt anger, steep sadness.

 

Felicia Hickman: I really just want to explode right now and cry, but I'm going to try to hold on a little bit longer. I'm going to show them what I'm capable of.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah is ready to come home.

 

Felicia Hickman: I really need and want a visitation. As soon as you get a chance, please come see me.

 

Ko Bragg: She hasn't been yet. It's a four hour round trip, and it's hard for her to take off work.

 

Felicia Hickman: Mama, I know for a fact you probably stressing, but just keep praying about it for me. I love you more than I love getting in trouble, LOL. Just playing.

 

Al Letson: Felicia does eventually make it to Oakley.

 

Felicia Hickman: Nothing but woods. Barbed wire fences. This looks like a prison.

 

Ko Bragg: You say it looks like a prison? Is that her? I think that's her.

 

Al Letson: A reunion and a surprise. That's coming up next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Felicia Hickman's son Isaiah is serving out a sentence at Oakley, a juvenile detention center two hours away from their home in Philadelphia, Mississippi. This is after he spent nine months in the adult county jail, some of that time in solitary, some illegally housed alongside adults. Reporter Ko Bragg picks up the story as Felicia goes to see Isaiah for the first time in months.

 

Ko Bragg: I'm in Felicia's car. It's only 9:00 AM, but she's been up for hours. She had to go into work at 3:00 in the morning so she could get off in time to go pick up her son. Isaiah is getting out early, but she doesn't know why. Do you have any idea why they might be letting him out early?

 

Felicia Hickman: Didn't your boss say that y'all went and talked with the judge?

 

Ko Bragg: We sat down with the DA for like three hours and did an interview about Isaiah's case.

 

Felicia Hickman: I feel like that had something to do with it. I believe they said, with these fools checking into this, trying to see why did they lock him up, you know, and him being at that age, it was a threat. Y'all might find out something that they've done wrong, what's really going on. You might better let him on out. That's what I think did it. That's what I think happened.

 

Ko Bragg: Either way, she's going to get her boy. Felicia has on jeans and a teal tee shirt that bring out the purple and blue in her stud earrings that say LOL. Her sneakers remind me of a vacation, with their pink and green tropical print. She keeps that shoe steady on the pedal as we ride up the Oakley. It's up there, where that truck making a left.

 

Felicia Hickman: Okay. I think he grew up too fast. He wasn't a child over there. See, he think he grown now. I just tried to do the best I could.

 

Ko Bragg: We turn onto a narrow, bumpy tree-lined road.

 

Felicia Hickman: Yeah, they out in the country. That's cotton.

 

Ko Bragg: We pass a pecan plantation, a reminder of Oakley's start as a prison farm.

 

Felicia Hickman: Nothing but woods. Barbed wire fences. This looks like a prison.

 

Ko Bragg: You say it looks like a prison?

 

Felicia Hickman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Ko Bragg: I'm not allowed to go inside, so I sit in Felicia's car. The guards make me drive outside the gates, and then I see them. I'm trying to behave and not take pictures, but this is so tempting. I might get one. All right, I snapped one. I'm being out of control. Isaiah is taller than Felicia now, and he's put on some muscle. He's wearing a gray tee shirt and pants the material of doctor scrubs with emojis all over them. These are the clothes he had on when he first arrived at Oakley. Now they're too small. Hey. You need help? Isaiah puts all of his belongings into the trunk and sits passenger side.

 

Felicia Hickman: [inaudible 00:45:14].

 

Isaiah: I mean, the state, it's like-

 

Felicia Hickman: Oh, [inaudible 00:45:19]. Was it better than being in the county?

 

Isaiah: Yeah, way better.

 

Ko Bragg: Two hours later, we pull into Philadelphia and reality sets in. Isaiah has to check in with the youth court office about his parole. I wait in the lobby. I can hear a counselor named Mandy warning Isaiah that she's informed everyone in town that he's out. When the meeting ends, she keeps talking.

