In Mississippi, Jim Crow era laws result in a high rate of black kids charged as adults
Written by Ko Bragg
Reported by Ko Bragg and Melissa Lewis
November 14, 2019
“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
Thirteen years old is when a black kid in Mississippi learns he’s an adult. Isaiah figured it out at the beginning of seventh grade when he got into trouble at his favorite place in town.
The bowling alley, which anchors a strip mall just over a set of seldom-used train tracks in Philadelphia, Mississippi, shares a parking lot with a pancake restaurant, a nail salon, a skating rink and a bar. For teenagers in this town of 7,000, where everybody knows everybody, it is the place to be when the weekend hits.
Most area kids – play cousins and actual cousins – beg for rides there. Isaiah and his older brother, who were new to town, had to take a four-mile walk down a busy two-lane highway. But on this second Friday of September 2017, Isaiah had a secret in his pocket he could barely contain.
Few things are more important to a 13-year-old than impressing your friends, and few things are more difficult than impulse control. Isaiah had ADHD medicine to help him with it, but it made him sleepy. So he found a way to hide the pills under his tongue and spit them out when his mom, Felicia Hickmon, wasn’t looking.
Hickmon gave the talk a lot of black parents give: Tighten up. It doesn’t take much for a black kid to end up in jail. That night, she’d told him that he could go only to the football game. But Isaiah badly wanted to keep up with his new friends in his new hometown. So there he was, at the bowling alley. Tall for his age. Bouncing around on spindly legs. With that BB gun in his pocket.
Isaiah and his mom, Felicia Hickmon, in Philadelphia, Miss. In 2017, at age 13, Isaiah used a BB gun to rob a classmate of his iPhone. Isaiah ended up spending nine months in and out of solitary confinement at the adult county jail. CREDIT: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
The powerful toy looked like the kind of pistol cops keep in their holsters. Isaiah knew his older brother wouldn’t like him taking it to town, so he’d stashed it in his pocket. He couldn’t contain the secret forever.
“What you doing with my gun?” Isaiah’s 16-year-old brother asked.
Isaiah took off running. “I’m finna rob somebody,” he said.
His brother tried to chase him, but eventually gave up and went into the bowling alley. That’s when Isaiah saw a white boy he played football with and his mind began to race.
“Nah, I ain’t about to do this.”
“What if he ain’t got nothing?”
“What if I get years?”
Isaiah had seen robberies only on TV. It could be a way to get money, he thought.
He walked up to the boy and cocked the gun. “Oh yeah, he sho’nuff thinks this is real,” Isaiah thought, looking at the boy’s face. The boy gave Isaiah his iPhone and the password. Isaiah took off and ran to tell his brother and friend what he had done. He was on his own, they said. Isaiah’s growing paranoia and panic made every passing car seem like the police.
When the police did stop Isaiah and his brother that night, both boys had on the same thing: boots, blue jeans and a camouflage coat. The boy Isaiah robbed told the police they had the wrong guys.
Days later, while in class, Isaiah was summoned to the office. The police were there. They took him into custody for questioning. He said he talked to police for two hours.
Isaiah told me that he was upfront about the BB gun but that he never confessed to the robbery. But instead of going home like he said the investigators promised, Isaiah went to the county jail. When he first walked in, someone else was getting booked, and an officer announced, “He’s here.”
The officers escorted Isaiah into solitary confinement and closed the metal door.
I first heard about Isaiah’s case when I picked up a copy of The Neshoba Democrat and saw the story on the front page. I wondered how many other kids there were out there like him.
The short answer, I eventually learned, is that nearly 5,000 Mississippi children have been charged as adults in the last 25 years. Three out of every four are black, like Isaiah.
The long answer is that black kids in Mississippi always have been punished like adults.
Mississippi is the blackest state in the nation and pretty much has been since the days when cotton was king, and black people curved their backs like crescents to harvest it, minding the looming threat of the whip or being sold downriver and being permanently separated from family. After chattel slavery came convict leasing, when the state loaned out its black prison population to work on plantations and build railroads.
