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Hunter fears for safety, health; talks about need for reform

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State Sen. Cecil Thomas in front, and members of the Coalition for a Just Community who support former Hamilton County Judge Tracie Hunter, plan economic pressure on some Cincinnati businesses to free Hunter from jail. Photo by Courtis Fuller

HERALD EXCLUSIVE 

Dan Yount, editor-in-chief of The Herald spoke with Judge Tracie Hunter earlier this week.   

 By Dan Yount 

The Cincinnati Herald 

After failed attempts in court to free former Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Tracie Hunter from her six-month sentence she is serving in the Hamilton County Justice Center, Hunter’s supporters say they are planning this week to start applying  “economic’’ pressure on area businesses that are financially supporting the 2020 re-election campaign of Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who, they say, began the four-year effort to remove Hunter from her juvenile court seat that ended in her being convicted and sentenced. 

“Judge Hunter’s situation began with Deters,’’ said Sen. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati) who is leading the campaign. 

Hunter, who was the first African American to be elected to the county’s more than 100-year-old juvenile court, weathered eight charges against her, but was convicted in December 2014 on ninth charge of using her influence as a judge to help her brother gain employment with the county, a charge she refutes. The sentence was executed in July. 

“This circus of justice in the Hamilton County judicial system has become a nightmare,’’ Thomas said. “And her experiences in jail only amplify that.’’ 

Hunter says jail reform is needed 

Hunter agreed with Thomas that the next effort of Coalition for a Just Community would be reforming the Hamilton County Justice Center. 

Hunter says she fears for her safety and health, and she has not been treated fairly while in the local jail. 

She says that in the nearly two months of her six-month sentence, she has experienced selective enforcement targeted at her by certain correction officers, with her being treated differently in a number of areas. She talked about how she has been treated and what she has observed during her incarceration.   

Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, publisher of The Cincinnati Herald, visits with Judge Tracie Hunter in the Hamilton County Justice Center. Photo by Eric H. Kearney

Health and safety are major concerns 

When she was first incarcerated on July 22, 2019she filed her first complaint when a male guard called her a “bitch.’’  

 Hunter says the guards have searched her 8-foot  by 10-foot cell in the women’s medical pod on several occasions. After one search, she saw the guards leaving with a bag of her personal items.  She says they claimed it was garbage. 

During several searches, her mail was taken out of envelopes and thrown all over the floor along with other personal items. Hunter says some of the guards have complained that she receives too much mail.  

Other women in the pod have told her they have not experienced that type of treatment.  

Hunter says the food is “horrible’’ and sometimes she does not even know what it is. Hunter is a vegetarian, but has not been able to be served a vegetarian meal. In jail, she survives on Snickers candy bars, dry Cheerios, Fritos, and bags of dry tuna that she buys on the Thursday visits to the commissary 

Justice Center food that was served to Tracie Hunter Sunday. Photo provided.

When she complained to the sheriff’s office about the foodshe says she was told the jail only changes the meal regimen for religious purposes. Hunter says that some changes were made for her, but it was not food she could eat. 

“It’s also very unsanitary and unsafe. I feel my safety has been at risk. I fear what guards may do to my food. I’ve been in a lot of pain that developed when I was dragged across the courtroom floor following sentencing.’’ 

She cleans up vomit and dirt 

The medical pod can hold about 70 women, with about 20 women there at the time of the interview, according to Hunter. The women are allowed several hours each day to go into the common area outside their cells, and although there are chairs and benches there, they often have to stand if it’s crowded. However, those hours are restricted, since that common area is also used as a holding area for groups of women from social service agencies who are brought to the medical pod for treatment for diseases, medications or to detoxify from alcohol or drug abuses.  

Hunter says that she cleans vomit and dirt from that area with bleach, water and towels provided by the guards. She asked for rubber gloves to do the job last week, but was told she would not get them. She says that the guards wear gloves when they come into the area. Her request for more paper towels was ignored. She gets bleach on her hands and clothes from cleaning the floor. She added that inmates have to clean their own cells. 

One woman who had just been admitted to a neighboring cell slipped a note into Hunter’s cell informing her that she had Hepatitis C. Hunter said she “hit the ceiling” about it. 

