In the U.S., around 220,000 women sit behind bars. Around 60% are women of color, and 80% are held in jails and prisons–not because they’ve been convicted of a crime, but because they cannot pay the bail that would allow them to return home. This is devastating for anyone: It means taking time out of work, losing wages, and maybe missing rent payments. And on top of that, for the 60% of incarcerated women who are also mothers, it can mean going weeks without seeing their children.
Around Mother’s Day, these facts become especially painful. So last year, the National Bail Out collective–a group of black-led organizations including Color of Change and the Movement 4 Black Lives Policy Table–launched an initiative to bail women out in time for Mother’s Day. Black Mama’s Bail Out Day last year raised over $400,000 and helped release around 100 women across a handful of cities, including Oakland, Houston, and Atlanta. The effort continued beyond Mother’s Day, and the National Bail Out has freed around 200 people with around $1 million since last May.
This year, they’re renewing the effort around Mother’s Day. “Last year, we were incredibly motivated by the prospect of being able to move quickly to free our people without having to wait for all the things we’re accustomed to having to wait for–the legislation and litigation,” says Gina Clayton, executive director of Essie Justice Group, an Oakland-based advocacy organization and National Bail Out partner. “The idea that we could go in and immediately raise money to get some of our people home was really compelling.”Like last years’ initiative, the Black Mama’s Bail Out will focus specifically on women of color, who are twice as likely to be incarcerated than white women. But the effort is broadly inclusive: queer, trans, younger, older, and immigrant mothers are all potential recipients of the funds. The Mama’s Bail Out organizing groups in participating cities are working with public defenders, community organizations, and families to identify priority bail-out candidates.
During the 2017 Mama’s Bail Out, Clayton and her fellow organizers were elated by the sheer number of people–nearly 15,000–who donated. But they’re also reckoning with the fact that it’s still nowhere close to enough to content with the pervasive problem of money bail. Every day in the U.S., around 700,000 people are sent to local jails on steep bail–in California, where bail is often set at five times the national average, an individual often needs to come up with $25,000 just to return home to await trial. “There are still way too many people sitting in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay their bail,” Clayton says.
But that is something, Clayton says, that people are beginning to wake up to–and last year’s Mama’s Bail Out Day was the start of a sea change. “We’re starting from a very different place this year,” she says. A smattering of organizations have sprung up in the last year to begin to tackle the issue from other perspectives. There’s The Bail Project, which began as a revolving community bail fund in the Bronx, but now, through funding from TED, will expand to 40 cities in the next five years and free over 1,000 people per city per year. After prompting from Essie Justice Group, Google just banned ads for bail bond services from its platform. And Appolition launched last year as an app that integrates with bank accounts to donate rounded-up change from purchases toward community bail funds. “This has created a pathway for so many more people beyond lawyers and policymakers to be involved in this issue,” Clayton says. National Bail Out has created an open-access toolkit for organizers to being their own bail-out initiatives in any community.
The real work, though, will be to reform the entire bail system, and to reconsider how we get people to come back to court, Clayton says. “Right now we’re incarcerating people so they get to court, which is ridiculous,” she says. What will incentivize and enable people to show up for their court dates are basic, human necessities: transportation, stable housing, jobs, support services. Further dehumanizing people by holding them behind bars will not create systemic change–what will, Clayton says, is moving resources toward services and away from imprisonment and exploitation.