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For Mother’s Day, campaign aims to bail out moms jailed in an unjust system

Wmc Features Black Mothers Bailout Eye For Ebony 050918
Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

They were arrested for traffic violations, often: not wearing a seat belt; driving with a broken taillight; failing to purchase insurance; maybe even possession of marijuana. Common offenses that under other circumstances wouldn’t necessarily lead to the destruction of an entire life. But because they were black, the women behind the wheel were twice as likely to be arrested for such infractions as white people, and then, once arrested, twice as likely to be jailed. And because they didn’t have the money to pay for previous tickets (or for the taillight, or for the insurance), their situation was also more likely to go from bad to worse.

“They’re already going through some kind of crisis in their lives,” says Scott Roberts, senior director of Criminal Justice Campaigns for Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. Whether they’re dealing with drug addiction, health issues, financial problems, or housing, “they need support.” Instead, Roberts says, “they get the opposite: surveillance, restitution payments, fines, and fees.”

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women in the United States increased by more than 700 percent.

Of these, 60 percent are awaiting trial in jail because they can’t afford bail. And incarceration impacts women of color disproportionately: While only 31 percent of the population, African Americans and Latinas represent 46 percent of all women in prison.

With the average bail amount set at $10,000, the only alternative is to simply wait it out in a cell. Days. Weeks. Sometimes even years. Oftentimes, finding the resources to pay even $100 in bail can be an impossibility.

“It’s a corrupt system that forces people to pay for their freedom even before having their right to a fair trial,” says Roberts.

Color of Change, along with more than a dozen other activist organizations including Southerners on New Ground, Law for Black Lives, The Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and the Essie Justice Group, have partnered to create a National Bail Out Movement, a collective effort to end pretrial detention and, eventually, the mass incarceration of black and brown people.

The National Black Mama’s Bail Out campaign (#FreeBlackMamas) was launched in 2017 as a targeted fundraising effort to bring incarcerated mothers home to their families for Mother’s Day. Last year the coalition posted bail for 120 women in 15 cities in time for the holiday. 

Among them was Ebony Thomas, a nursing technician with two teenage sons. Thomas was stopped for a minor traffic violation in Atlanta, Georgia. But because she had a previous unpaid citation for which she had failed to appear in court, and a suspended license, she was jailed and separated from her sons for eight days before the coalition bailed her out.

Another woman in Memphis, Tennessee, was homeless and in the midst of a mental health crisis, says Erica Perry, an attorney and staff member at Law for Black Lives, a national network of lawyers and law students dedicated to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. “She was trying to find a place to sleep,” says Perry, “and they arrested her for trespassing.” Because the woman, who Perry declined to name, was carrying a weapon for protection, her bail was set at $7,000. “They’re doing it almost mindlessly,” she adds, “handing out these extremely high amounts.”

Part of the National Bail Out mission is not only to do away with the entire system of money bail, but also to invest in supportive services for those whose life circumstances often lead to their being trapped in the system in the first place.

For example, one mother bailed out last year for a traffic violation in Tampa, Florida, was just trying to get home to Alabama. “It can be as simple as providing a bus ticket,” says Roberts.

In another case, the coalition helped a woman struggling with drug addiction and domestic violence to get back on her feet emotionally and financially. In the end, she was able to obtain a commercial driver’s license and get a job as a truck driver.

The activists invoke the memory of Sandra Bland, who, in a case that garnered international attention, was found dead inside a Texas jail days after being arrested for a string of misdemeanor traffic violations. (Her family later received a $1.9 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit against Waller County officials.)

And they remember Kalief Browder, arrested for robbery at 16. In another case that stunned the nation, Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, the notorious New York City jail, “waiting for a trial that never happened,” as a reporter for The New Yorker put it. Surveillance video later showed the boy being brutally assaulted, kicked, and beaten by a large group of inmates. After several suicide attempts, both at Rikers and after his release, he finally tied a cord of bedsheets around his neck and hurled himself out a bedroom window at his mother’s home. He was 22.

Every day some 700,000 people are jailed, according to the coalition, unnecessarily disrupting children and families. Often, women who are heads of households lose their jobs as a result, their homes, and even their children, who can be placed in foster care in their absence.

“Money kept them in,” says a PDF brochure for the National Bail Out Movement. “Black love got them out.” 

“We spent some time outside the jail just waiting for people to be released,” recalls Erica Perry of last year’s Mother’s Day campaign. We were able to wait for them there, she says, with “hugs and flowers.”

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