“I’m trying to stay healthy,” Hunter says, adding that she is concerned about the health of the other inmates as well. 

Medication was denied 

The process for receiving medications is complicated. The inmates have to use the jail pharmacy medications or go through a process of having their physician deliver a prescription to the jail, having it filled there and delivered to the cell. The blood pressure medication Hunter uses is about a fourth of the strength of what the pharmacy provides, Hunter says. She was instructed to cut the pharmacy’s pills to the proper strength for her, and that did not work well, she says. Her blood pressure rose to an unsafe level. Since then, her sister was able to get the proper medication to her, and her blood pressure returned to normal.  

Hunter says she has a support system, but some of the inmates do not, and that concerns her. She has experienced women in other cells who have had medical emergencies, and may have saved their lives by getting them emergency help after guards failed to respond to their cries. 

Women’s dignity is violated  

Only women should be allowed to guard the medical unit where she is held, Hunter says, but male guards work there, too. Hunter describes how some male guards were known to peek in a cell window when the women were using the toilet. They would walk into the cells unannounced, Hunter says 

“I’ve already brought reform,” Hunter said, explaining that she filed a complaint about male guards walking in unannounced on female inmates. She says the policy was changed. While female guards do not have to announce their entrance, male guards do. 

Hunter says the policy change has brought some vindictive behavior. For example, the other night, a make guard walked through the unit every 20 minutes and upon approaching her cell, he would yell, “Male guard coming through!” in a loud voice. She was startled and awakened continuously throughout the night. Hunter pointed out that there was a female guard on duty who could have made the rounds, which would have allowed everyone to sleep. 

Judge Tracie Hunter is dragged out of Judge Dinkelacker’s courtroom on July 22, 2019, although
she was not resisting. Photo by Michael Mitchell

Long hours of solitude 

It is up to the guards when inmates can leave their cells for the common area. They have to be in their cells when “outsiders” are brought in the unit, and the processing of that individual or the medical treatment provided can take most of the day, almost every day, Hunter says 

Sometimes Hunter and the other women have had to remain in their cell for 25 hours, which she says is illegal. While in the common area, the newcomers come over to the cell peek holes and stare at the other women as if they are caged animals.

Visitors 

A minister, at her request, is visiting her every day, although the guards are complaining about her having too many visitors, Hunter says 

Only clergy and lawyers can go back to meeting area. However, anyone can visit her for telephone conversations through the glass partitions. Visiting days are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  

Only one family visit is allowed on Saturdays. She says more family visits should be allowed to keep families connected. 

No exercise, but there’s reading and church    

Hunter says that there is nowhere to exercise. She spends most of her time writing and reading. “I can get through a 700-page book in two days.” Supporters send her books through Amazon.com. 

She conducts a church service in her unit on Sundays, and said one of the women wants her to baptize her when they are released. Some have said they plan to join her church, Western Hills Brethren in Christ Church. 

Judge Tracie Hunter
File photo.

‘Not a place where I should be’ 

“This is not a place where I should be,’’ Hunter said. “I did not commit a crime, and I am not going to accept something that is not true. They (the power structure in the Hamilton County Courthouse) know that. They just did not want a Black woman handling the millions of dollars that is spent in the juvenile court system or having anything to do with the patronage employment system there. It’s an ultimate act of revenge or retaliation against me winning election to the court. It’s all about money, power and control. 

Thomas said, “The people at the justice center do not use common sense. They are creating an environment that needs to be investigated, and Judge Hunter is exposing a lot of things.’’ 

Hunter said she said she is grateful and thankful for the community support she has received during this lengthy ordeal. 

 Motions filed for release 

 Several motions to mitigate Hunter’s sentence have been filed by Hunter’s attorney David Singleton. However, presiding Judge Patrick Dinkelacker has countered by requesting Hunter apologize for causing division in the community, as well as to the African American deputy who dragged her out of the courtroom after she fell on the floor.  Hunter maintains her innocence, and seeks exoneration.   

Thomas says that a recent motion requests that Judge Dinkelacker vacate Hunter’s conviction, based on the Supreme Court of Ohio dismissing complaint against a currently seated judge.       

The effort to exonerate Hunter will continue once she is released from jail, Thomas said. 

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