Men work in the fields at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a prison better known as Parchman Farm. It was designed to exploit free labor after slavery was abolished. CREDIT: Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History
In the late 1800s, state laws made no distinction between punishing children and adults. A doctor visiting prisoners on a Delta plantation described a starving 17-year-old kept in a cage lined with a bloodstained dirt floor, overflowing waste buckets and vermin-covered walls, David Oshinsky writes in his book “Worse Than Slavery.”
By 1880, children and adolescents made up about a quarter of the prison population, according to Oshinsky. At 6 years old, Mary Gay was sentenced to a month in prison for stealing a hat, and at the age of 8, Will Evans served two years for stealing change from a store counter.
Mississippi eventually ended convict leasing under national pressure in 1890. It gave way to the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman Farm.
Black women (left) imprisoned at Parchman Farm in the 1930s stand outside of the prison’s post office. Young black men (right) imprisoned at Parchman in the 1930s tend to a calf. CREDIT: Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Even the youngest inmates at Parchman picked cotton and cultivated other cash crops for the state’s profit while incurring lashings from “Black Annie,” the coined name for a thick leather strap. Jabo Dean, 12; Homer Reed, 12; and his brother Pratt Reed, 11, of Philadelphia, Mississippi, were at Parchman for theft and wore black- and white-striped uniforms as they tilled the fields.
By the time Mississippi got around to making separate jails for kids, in 1916, the governor was a known Klansman named Theodore Bilbo. He had a long political career, and in one re-election speech, he spewed the N-word nearly 30 times while condemning “intermixing” with black people. Bilbo created so-called “training schools,” where the state could jail kids charged with breaking the law, homeless kids, abandoned kids, even kids the courts thought might one day be criminals.
More than two decades later, the 1940 Legislature created a separate court system for kids and at the same time permitted children as young as 14 to face criminal charges in adult court. Lawmakers wanted to take it even further. In 1942, the all-white body wrote a bill to permit children of any age to face criminal charges in adult court.
Ku Klux Klan members held powerful positions in government throughout the Jim Crow era. Theodore Bilbo (left), shown in 1939, was a known Klansman who served as Mississippi’s governor and a U.S. senator. At right, the KKK holds a march in Washington in 1926. CREDIT: Left photo: Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress. Right photo: Library of Congress
But then-Gov. Paul Johnson Sr. vetoed this bill. In the memo accompanying his veto, Johnson argued that the law was redundant. He already had approved $60,000 – nearly $1 million by today’s standards – to fund a “negro reformatory at Oakley State Farm.”
In other words, there was no need to criminally prosecute younger kids when the state had a new plan in place to send black kids to Oakley. This veto was one of the only times a Mississippi lawmaker plainly stated that laws created to prosecute children were intended for black kids.
And in the state with the most known lynchings, black kids were also victims of a violent extrajudicial system. In 1942, Charlie Lang, 15, and Ernest Green, 14, were best friends growing up in Shubuta, Mississippi. Black schools in their county were not accredited beyond middle school. They spent a lot of time working odd jobs and wandering about town.
One day, a white father heard that Ernest and Charlie had chased his daughter across a bridge and threatened to rape her. The boys were arrested because of these rumors, which no one believed on the black side of town. A white mob kidnapped the boys from jail and took them back to the bridge. The boys were found the next morning hanging from a rope above the silty river.
The NAACP office on 5th Avenue in New York flew this flag following known lynchings around the country, as shown in this 1936 photo. CREDIT: Library of Congress
That same year, Johnson established a court system for children like Charlie and Ernest. But they never got their day in court, as Jason Morgan Ward recounts in his book about the lynching. And neither did the white mob that dragged those boys from jail and celebrated their demise at the foot of what is now memorialized as “The Hanging Bridge.”
