Commentary Family

Why I’m Helping to Bail Out Black Mamas

Nnennaya Amuchie

Imagine the potential of humanity when all Black women are free.

This Mother’s Day, the National Mama’s Bail Out campaign is one of many ways reproductive justice advocates can help mothers, caregivers, and families entangled in this unjust criminal legal system. The campaign is geared toward bringing awareness about our country’s bail system, purchasing the freedom of Black mamas across the country, reunifying Black mamas with their families and communities, and connecting these parents with re-entry services and gifts to repair the mental and economic harms of incarceration. Additionally, this campaign covers the full spectrum of mamas, honoring the history of matriarchy to include all femme caretakers, both trans and cis.

This campaign achieves racial justice advocates’ short-term goals of changing the immediate, material conditions of those most marginalized and the longer-term goal of weakening the prison industrial complex that devastates families, Black families in particular.

Four months ago, Michelle (a pseudonym) of New Castle, Pennsylvania, was arrested and put into local custody. She has three sons and is a full-time grandmother to four of her eight grandchildren. Yet, in January, she was ripped from her home, family, and community in a matter of minutes. Four months later, she is still locked up in a cage and tasked with purchasing her freedom for $100,000.

For advocates, this feels like something out of history books. To be sure, the carceral state is merely one offshoot of a complex web of institutions, laws, and mechanisms linked to aspects of chattel slavery. But the concept of buying freedom resonates for those ensnared in the criminal justice system.

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It was in 1855 when Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, an enslaved African (and future dressmaker for former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln), purchased her freedom from her St. Louis owners for $1,200, with the help of family, community members, and abolitionists. In Slave Narratives After Slavery, William L. Andrews notes this conversation between Lizzie and Mrs. Le Bourgois (one of Lizzie’s patrons):

Lizzie, I hear that you are going to New York to beg for money to buy your freedom. I have been thinking over the matter, and told Ma it would be a shame to allow you to go North to beg for what we should give you. You have many friends in St. Louis, and I am going to raise the twelve hundred dollars required among them. I have two hundred dollars put away for a present; am indebted to you one hundred dollars; mother owes you fifty dollars, and will add another fifty to it; and as I do not want the present, I will make the money a present to you. Don’t start for New York now until I see what I can do among your friends.

While the notion of buying freedom has taken on a new meaning today—as the people are seeking to make bail and escape lifelong effects of long-term incarceration, not escape a brutal life of forced servitude—the ways in which it takes a community to help them remain.

An estimated 700,000 people are condemned every day to cages and separated from their families often simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.

Prison Policy’s research shows that between 60 and 70 percent of people held in local jails have not been convicted of a crime. U.S. Code §3142 permits individuals who have been charged of a crime to be held if the judicial officer believes that the person will not return for trial. However, the criterion is very vague and allows counties to have broad discretion over the terms of keeping someone detained. Sadly, these laws disproportionately affect Black people.

A ProPublica report found that a computer program used to determine whether someone charged with a crime was likely to reoffend was biased against Black people. Such data is used “to inform decisions about who can be set free at every stage of the criminal justice system, from assigning bond amounts—as is the case in Fort Lauderdale—to even more fundamental decisions about defendants’ freedom.” Additionally, a Human Rights Watch report on how bail systems can unfairly punish poor people stated “vast numbers of people are jailed pretrial due to ‘dangerousness,’ while only a tiny percentage actually commit violent crimes while awaiting trial. People with money pay for release regardless of how dangerous they are.”

The National Mama’s Bail Out campaign’s goal is to highlight these discrepancies in application of the law and how the money bail system keeps Black women locked up.

Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has grown by 700 percent. Research suggests that of these incarcerated women, Black women and girls are the fastest growing population. Black trans women are especially vulnerable to incarceration. Transgender people are incarcerated at a higher rate than the general population. Among Black transgender people, nearly half (47 percent) have been incarcerated at some point. Fifteen percent of transgender individuals report being sexually assaulted while in police custody or jail, a figure that more than doubles for Black transgender people.

These statistics are alarming, particularly in the context of reproductive justice. A Black mother’s ability to parent is at the heart of reproductive justice—a framework created by Black women to highlight the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Those behind bars are a particular concern for reproductive justice for the following four reasons:

  1. Removing mothers from their communities puts their children at a high risk for unstable homes and living conditions, which contributes to long-term effects. According to the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, children whose mothers are incarcerated have an increased likelihood of instability, which is magnified for those entering foster care.
  2. People who are incarcerated do not have access to comprehensive reproductive health services in prisons, jails, or detention centers. While Black women generally have disproportionately less access to reproductive health services, these facilities fail to provide adequate prenatal care, abortion care, and postpartum care, as numerous reports have found. Additionally, women in jails and prisons may experience miscarriages, stillbirths, or ectopic pregnancies due to “circumstances that show a shocking lack of medical care from the professionals charged with providing it,” a 2015 Rewire investigative report found.
  3. Incarceration also worsens conditions for those living in poverty, suffering from mental health illness, and living in violent homes or communities. According to Prison Policy, people in local jails are even poorer than people in prison and are drastically poorer than their nonincarcerated counterparts. Since Black women have the lowest incomes before incarceration, they have fewer resources to provide a healthy home and environment for their children post-incarceration.
  4. Immigration justice is a reproductive justice issue. According to a Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) report, while Black immigrants make up only 4.8 percent of detained immigrants facing deportation, they make up 17.4 percent of detained immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds. In other words, they are overrepresented in deportation on criminal grounds. Undocumented Black immigrants are at a higher risk of being incarcerated and held for bail relative to other immigrant populations. Moreover, they are likely not able to afford bail due to loss of employment associated with their immigration status or lack of proper documentation to gain employment. Additionally, immigrants within detention centers have fewer legal rights than incarcerated citizens, which may restrict access to bail. These issues are also a present concern for Black undocumented mothers. In an act of support, reproductive justice organizations united on April 25 to raise awareness and show solidarity for immigrant communities with the hashtag #RJDay4Immigrants.

Abolitionist Mariame Kaba recently stated, “Participatory defense campaigns can be a short-term strategy to act in solidarity with criminalized survivors of violence and all incarcerated people.” That is, participatory defense campaigns like National Mama’s Bail Out can and should be used to increase the possibility of a world without prisons and jails and a world where families can decide if, when, and how they want to parent.

That is why I am working with the BYP100 D.C. chapter to bring Black mothers in the D.C. metropolitan area home. Imagine the potential of humanity when all Black women are free.

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