 

Mandy: Isaiah is a very smart kid, if he would just apply himself to things that are productive, right? He is. He's going to do wonders now. He's not going to cause me any trouble whatsoever. Right, Isaiah? What do you say?

 

Isaiah: [inaudible 00:45:59].

 

Mandy: I think I need to give all these younger kids a lesson on yes, ma'am, no, sir, the whole nine yards. All right, I'll be seeing you. But I better not be see you walking on the street. I'm going to call your mama.

 

Ko Bragg: So no walking on the street at all?

 

Mandy: At night. [crosstalk]

 

Ko Bragg: Oh, at night.

 

Mandy: At night. Late at night. All right, Isaiah. We'll be checking in on you. Call me if you need me, okay?

 

Felicia Hickman: All right.

 

Mandy: All right, thank y'all.

 

Ko Bragg: Thanks. Being out on parole means Isaiah has a 9:00 PM curfew during the week and 10:00 on the weekends, no drugs or alcohol, no bowling alley. A few weeks later, I find Isaiah sitting on the front lawn in a chair propped up against an antique van. He's blasting music through his headphones. What are you listening to?

 

Isaiah: [inaudible 00:46:53].

 

Ko Bragg: You like it? Felicia is inside with her six week old grandbaby, her first. Who's this? Oh, is that your grandbaby?

 

Felicia Hickman: Grandbaby [inaudible] fixing to go home.

 

Ko Bragg: Felicia calls Isaiah inside so that we can talk. He tells me everything, about the incident, about being in and out of jail, his hopes and dreams, his regrets.

 

Isaiah: I would tell my 13-year-old self to really listen and just know what you want and stuff like that, the important stuff and not the dumb, and the stuff that's going to get you somewhere in life and not locked up, in the grave, somewhere like that.

 

Ko Bragg: There's the Isaiah who chases his sister and sits on the couch eating pizza, and then there's the one who wants to show his mom he's changed.

 

Isaiah: Mama, I want to let you know that I'm done getting in trouble and I'm fixing to straighten up my life and get back on track and do the right thing that I was raised to do.

 

Felicia Hickman: Isaiah, I don't want you to put me through nothing else like this no more. Try to do right and further your education and make something out of your life.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah is 15 now and is supposed to be in high school, but he hasn't been to real school since seventh grade. He's been incarcerated in adult jail and in juvie. While only two years have passed since that night at the bowling alley, Isaiah feels he's aged much more than that.

 

Isaiah: Like right now, I'm still 15, and I feel like I'm about 28. I'm going to go back to school so I can start back feeling young again.

 

Ko Bragg: Isaiah is trying to get back in school, and when I asked him about his other plans, he says, "I want to get my driver's license, buy a van, start a lawn mowing business, and be a rapper and barber on the side." At last I got a glimpse of Isaiah, the typical teenager with big dreams.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to reporter Ko Bragg for that story. In recent years, some states like Oregon, Florida, and California have gotten rid of their laws that automatically charge kids as adults in some crimes. Ko also looked at how black girls fare in the criminal justice system. If you want to hear that story, check out our next podcast episode. To see photos of Isaiah and Felicia and to read more about the problems with Mississippi's criminal justice system, visit revealnews.org.

 

Al Letson: Our lead producer for this week's show was Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, with help from Priska Neely. Our data reporter was Melissa Lewis. Jen Chien edited the show. Ko Bragg's work comes to us through Reveal's Investigative Fellowship Program. Special thanks to Ko's editor, Andy Donahue, plus Martin Reynolds, [Amani Cayam 00:49:50], Julia Riley, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic due Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man [Joe Arutta 00:50:03].

 

Al Letson: They had help this week from [Hajib Hemini 00:50:04] and Amy [Mustafa 00:50:06]. Our CEO is Chris [Shoshofenburg 00:50:08]. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camarado] Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided the Reva and David Logan Foundation. The John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the [Heising] Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 17: From PRX.