Laws passed in 1946 permitted kids as young as 13 to face criminal prosecution as adults. Their legacy remains seven decades later in the form of “original jurisdiction” laws. They are not unique to Mississippi: Twenty-six states automatically put children into the adult system at the moment of arrest for certain charges. Down here, we call them “original jurisdiction” laws; elsewhere, it’s “statutory exclusion.”
In 1931, journalist Joseph North wrote this pamphlet decrying the racist treatment of black juveniles in Southern courts. CREDIT: National Museum of African American History and Culture
In Mississippi, any child over the age of 13 who is arrested for a crime involving a weapon goes directly into the adult system. A BB gun counts, too. In Mississippi, if a victim perceives a weapon to be real, it might as well be.
This is how Isaiah became an adult instead of finishing seventh grade. When confronted with cases such as his, many adults running Mississippi’s criminal justice system throw up their hands, saying they’re bound by the law. But those laws were adopted at the height of the Jim Crow era, when black adults did not have the protected right to vote. And an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that police, prosecutors and judges today have continued that legacy, exercising their wide discretion in a way that ultimately ends the childhood of black kids far more often – and with far greater severity.
When Isaiah first arrived at the Neshoba County jail, he couldn’t eat. He was hungry. But it was like he didn’t have any taste buds.
Under federal law, kids can’t be housed with adults in prison. So Isaiah was placed in solitary confinement. To pass the time, he slept until he couldn’t, often resting on his low concrete slab of a bed through the first two meals of the day, until an officer came by to guilt him for sleeping so late. Sometimes, he woke up merely to get the breakfast tray and save it for when he got bored with sleeping. After the odor of mass-produced eggs began to fill his cell, the 13-year-old timed his wake-ups to the arrival of the lunch tray. He looked forward to the bag of chips.
We go to Mississippi to learn about a set of laws that automatically send kids into the adult legal system for certain crimes.
Solitary at any age can lead regions of the brain to shrink, including the areas that control memory and anxiety. Days of sustained isolation can hinder young people, whose brains will continue to develop impulse control into their 20s.
Isaiah hated feeling alone. His mind just would not quit.
“How long Imma be up in here?”
“I ain’t never been away from home this long.”
“How do my people and them feel?”
“Do people miss me?”
After eight days, Felicia Hickmon put up her property as collateral for bail. Isaiah was free to go until his next court date, but nothing went back to normal.
Isaiah’s middle school kicked him out because the case involved a classmate. With this newfound freedom, Isaiah pushed the limits. Hickmon tried to impose a 10 p.m. curfew, but soon, 10 p.m. became 11 p.m., and after a while, Isaiah didn’t come home at all.
Isaiah’s mother, Felicia Hickmon, is a tall woman who’s passed down her height to her six children. After Isaiah’s arrest, she questioned her decision to move the family to Philadelphia, Miss. “It seems like when I moved to Philadelphia, I moved into hell,” she said. CREDIT: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
Hickmon is a tall woman with a cool demeanor and a voice that always has an even register, even when she’s stressing. You have to look her right in the eyes to know how she’s feeling. Over the last few years, she’d been living with a deep worry. Isaiah had long been sneaking out of the house. After work, Hickmon would ride around to try to find him. She didn’t know what else to do. She tried to reassure herself that she was doing the best she could as a working mother of six.
Hickmon had remarried and moved the family to Philadelphia just before the start of the 2017 school year. If you know that there is a Philadelphia in Mississippi, it’s likely because of what happened on Father’s Day 1964, when the Ku Klux Klan and law enforcement officials – some of them one and the same – killed three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The murders gripped the nation, leading to the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and inspiring the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”
On Father’s Day 1964, civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were ambushed and killed in Philadelphia, Miss. Their murders gripped the nation and helped lead to the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. CREDIT: FBI archives
Philadelphia is only 30 miles away from Hickmon’s hometown, but in Mississippi, where people place you by your kinfolk, she felt alone and powerless. First when Isaiah started sneaking out of the window. Doubly when he got arrested.
