Bigoted Facebook Post Shines Light on Sheriffs Who Run Our Jails

August 29, 2019

A recent discovery about an elected Georgia sheriff threw unflattering light on those charged with managing America’s jails, which chew through an estimated 4.9 million people per year.

Butch Conway is the sheriff of Gwinnett County, Georgia, home to nearly one million people. A popular Twitter user broadcast that Conway posted on his personal Facebook page a highly bigoted defense of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) immigrant detention agreement with his office. 

Conway is already under fire for the death of a young man from seizures in Gwinnett County Jail, where he was held for testing positive while on probation after consuming a marijuana cookie. That wasn’t the first time. In 2015, a young woman who possessed drugs died in the Gwinnett County Jail, after spending 16 days there.

Managing the county jail is one of the primary duties of a sheriff. Under the Trump regime, sheriffs have controversially used 287(g) agreements⁠—which allow them to check the immigration status of jail detainees and alert federal authorities about their findings⁠—to make deportations much easier for ICE agents.

On August 27, Conway wrote on Facebook: “For all of my ‘ICE out of Gwinnett’ friends… Former US Army Special Ops Soldier and American Author Michael Marks penned the following, ‘And maybe just remind the few, if ill of us they speak, that we are all that stands between the monsters and the weak.’”

As concerned citizens who keep track of law enforcement racism and malfeasance know, when there’s smoke, there’s too often fire. Indeed, a time-stamped screen capture of Conway’s page shows that he “liked” a page called New Confederate Army, which has the declared purpose to “Liberate the Confederate States of America.” An associated page claims “Confederates know that the CSA Constitution still legally stands; it’s not over yet!” 

Many analysts agree that Confederates fought the government of the United States primarily in order to keep Black people as slaves.

Gwinnett County is part of the Atlanta metro area. Its population is approximately 30 percent Black, and voted for Hillary Clinton by 50.2 percent in 2016. While Conway’s diatribe seems like the political equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot, it is possible that he never expected anyone to search for him on Facebook, or that he felt it would not matter anyway because few people pay attention to sheriffs’ elections. 

But that’s changing. 

In 2018, the seven most populous counties in North Carolina elected progressive Black sheriffs, focusing their campaigns on cutting cooperation with ICE. Curtis Clemons, who is running against Conway in 2020, slams Conway for signing the 287(g) agreement on his campaign website. Similarly, Clemons pledges to end Gwinnett County’s agreement.

The Justice Collaborative, a prominent criminal justice reform group with ties to Harvard Law School, is hosting an August 29 media briefing on the “neglected authority” of sheriffs. Panelists include Jessica Pishko, a prominent criminal justice journalist who investigates sheriffs as part of the University of South Carolina’s Rule of Law Collaborative.


Photo adapted from Glen Carrie on Unsplash

Rory Fleming

Rory is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. He was also a communications specialist for the National Network for Safe Communications, a research center at City University of New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney. He lives in Philadelphia.

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