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‘In the Tradition of Our People’: Organizations Bail Out Black Mamas to Highlight Unjust System

Auditi Guha

Racial justice organizations have worked with public defenders, communities of color, and faith or spiritual institutions to bail out Black mamas, some of whom are queer, trans, immigrants, and/or disabled.

More than 30 Black women across 15 cities were bailed out of jail by Friday morning in a unique campaign inspired by historical activism that helped end slavery.

One mother said she sat in jail for three weeks for a traffic violation; another said they weren’t given their medicines consistently. These are some stories of the women Dream Defenders freed in Florida by posting bail this week.

About 30 more are expected to be released in time for Mother’s Day as part of National Mama’s Bail Out Day, organizers said.

“For us, it’s a part of the fight against modern-day bondage and the continued criminalization of Black and brown people,” Marbre Stahly-Butts, partnership director at Law for Black Lives and a policy member of the Movement for Black Lives, told Rewire in a phone interview.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ latest effort to roll back Obama administration efforts and order tougher drug crime prosecution is among the regressive policies that criminalize people who are already struggling with poverty, health, and mental health issues, she said.

Nationwide, $9 billion is spent to incarcerate people who have not been convicted of a crime. On any given day, about 700,000 people are waiting in pre-trial detention with 450,000 in jail because they can’t afford bail. This disproportionately affects Black women, who are twice as likely to be arrested as their white counterparts.

Eight out of ten incarcerated women are mothers and nearly half of them are in jails for crimes for which they have not been convicted, according to organizers of National Mama’s Bail Out Day. Many are in for nonviolent offenses and can’t afford bail. This Sunday, about 60 of them have the opportunity to spend Mother’s Day with their families. 

Racial justice organizations in more than a dozen cities have worked with public defenders, communities of color, and faith or spiritual institutions to bail out Black mamas, some of whom are queer, trans, immigrants, and/or disabled.

“Our corrupt criminal justice system forces innocent people who pose no threat to purchase their freedom. The costs are devastating. Women oftentimes lose their homes, jobs, or even children just to be found innocent. Some women like Sandra Bland have even lost their lives,” said Ruth Jeannoel, mother, wife, and a lead organizer with the Power U Center for Social change in Miami, Florida. “We cannot raise our families in our communities if our mamas are locked away.” 

Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization, has joined the campaign to elevate the issue of how bail works and how damaging it is for families and communities of color, executive director Rashad Robinson told Rewire.

“Eighty percent of the women who are awaiting trial are mothers and when people are held behind bars because they are too poor or they cannot afford the bail, it has very valid implications for their families, for their communities, and for their livelihood. We wanted to really sort of illustrate the ongoing impact of this kind of bail,” he said.

America’s pretrial justice system often forces these families to make tough choices—from having to put up their car or house for bail funds to making the choice of taking a plea and having a record or staying behind bars.

A report released Wednesday, titled Selling Off Our Freedom, by Color Of Change and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, shows how the bail bonds industry strips people of their constitutional rights while putting money into the pockets of  insurance corporations that operate with little oversight.

“Bail insurers prey on those entering into the criminal justice system and trap them in debt through high fees and installment plans. These profiteers coerce people into signing over their privacy rights and when it’s not profitable, they leave people in jail,” the report states. “This practice of forcing people to buy their freedom—reminiscent of a time when slaves and their families had to do the same—has been part of American culture for centuries, and it is now being exploited by the bail bond industry. Because racial disparity exists in every aspect of the criminal justice system, the use of money bail perpetuates this racial bias and enables big bail insurance companies to profit off the backs of our nation’s most marginalized Black communities.”

While the rising rates of incarceration have been well documented, the rise in the number of women in jail is often underreported.

Women in jail are the fastest growing correctional population in the country, growing from less than 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000 in 2014—an almost 14-fold increase—states a report from the Vera Institute of Justice. About half of them are held in small counties, but jailed women were a rarity in 1970. Nearly 80 percent of women in jail—44 percent of whom are Black and 15 percent are Latina—are mothers, many of them single parents. The vast majority of them are in jail for nonviolent offenses, according to the report.

Conceived by Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), the first-time campaign has raised nearly $400,000 from Oakland to New Orleans, most of it coming from individual donors. Local groups are continuing to raise money and say that it has been most inspirational to see organizations and people coming together to bail out Black women in time for Mother’s Day.

“One in two Black trans women has spent time in jail. And Black women are twice as likely as white women to be caged. We must demand and fight for the ending of money bail and destructive policies that keep putting us in cages and separating us from our communities. We are the ones who take care of and hold down our families, chosen and biological. When we, Black women and Black mamas are taken from our communities we all suffer,” Hooks said in a press release. “We do this in the tradition of our people who have gone to every length to attain freedom. We are freeing as many Black women from cages as we can because our people are being held hostage and cash bail is ransom.”

When mothers are jailed, their families and their communities suffer. About 2.7 million children have a parent in jail, according to a Vice article.

Participating organizations include Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Los Angeles Community Action Network, Dream Defenders, Texas Organizing Project, Black Lives Matter Memphis, and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. Some are focusing on specific issues, from bailing out queer and transgender mamas, to supporting local bills to enact bail reform.

Upcoming actions include a homecoming celebration at Hillside Park in Durham, North Carolina, on Sunday at 3 p.m., a teach-in in Richmond, Virginia, on Monday at 6 p.m, and a trans resilience social in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.

“Mother’s Day is the one day per year where we get to uplift what mothers really want, and I think for Black mothers an honest answer is freedom,” said Gina Clayton, executive director of Essie Justice Group, an organization co-sponsoring the 2017 California Bail Reform Act, in the press release. “One in two Black women has a family member incarcerated. We hope that our action will send a clear message that Black women and those who love us are done being the vulnerable targets of the bail industry.”

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