After the arrest, Hickmon had begun to think maybe things would’ve been different if she never had uprooted her kids. “It seems like when I moved to Philadelphia, I moved into hell,” Hickmon said.
In February 2018, Isaiah’s few short months of freedom in Philadelphia came to an end, just as Hickmon warned. He was arrested again, this time for trying to steal from used car dealerships.
Normally, the charges would be handled in youth court. But Isaiah was in limbo in the system, treated neither as a child nor fully, without a conviction, as an adult. He went back to the county jail just in time for his 14th birthday.
Hickmon felt like she’d lost control. “I felt that he wasn’t mine anymore. He belonged to them,” she said. “I felt like they done took him, and it ain’t nothing else I could do about it. I just felt like giving up.”
Isaiah’s options for getting out of jail had narrowed to one.
Under original jurisdiction, defense lawyers can ask a judge to transfer a case to youth court, where proceedings are sealed from the public and the maximum punishment is juvie, an imperfect alternative that is still far less brutal.
Not all lawyers do this. In part, the law says some kids don’t qualify. Kids over 15 years old charged with gun crimes and kids who have been convicted in adult court can’t transfer to youth court.
Isaiah was eligible, though he waited in county jail for five months before his court-appointed lawyer, Jes Smith, filed such a motion. In July 2018, Smith took the transfer motion to court. He told the judge that his client “doesn’t have the cognitive skills or development to act like an adult, and he shouldn’t be tried for one in this case.”
There is no way to track how often these motions get filed without going through all the court files of the nearly 5,000 kids who’ve been charged as adults in Mississippi. Most of these records are not online and are accessible only in person.
I was able to get an idea of how these cases play out in Neshoba County. Every week, The Neshoba Democrat posts the county jail docket, and there, I found that at least 72 kids, including Isaiah, have been booked into the Neshoba County Jail since 2005. To learn more about each case, I sorted through dusty files at the Neshoba County Courthouse and found those files showed that 26 of those kids had been tried in adult court, including Isaiah.
Isaiah’s case was the only one with a transfer motion.
District Attorney Steven Kilgore said he didn’t agree with the motion, but he wouldn’t contest it outright. He told the judge, his former boss Mark Duncan, that he was fine with all aspects of the transfer motion except the final paragraph: the one that said it would be in the best interest of justice to send the case to youth court. The one that mattered.
The entire hearing took eight minutes, including Duncan’s concise ruling. “Y’all haven’t given me much to go on,” he told the attorneys.
“What I do know is, in its wisdom, the Legislature made armed robbery, when committed by somebody of his age, an adult offense,” Duncan said. “He’s to be treated as an adult, and I guess we could debate whether or not that’s a wise policy or not, but like it or not, that’s the way it is.”
Back at the jail, Isaiah thought he was getting out. No one had taken Isaiah to the hearing or explained what it meant. He said his goodbyes and waited at the door with his things, ready to leave. He didn’t know what was going on. He started kicking the door. “Man, I was supposed to be going home today,” he yelled to the guards.
This was Isaiah’s darkest night.
As summer gave way to fall, Isaiah’s mind was haunted by the thought of how much childhood he had missed.
“This a lot of time that’s gone and passed by, and I can’t get it back,” he said. “It was just making me want to turn up.”
After digging through old records in Neshoba County, I got a tip that Mississippi kept comprehensive data on all crimes going back the last 25 years. I eventually persuaded the court system – which isn’t subject to freedom of information laws – to provide the database.
The racial disparity among children in the adult system, it turns out, is even worse than it is for actual grown-ups. Census data shows that black and white kids in Mississippi match up nearly 1:1 in the free world, as Isaiah describes life outside jails. But of the kids charged as adults who have gone before a Mississippi judge in the last quarter-century, nearly 75% are black.
While boys make up most of the system, the racial disparity among Mississippi girls in the system also is stunning: 60% are black.
