Courtesy of Emily Paterson

In the chamber of the Supreme Court last November, Emily Paterson ’99 rose up alongside two fellow protestors to interrupt Court proceedings and publicly oppose the Court’s June decision to repeal federal abortion protection. 

Forty-five-year-old Paterson and her two fellow protesters — Rolande Baker, 71, and Nicole Enfield, 43 — were arrested on Nov. 2 for a misdemeanor offense of “Speeches and Objectionable Language in the Supreme Court Building” during a case about the Bank Secrecy Act. They were then detained for about 30 hours and experienced what all three women described as “inhumane” conditions, which included suffocating heat and being forced to wear leg irons and waist chains bounding their hands to their waists. 

Last Wednesday, the three women testified in front of the Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety about the deplorable conditions they faced while held overnight in the D.C. Central Cellblock. They also spoke about the racism embedded within the prison system, noting that they did not see any white individuals other than themselves until they reached federal court more than a day after their arrest. During her testimony, Paterson advocated to shut down “the despicable Central Cellblock.” 

“The original protest was about protecting abortion access, and then the arrest and 30-hour detainment opened my eyes to injustices in the jail system in DC,” Paterson wrote in an email to the News. “It’s frankly brutal. I am sad that it took me this long to know about the systemic, racist abuse that is happening in our nation’s capital.”

When the News first reported about the protest, the trio’s hearing was scheduled for Nov. 29; However, it ultimately took place Jan. 13. According to Paterson, they pleaded guilty to violating 40 U.S.C. Section 6143, which entails making “a harangue or oration” or uttering “loud, threatening, or abusive language in the Supreme Court building.”

During the hearing, district judge Amit Mehta said that while he did not condone their protest, he did understand their “passion” and “sense of injustice” and also expressed appreciation for the nation’s history of civil disobedience. 

Mehta issued a sentence of time served — meaning that the detention time the three experienced after their initial demonstration would suffice as punishment — as well as an unsupervised probation period in which they all agreed to stay away from the Supreme Court until the current term concludes in June.

Generally, penalties can include up to 60 days in jail and $5,000 in fines, but the three women pleaded guilty as part of a deal with the government.

During their January hearing, Baker and Paterson noted that while they knew there would be consequences to protesting in the SCOTUS building, they did not expect the abuse that would follow in the 30 hours after their arrest. 

“Although we understood that our protest would result in our arrest, we were not prepared for the conditions of confinement we suffered,” Baker said during the January hearing. 

They were, at various points, handcuffed, zip-tied and kept in leg irons and waist chains, Baker said. She said that at one point, Paterson was sexually groped by a guard. The steel cell that Paterson and Enfield were held in overnight was reportedly stained with blood or feces, and the temperature in the facility hovered above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Baker said both at the January hearing and during her testimony last week that she herself is physically disabled but was denied “necessary medical care” while detained. She uses a cane and has a history of medical challenges with her hip. Paterson was on her period but reportedly did not receive menstrual products despite asking for them. 

“There is no reason to treat human beings in the manner in which this jail does,” Baker said during her testimony last week. “If they are treating a white, 71-year-old disabled great-grandmother this way, imagine how they are treating everyone else?”

In November, all three protestors spoke to the News about the apparent racism imbricated in the prison system and commented on the privilege they experienced as white women. During her testimony last week, Paterson spoke to the committee about the minority of white people impacted by the Central Cellblock.

“Every other detainee in the Central Cellblock that night was Black,” she said to the committee. “Every guard working in that hot, deafening environment, was Black. It was not lost on us that Black citizens of DC are being systemically abused by this terrible system.”

Enfield, Baker and Paterson were three in a list of about 25 witnesses — which included formerly incarcerated people and members of non-governmental organizations, among others — who testified about “rancid food,” solitary confinement, and other forms of “human rights violations.” 

This is not the first time this particular jail has come under fire for high temperatures. This past May, NBC4 reported an air conditioning outage in the facility. A 2015 report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs also described “appalling conditions of confinement” in D.C. prisons, noting pest infestations and other structural violations. 

The public information office at the D.C. Department of Corrections did not respond to the News’ request for comment. 

Paterson, alongside Baker and Enfield, intends to remain involved with criminal legal reform in the coming weeks. Paterson said she feels it important to use the status and power afforded to her as a Yale graduate to effect meaningful change.

“This was the first action we’ve done with jail reform since our hearing ended in Jan, but we’re going to try to stay involved,” Paterson wrote to the News. “My eyes are open, and I’m sad and embarrassed that it took my own experience to understand how bad, racist, and systemic the brutality in the DC jail system truly is.”

On March 17, Paterson will appear on a panel to again speak to the DC City Council, this time on the topic of making changes in the DC Corrections system. 

Paterson was a student in Morse College. 

Anika Arora Seth is the 146th Editor in Chief and President of the Yale Daily News. Anika previously covered STEM at Yale as well as admissions, alumni and financial aid. She also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production & Design editor and was one of the inaugural Diversity, Equity & Inclusion co-chairs. Anika is pursuing a double major in biomedical engineering and women's, gender and sexuality studies.