The morning of May 12, just two days before Mother’s Day, a woman who had been held in an Oakland jail for a week before facing trial for a minor charge received word that her bail, which had been set at $25,000, had been paid. The woman had a four-year-old daughter at home, and when she heard that she could go back to her, “she put the phone down behind the glass that was separating us and just cried out of gratitude,” Gina Clayton, the executive director of the California-based Essie Justice Group, tells Fast Company.
Essie Justice Group is part of a coalition of black-led activist organizations campaigning to raise money to pay the bail of black women jailed for minor offenses in time for Mother’s Day on May 14 of this year–and raise awareness of the failings of our justice system. The groups–which include the Atlanta-based Southerners On New Ground (SONG), the national organization Color of Change, The Movement For Black Lives, and The Ella Baker Center For Human Rights–which had set a goal of raising $250,000 through the initiative they’ve entitled Mama’s Bail Out Day. Marbre Stahly-Butts, Law for Black Lives co-director, says the campaign has brought in over $350,00, and they’re pushing for more.
The money raised through the campaign is being doled out to local justice groups like Essie. Clayton’s organization initially received $25,000, which was enough to bail out one woman in Alameda County. “We were rejoicing, because in California, the bail is set at five times higher than the national average,” Clayton says. The additional $50,000 will go toward bailing out two more women.
That $75,000 should only be enough to free just three women who haven’t yet been convicted of a crime–and even if they are, the charges are for minor offenses–is staggering, and to Clayton, that’s the point. The money raised through Mama’s Bail Out Day will likely not be able to release more than 100 women nationally. But “the problem that we’re pointing out is that nobody can afford to pay these exorbitant bills,” Clayton says.
The women who will be freed through Mama’s Bail Out Day are not felons; they pose no risk to society. Many of them were thrown in jail for low-level offenses like loitering or drug possession–offenses for which they have not yet even been convicted. Because even these violations can constitute bail fees in the thousands, 62% of people given bail are unable to come up with the money, and have to remain in jail to await sentencing (though they are still innocent in the eyes of the law), rather than being allowed to return to their lives and families. Eight in 10 of the women in prison are mothers, and for those who are unable to make bail before a trial, many face the threat of job or housing loss.
The organizers are clear on the fact that their efforts will go toward helping bail out all mothers–queer, trans, young, older, and immigrant. But they’re also attuned to the disparities rampant in incarceration rates: Black women are more than twice as likely to be jailed than their white counterparts, and one in five trans women have spent time in prison or jail. (In total, the U.S. incarcerates 127 out of every 100,000 women.)
In January, a group of black-led organizations met to address the inequities in the criminal justice system and coordinate a bail-reform effort. The meeting stemmed from the policy platform outlined by the Movement for Black Lives last summer, which calls for an end to bail, a demilitarization of law enforcement, and a reckoning with the systemic biases against black people and LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people. As the director of SONG, an Atlanta-based LGBTQ organizing group, Mary Hooks had noticed the outsized effect of money bail on LGBTQ communities, and suggested an initiative, according to The Nation, to use “our collective resources to buy each others’ freedom.”
The idea to focus specifically on mothers, added Arissa Hall, a project manager at the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, stemmed from a recognition that motherhood, while revered culturally, is often not granted respect by the justice system, and mothers who struggle with poverty, addiction, and mental health, often face stigmatization.
The bail outs facilitated through Mama’s Bail Out Day happened in the days leading up to Mother’s Day; on May 14, the initiative is organizing Bail Out Days in nine cities, including Oakland, Houston, and Atlanta, to issue a set of demands to local lawmakers and stakeholders. City councils and county commissions, they say, should pass legislation that supports automatic release for municipal offenses, and establish a fund for community organizations that provide pre-trial services; district attorneys and judges should coordinate to limit the use of bail. The Mama’s Bail Out Day requests these reforms scale up to the state and federal levels as well, calling for comprehensive bail reform and robust data collection on bond practices. If you give after Mother’s Day, don’t worry, the fund will continue paying mothers’ bail and supporting bail reform organizations.
As the coalition of activist groups continues to facilitate the bail of women across the country, Clayton hopes their efforts will ignite local support for legislative change. “One of the things that people can do immediately is support the locations that have legislation pending, in which we need the voices of people to say to legislators: stop this,” she says. In California, a bill to eliminate the bail system is making its way through the state legislature, and Essie Justice Group and Color of Change have organized an online petition to deliver signatures to the lawmakers who will be voting on the proposal.
But until comprehensive bail reform is enacted, activists and communities are stepping up to stymie the systemic injustice. “Our mamas are not disposable,” Ruth Jeannoel, lead organizer for Power U Center for Social Change, said in a video for Mama’s Bail Out Day. Communities depend on mothers of all kinds–birth mothers, chosen mothers, mothers of all races and identification–to hold together, Jeannoel adds, and it will take a community effort to bring them back.