Less than 4% of the cases involve murder and rape. Most stem from a handful of charges: drug use, burglary, larceny and armed robbery. Some of these cases involve serious incidents, but are not always inherently violent.
Paloma Wu, senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said it’s very easy for children to end up in the adult system with serious charges, even when the most harm comes from property damage.
“They’re not accused of having hurt a soul, and they’re in adult court,” Wu said. “You would not wish on your greatest enemy to be a child in a situation that these kids are in.”
Black children also serve significantly longer sentences than white children in the adult system, our analysis found. Cases involving breaking and entering, car theft, and grand larceny — all considered property crimes — result in 5-year sentences across the board. But, white kids are only serving a year for these crimes, while black kids serve two on average.
Even when given longer sentences, white kids get out sooner. For example, for crimes involving weapons and explosives, white kids were sentenced to eight years on average, while black kids got five years. However, white kids ended up serving 366 days of those sentences on average. Black kids, meanwhile, served three years.
White kids are also over twice as likely to get a plea bargain that’s known as a “non-adjudication of guilt.” That’s when a judge, acting on a prosecutor’s recommendation, will withhold ruling on a guilty plea if the child completes “a program of good behavior.”
The disparities in the system shocked Robbie Luckett, a Jackson State University history professor, but in the context of history, he said they were not surprising. And he said Judge Mark Duncan’s comment about the “wisdom of the Legislature” showcases a caustic irony.
“You have this system of white supremacy so deeply ingrained that particularly the powerful white elite of this state can make pronouncements like this and just assume they’re not being racist,” he said.
Isaiah spent four more months in and out of solitary confinement, at times illegally being housed with the adults in the jail, before getting another chance at freedom: a second transfer motion.
Everything about the ensuing court date on Nov. 13, 2018, was different from the start. This time, two of Isaiah’s seventh-grade teachers had sworn in affidavits that their former student did not have the mental maturity to understand the consequences of his actions nor to comprehend right from wrong.
As he waited for Judge Mark Duncan to call the hearing, Steven Kilgore, the district attorney, surveyed the courtroom. He spotted me toward the rear and began whispering to me about Isaiah’s case. At his suggestion, we left the courtroom to have a more formal interview in a spare, tucked-away room.
“Nobody wants a 14-year-old in the jail,” Kilgore said unprompted. “The sheriff doesn’t. We don’t. Defense attorneys don’t. (Isaiah) doesn’t want to be there. His family don’t want him to be there. But we’re bound by the statute.”
In that tiny windowless room, Kilgore said he had wanted Isaiah’s case to go to youth court all along, but Isaiah’s second arrest effectively derailed that possibility.
“We can’t help him because he won’t help himself. He can’t stay out of trouble long enough to get this done,” Kilgore said. “That’s where we are.”
After our interview, Kilgore led the way back into the large courtroom just in time for Isaiah’s hearing.
Isaiah, tall for his age but bereft of facial hair, almost fit in with the other handcuffed residents of the county jail who had cases on the docket that same day. They prayed together.
On the day of his release from the Oakley Youth Development Center, Isaiah plays with the family dog, Django. He wears the puka shell necklace his mother bought him that day and shows off his tattoos. He etched some of them himself while locked up in the Neshoba County Jail. CREDIT: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
In the courtroom, Isaiah’s waist chains hung on a slender frame, ankle shackles hovering just above his red-and-black Jordan 13 sneakers. He dragged his feet across the hexagon-tiled floor, the simple white shapes outlined in a deep black. He told himself not to step too hard so as not to trip over the shackles.
He wanted to hold his head down and look at no one. He sat on the lawyer side of the wooden bar that separates the court officers from the less qualified, plopping down in an office chair with wheels and a base that could swivel. As he faced the judge, Isaiah fought temptation to keep his ever-racing mind bone still.
Isaiah’s new lawyer, Shawn Harris, called Felicia Hickmon as the first and only witness during this hearing. Hickmon put her right hand on the Bible and her left to the sky. As she locked eyes with the court clerk making her promise not to lie, Isaiah prayed his mother would keep her cool.
