Local Detention Facilities Can Become Traps For Incarcerated Individuals. Organizer Jael Barnes Helps Ensure They And Their Loved Ones Remain Visible

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Jamaine Barnes Sr. called the Sacramento County Jail home for several years before being transferred to a facility in Nevada. He hasn’t been to trial yet, so he exists in a kind of limbo that is all too familiar to countless men and women in the same predicament.

His wife, Jael Barnes, has taken the term “holding him down” to the next level. She’s doing far more than simply making visits and putting money on his books. She has dedicated her time and energy to helping him and others obtain better treatment – and freedom.

Jael Barnes is from East Palo Alto and has lived in Stockton and Livermore, but has found kinship with local activists in the capital city. She’s affiliated with groups such as Sacramento Area Congregations Together, or SacACT, and Decarcerate Sacramento, an area coalition ​​founded in 2019 to “prevent jail expansions, decrease jail populations, and shift county funds away from policing and incarceration towards community-based systems of care that promote community safety and health.”

“I’m everywhere,” Barnes says. “Wherever I can kind of stick my nose in the business.”

Last year, she and other Decarcerate Sacramento members spoke out about leaked conditions during the coronavirus pandemic and accusations of staffers placing COVID-positive inmates in cells with those uninfected as a punitive practice. In May, the group was back outside the main jail on I Street protesting the number of inmates who have died while in custody. They speak for those who can’t speak for themselves, they say.

“We try to get their voices heard out there without getting them in trouble,” says Barnes, who serves as a pretrial justice organizer with Decarcerate Sacramento. “A lot of them are in jail for four or five years and they have not finished their cases or what have you. I have a loved one in [jail] who has been there for four years and he’s still pretrial and hardly ever goes to court.”

Co-founder Liz Blum calls Barnes “the heart” of the group.

“Her dedication and accountability to incarcerated people and their loved ones pumps life into every facet of our work,” Blum says. “She embodies the true meaning of ‘heart-work’ – something you can’t teach, but is so critical in our organizing against this violent carceral system.”

Barnes is humbled by the groups’ acceptance and the responsibilities they’ve bestowed on her.

“I’m just a person who cares about the people that are inside and especially their families,” she says. “I’ve made sure that I center the voices that are in there because for a long time, I didn’t have anyone to help me figure out things for my loved one.”

Decarcerate Sacramento was co-founded by Blum and Black attorney Tifanei N. Moyer in 2019. It is also led by some pretty vocal white women who are down for the cause. For many, the work hits close to home as they’ve been incarcerated themselves or, like Barnes, have loved ones who are Black or Latino and who are inside.

“They see the struggle,” Barnes says. “I’m really thankful for that group. For whatever reason, they think that I’m so amazing and have all of this value, but they have no idea how much they’ve helped me. I hope that more people find out about us so that we can help them.”

Group Helps Amplify Voices

Jael Barnes’ husband has been in county jails awaiting trial for several years. Barnes speaks out on his behalf and that of others, calling out poor conditions and lack of mental health resources. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER
Jael Barnes’ husband has been in county jails awaiting trial for several years. Barnes speaks out on his behalf and that of others, calling out poor conditions and lack of mental health resources. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

Decarcerate Sacramento members make jail visits, assist people in finding housing upon release and operate a hotline where people can ask for help or voice their experiences. The organization also conducted a survey that asked inmates what they’d like to see in the city and county.

“Those voices are what we go to the county with,” Barnes says. “They’re [officials] saying, ‘Oh, we’re doing this, we’re doing that,’ but then we have those folks that are actually on the inside telling us ‘We don’t have toilet paper, our food is moldy and we’re in our cells for 231/2 hours out of the day.’ Everything that we say, we are literally getting from them. That’s what I mean when I say we center their voices. We are playing their recordings, obviously with their permission, when we go to the Board of Supervisors meetings. We are making sure that they are heard.”

Speaking up can come with consequences. Barnes used to fear repercussions for her husband.

