News Race

Black Mamas Celebrate Freedom as Campaign Continues to Raise Money, Awareness of Bail System

Auditi Guha

“As humans we all make mistakes, but the judicial system is not set up for forgiveness.”

Tanisha Bynum sat in jail for three weeks in Florida with no hope of freedom because she couldn’t make bail.

A 25-year-old mother of four and a nursing assistant in nearby Enterprise, Alabama, Bynum told Rewire that it all started with a minor car accident in 2013 that resulted in a ticket, then a court date she couldn’t make, and finally, a suspended license.

Three weeks ago, Bynum was thrown into jail after a different minor accident. Because she was driving on a suspended license and unable to post bail—a whopping $10,000—she was taken to jail. “Oh my god, that was ridiculous,” she said, for what had initially been a minor infraction.

“I wasn’t so worried about my kids, because I have a good support system and I do own my own home. My thoughts were, I’m gonna lose my job and I have bills to pay, so I was really worried about things like that,” she said.

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To make matters worse, Bynum said she was moved to different jails across counties during that time so her family didn’t know where she was.

On Thursday, she was one of four Black mothers freed by the Dream Defenders, a social justice organization that raised more than $25,000 as part of National Mama’s Bail Out Day.

“I was very surprised, a little shocked. It was overwhelming,” she said about when organizers called to notify her they would be posting bail the day before. She said that she didn’t even have time to contact her family.

When she finally got home, “My children were extremely happy. They had a million questions,” she said.

“My oldest son, he said, ‘Mama, I was really sad because Mother’s Day was coming up and I didn’t even know where my mom was.’”

Theresa Swain, 53, Vanessa Chauvin, 18, and Leila Tice, 32, were also released by the Dream Defenders. All of them were behind bars for misdemeanor charges. As they exited the Pinellas County Jail, organizers greeted them with flowers, took them shopping for clothes, treated them to dinner, and provided them with hotel rooms before they returned home the next day.

Bynum told Rewire she is amazed that there are people out there to give folks like her a second chance in a system that criminalizes them.

“I think they are very special people. I think the work they do is great,” she said. “As humans we all make mistakes, but the judicial system is not set up for forgiveness.”

There are more women incarcerated today than ever before—14 times more than in 1970, Slate reported last August. Black and trans women are most vulnerable. More than 40 percent of women in jail are Black and nearly 80 percent are mothers, who are being held for mostly minor offenses of which they have not been found guilty. Further, Black women are more than twice as likely to be jailed over white women, and one in five transgender women have been in jail or prison, according to the National Bail Out campaign.

Originally conceived by Southerners on New Ground (SONG), the first-time effort bailed out more than 100 Black mamas last week. SONG members bailed out 41 Black mothers in Georgia and North Carolina.

Incarceration negatively affects people’s lives, jobs, families, and their communities, Rashad Robinson, executive director of the racial justice organization Color of Change, told Rewire in a phone interview. The campaign illustrates the impact of this bail system. 

“The vast majority of people who are in jail haven’t been convicted of anything. They are awaiting trial. And the only reason why they are behind bars is because they can’t pay. We live in a country where you are better off being guilty and rich than innocent and poor,” he said.

Color of Change raised $68,000 from 2,604 donors, surpassing its $20,000 goal. The money has gone toward digital media and outreach efforts to support the local organizations bailing women out, Senior Campaign Director Scott Roberts said.

In Maryland, the Baltimore Action Legal Team (BALT) joined the effort to bail out six women, ages 20 to 44, all held on minor charges. It cost between $100 to $1,000 to set each of them free, and the effort took around-the-clock work. Although bails were posted 1 p.m. on Friday, none of the women in Maryland were released from Central Booking until almost 3 a.m. Saturday, according to a press release.

“We hope that our action will send a clear message that Black women and those who love us are calling for an end to the predatory and exploitative bail industry in Maryland. It’s time to end cash bail,” said Charlene Dukes, co-founder of BALT, in the release.

In Birmingham, Alabama, three women were freed Friday from the Jefferson County Jail in Bessemer. Among them was Veronica Maiden, held in jail for 64 days for violating probation and not showing up in court. She was jailed for being unable to make a $5,500 bail, according to AL.com.

More than a dozen groups joined hands to free 17 Black women in Atlanta, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Among them was Donna Hogues, 48, held on a $1,000 bond for shoplifting.

In Philadelphia, the Mama’s Bail Out campaign surpassed its original goal of $6,000 by ten-fold, raising $58,08 in donations from 1,231 people, as of publication.

More than $700,000 was donated by over 11,000 people nationwide. The money was used not only for bail but also to help the freed mamas get back on their feet with short-term housing, health care, transportation, drug treatment, and mental health services.

“We were able to bring some of our Mama’s home for Mother’s Day but tens of thousands of our loved ones remain caged in local jails because they cannot afford to buy their freedom. We will keep supporting those we were able to bring home and continue our fight for those who remain unjustly behind bars,” stated a newsletter from Movement for Black Lives.

The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which hosts the National Bail Fund Network, is still collecting donations to support the mothers who were bailed out. Resources also are available for those looking to start a local effort or support national bail reform.

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