A Confederate soldier statue stands in front of the Neshoba County Courthouse, where Isaiah’s transfer motion hearings were held in 2018. The statue was dedicated in 1912 to “the memory of citizens in Neshoba County who served in the Civil War.” CREDIT: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
Harris, who has a contract with the county to represent clients such as Isaiah who can’t afford lawyers, questioned Hickmon briskly. On cross-examination, Kilgore didn’t fight the motion the way he had in July. This time, when Duncan asked whether he opposed the motion, he simply said, “No, sir.”
Duncan was much more methodical with his time questioning Hickmon, who told him that Isaiah’s arrest had kept them from making the doctor’s appointment to get him back on his medication for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. She explained that if he had been taking the pills, he never would’ve gotten into trouble.
“Was he not on his medication when he was allowed to post a bond?” Duncan asked.
“He was not,” Hickmon said. She told the judge that she had tried to get in touch with the nurse at the jail, to no avail.
“Well, why didn’t you go up there?” Duncan asked.
“I have been up there,” Hickmon said.
“And you can’t have a conversation with the nurse?” Duncan said. “I go out there often, and I see her just about every time I go.”
“I’ve been several times and she wasn’t there,” Hickmon said.
Hickmon felt like Duncan was trying to say she was an unfit mother. She assured him that she would get Isaiah a new prescription, if he let her boy come home with her.
It was time to rule. For seven straight minutes, the judge unfurled his decision.
“I appreciate his young age, but I also appreciate the crime he’s charged with,” Duncan said in his ruling. He echoed his sentiments from the July hearing. “I appreciate the Legislature in its wisdom making that a felony for people that are 13 or 14 years old, whether you agree with it or not.”
But no matter what he did, Duncan said, he wasn’t sure if he’d be doing the right thing. He said this decision gave him heartburn.
“I’m going to take a chance on you and grant the motion,” Duncan said. “But I want you to understand this: I took a chance on you one time, and I got burned. If I get burned again, it will be the last time I take a chance on you.” It was the only time anyone had spoken to Isaiah during a hearing about his future.
His case was heading to youth court. Over the last 25 years, state records show, only 40 kids before Isaiah had gotten their cases sent to a lower court.
Two days after the hearing, the correctional staff released Isaiah into the nighttime air. Hickmon escorted him out of the jail, relieved. He had been behind bars for the length of a full-term pregnancy.
“It’s just like having another child again,” Hickmon told me.
Isaiah thought he was free. But a transfer to youth court is not freedom.
Two months later, in January 2019, Isaiah spent the night at the house of a friend, who shook him awake the next morning.
“The police are looking for you,” Isaiah’s friend said.
Amy Taylor, who runs the Neshoba County Youth Court, had sentenced Isaiah to the Oakley Youth Development Center. Despite a name that evokes a woodsy summer camp, Oakley is very much a jail, just one for kids.
Isaiah said Taylor told him that she wanted him to spend at least a year there. “She was just talking to me like I done robbed her or something, like I already done had too many chances and all that,” Isaiah said. “She was like, ‘If I see you back in my courthouse, you’re going back up to circuit court.’
“Like she was supposed to be a judge. It just made me feel like if she don’t care, then who else do care?”
Nearly a year had passed since I had sat down with Steven Kilgore at the courthouse, when he said no one wanted a 14-year-old in jail.
I had many questions for the district attorney, but I was struggling to reach him, until he emailed to apologize. “Sorry I missed your earlier email,” Kilgore wrote. “We’ve been at the Neshoba County Fair all week.”
The fair consumes Philadelphia once a year. Some Mississippi families pack up about two weeks’ worth of clothes, beer and food for the event. Donald Trump Jr. campaigned there on his father’s behalf in 2016. Picture interconnected paths of red dirt and grass, but mainly dirt, snaking through a labyrinth of “fair cabins” in primary colors, many porches draped in oversized Confederate flags.