“When I first got with Decarcerate Sacramento and I noticed that they were really centering my voice and I was seeing myself online and stuff like that, I definitely thought about the folks on the inside – especially my husband, who is pretrial,” she says. “They already don’t like him, so me bringing light to the situation, I definitely was worried about that.”

Her visits would be approved, she says, only to drive to Sacramento and find out they’d been pushed back or changed to inconvenient times. 

“It was important for me to talk to him to make sure that it was OK,” she says of speaking out. “I don’t want anything to go back on the people who’re on the inside. There’s not much they could do to me, but to them, they could do a lot.”

Incarceration has greatly impacted Barnes’ family, but she doesn’t feel comfortable saying so.

“I really hate using that word, ‘impacted,’ because really the people that are in there, they are really the ones that are impacted by this terrible-ass system here in the United States, and especially California and Sacramento,” she says.

The Barneses have four children, the youngest of whom is 6. Jamaine Barnes Sr. has been in prison since the child was 2. Their 17-year-old son was shot twice in the back by Hayward police in June 2020, a time when the area was consumed with protests over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Barnes filed a federal lawsuit alleging police brutality, including an attempt by offending officers to remove their bullets from her son’s body. Barnes also had to deal with the death of her own father. It’s been a lot, she says, but she remains vigilant. 

“My kids are asking me every day, ‘When is my dad coming home? Is he going to make it out alive?’ They don’t know because so many people are dying in jail,” she says. “They haven’t seen their dad in person in four years. In California, a lot of the time you need to be a two-income family. I have two jobs and I go to school. I’m just trying my best to make things not change so much for them. It’s hard.”

County’s Jails ‘Will Take Your Soul’

Barnes chose not to take most of her kids to see their father in prison.

“I want them to know him for the good times,” she says. “A lot of times he doesn’t even want them to see him with that orange outfit on. He missed out on my son’s 12th grade graduation. My daughter was accepted to a college prep high school and she’s going to be moving there. So he’s gonna miss that. There’s just things where you can’t get the time back.”

While Barnes Sr. awaits trial, he has experienced a number of tribulations, his wife says.

“He’s been through several lawyers,” she says. “It’s just been a whole lot of stuff. Sacramento is really nothing to play with. They will take your soul.”

Barnes calls Sacramento County “the worst to catch a case and be incarcerated in.”

“It’s designed to keep people of color in there,” she says. “It’s not designed to help them, but with Alameda County and others, I noticed that over the last couple of years, they have been trying to help people of color to not get these long sentences and instead of getting these sentences, they are helping them find jobs and things of that nature. I’m not really seeing that in Sacramento. It’s like you get thrown into the Sacramento county jails and it’s hard to get you out of them.”

Jael says Barnes Sr. was held at the county’s main jail 31/2 years before being moved because his case is federal. He’s now incarcerated at the Nevada County jail.

“Of course, no jail is good,” Barnes says. “But there, he can video visit and he reports that the food is better. He’s in the kitchen, cooking there. It’s just different. He is out more often. He has more freedom there.”

In addition to halting planned expansion of the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, Decarcerate Sacramento has made a mission of closing county jail facilities. It’s a lofty goal. Dropping the jail population by half in 2024 would be a good start, Barnes says.

“Hopefully once we meet that [goal], we can get it shut down because, let’s be honest, there is nothing that they are doing to rehabilitate anybody in there. If anything, it’s making it worse. We have a lot of people in there that have mental health issues. What are we doing to help them? Nothing.”

The movements around decarceration and defunding police seemed to have flourished in the wake of the police-involved deaths of Stephon Clark, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Barnes says it’s about maintaining momentum and making it a movement that goes beyond a moment.

“But we have to work together in order to make that happen,” she says. “Nobody’s going to do it for us. We just have to keep bringing it to their attention, keep it in their eyesight and stop forgetting about it ourselves because this is not going away.”

Over the coming weeks, “Inside Out” will highlight the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, look at efforts to improve local jail and prison facilities, and share the perspectives of Black correctional staffers and attorneys who work on change from within and activists who have dedicated their lives to shining a light on the inequities of the criminal justice system.