A mural in downtown Philadelphia, Miss., depicts the town’s slogan, “Our Fair City,” which refers to its two annual summertime fairs: the Neshoba County Fair and Choctaw Indian Fair. CREDIT: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
Other Mississippians avoid the fair. Felicia Hickmon doesn’t allow her kids to go. She’s heard stories of black folks disappearing there.
“It’s not for us,” a Walmart customer at her job had once told her. About a week after the fair ended and life went back to normal, Kilgore agreed to an interview. As we talked in his office in the early days of August, Isaiah had been at Oakley for a half a year.
I asked Kilgore why he didn’t opt out of prosecuting Isaiah, as prosecutors have done in over 500 cases involving kids in Mississippi since 1994.
Kilgore said he couldn’t do this for Isaiah because he doesn’t believe in declining to prosecute on the front end, unless a victim makes the request.
”Now that’s my rule,” Kilgore said. “That’s not a state rule or anything else.”
Overall, most prosecutors align with Kilgore. However, when district attorneys in Mississippi do decline to prosecute kids and totally release them from the adult system, our investigation found that they give white children the opportunity 26% more often than black children.
As Kilgore sees it, it’s not his job to make laws like original jurisdiction, just to enforce them until the Supreme Court says something is unconstitutional. Them’s the rules.
Kilgore said over and over again that he didn’t like having to prosecute such a young kid. I asked him whether he considered recommending that youth court honor the nine months Isaiah spent in county jail in pretrial detention, like they do for adults. He hadn’t.
“I feel confident she did what she thought was best and do have full confidence in that,” he said of Amy Taylor’s decision to send Isaiah to Oakley.
I showed Kilgore our data analysis reflecting how the actions of prosecutors and other officials in Mississippi continued a long legacy of disparate treatment of black kids in the adult system. He was surprised to see such a high amount of black kids in the adult system over time, even in his own district. But he put the blame on his predecessors.
“It’s a different community that we grew up in as opposed to our fathers,” said Kilgore, who is 38. “It’s hard to grow up in Mississippi in the 1950s and still be fair.”
Kilgore said he doesn’t let race factor into how he sees defendants, and he’s made it a point to hire younger prosecutors – he thinks this next generation will change things. But there are no nonwhite prosecutors in his office.
“You know there aren’t separate water fountains anymore,” Kilgore said. “You know people aren’t openly treated differently. It’s better now than it was when I was growing up. I mean, I’m still aware of how things were. … There’s still lots of overt racism but I think that it is getting better.”
As is the case nationwide, the analysis shows that far fewer kids are being charged as adults now as they were 25 years ago. But the racial discrepancies haven’t gone away: black kids still make up the overwhelming majority of children in the adult system, a rate that continues to soar. In the last 5 years, it’s been closer to 88%.
Isaiah, all of 15 years old, had started to worry about his younger brother. He didn’t want him to let their mom down the way he felt he had. From behind bars, he did what he could to impart wisdom.
“Say lil bruh I heard you been getting in a lot of trouble,” Isaiah wrote in a letter from Oakley around Mother’s Day. “To you it might not be scary to go to jail or anything, but it ain’t worth it. I know you prolly saying oh well. But the only thing I can tell you is what’s right. If you not worried bout nothing else just make mama happy.”
Finish school and make that money, Isaiah suggested before he signed the letter, “I love you always.” In that same envelope was a drawing for Felicia Hickmon: “#1 Mom” placed amid a rose vine.
A few months later, Isaiah wrote another letter begging his mom to make the four-hour round trip to visit. All those months in county jail were causing him to have a hard time at Oakley.
“I love you mama and tell everybody else I love them too,” he wrote. “I love you more than I love getting in trouble. Lol just playing.” That last line actually did make Hickmon laugh out loud.
Then Hickmon got a surprise. Isaiah was being released from Oakley, though she no idea why he was getting out early. On Aug. 28, Hickmon started her work shift at 3 a.m. so she could make good time to get to Oakley.
Seventy miles in, Hickmon pulled into a gas station for a big cup of coffee. As the cashier rang her up, she spotted a red-and-white puka shell necklace and added it to her tab.
Twenty minutes later, she turned onto the narrow, winding, tree-lined roads that lead to Oakley. You pass other farms and a pecan plantation – sobering reminders of Oakley’s origins as a prison farm.
“Is that cotton?” Hickmon said.
She gaped at the height of the fences topped with barbed wire that surrounded Oakley, which sits back from the road and on a slope. Hickmon parked her SUV and went into the jail. Within a half-hour, she re-emerged with Isaiah in tow.
Before stepping out into the Mississippi sun, a freed boy, he tried his best to stretch out the clothes he hadn’t worn since that winter when he first came to Oakley. He’d grown since then – so much, he emphasized with a chuckle.
“These can’t be my clothes,” he said. “It was too little.”
Isaiah at home with his only sister, who’s a year and a half younger. In letters he sent home while detained at the Oakley Youth Development Center, he warned his younger brother to stay out of trouble. CREDIT: Ko Bragg/Reveal
On the ride, Hickmon looked over her boy and took inventory of changes. He’d eclipsed her in height. He had more facial hair, and his skin wasn’t as clear. She blamed the acne on dirty linens at the jail and promised things would be better at home.
At a red light, she pulled out a surprise for him – that shell necklace from the gas station. Isaiah thanked his mom and flipped down the sun visor so he could adjust the necklace in the mirror.
For two hours straight, mother and son talked about family, mistakes and dreams. Isaiah said he wants to buy a van to start a business mowing lawns, but he doesn’t know how to drive just yet.
An hour after rolling into Philadelphia, Isaiah had his first check-in at youth court to go over the conditions of his parole, which will last at least six months. He had changed into better-fitting clothes but kept the shell necklace.
A woman in the youth court office warned Isaiah that she already informed police and local business owners that he was back home. “I ain’t gonna do nothing,” he told me later.
He needs permission from youth court to leave the state. There can be no drugs or alcohol in his system. No bowling alley. And he has a curfew he hates: 9 p.m. during the week and 10 p.m. on weekends. The youth court said it will schedule a hearing to decide when and how Isaiah will pay restitution for his theft charges.
Isaiah is back on his ADHD medication and feeling less impulsive. He wants life with his mom to be different this time.
“Mama, I want to let you know that I’m done getting in trouble, and I’m finna straighten up my life and get back on track and do the right thing that I was raised to do,” he said, sitting in their living room as a football game played in the background.
“I don’t want you to put me through nothing like this no more,” Hickmon responded. “Try to do right and further your education and make something out of your life.”
Isaiah’s parole requires him to be in school, which he can’t wait to go back to. This has proven to be complicated. He is too young to enroll in GED classes, and the court still is trying to work out a solution for where Isaiah will go to learn and what grade level he’d enter. If he picked up where he left off, he’d turn 16 in the seventh grade. That didn’t seem fair.
School would be a step toward normalcy, though, and Isaiah thinks it might make him feel young again, like how he feels when he’s home with family, eating pizza, listening to old-school music, daydreaming about being a rapper or a mechanic with a barbershop side hustle, imagining adulthood, while being once again a kid.
But whenever he faces the world, where adults in his community are all but waiting for him to mess up again, he feels like the adult he’s been characterized as since that first time he was charged with armed robbery.
“I’m still like 15, and I feel like I’m about 28.”
Felicia Hickmon remarks on how tall her son Isaiah has gotten in the time he was locked up at the Oakley Youth Development Center. Isaiah looks forward to going back to school, though the court still is trying to work out where he will go and what grade level he’d enter. CREDIT: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and Matt Thompson and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Ko Bragg produced this story as a Reveal Investigative Fellow. The fellowship, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Democracy Fund, provides journalists of color support and training to create investigative reporting projects.