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Citing the tradition of their enslaved ancestors to “free ourselves,” a coalition of 25 grassroots, black-led organizations bought the freedom of about 60 black women jailed around the country for low-level offenses by raising $550,000 to pay their bail and bring them home to their families and communities in time for Mother’s Day – a gift one recipient termed “wondrous.” Targeting an unjust bail system that they charge constitutes “modern bondage” and disproportionately punishes poor people, especially women of color, the Mama’s Bail Out Day campaign was launched in Atlanta by Black Lives Matter and Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an LGBTQ rights group, and joined by a coalition of over 20 other organizations, from Color of Change to bail reform groups to public defenders.
Seeking to change a narrative that demonizes incarcerated moms, especially black ones, the project freed women held in jails in 16 cities, including Atlanta, Oakland, Houston, L.A., Minneapolis and New York City. They had all been accused – but not convicted – of minor offenses like loitering, failing to appear in court on a traffic ticket, small-scale pot possession, crossing outside a crosswalk, “using fighting words,” and other so-called “quality of life” misdeeds. Of the total funds raised, about $345,000 went directly to bail money and the rest was spent on organizing and support efforts for those newly freed, from finding temporary housing to to Mother’s Day events to hairdresser appointments so they can “feel human again.” The campaign slogan: “Money kept them in. Black love got them out.”
The campaign is part of a broader effort to remedy two under-recognized aspects of a flawed criminal justice system: the money-bail system – which grassroots groups have begun targeting by creating community bail funds – and a failure often cited by the Black Lives Movement to address the plight of jailed women, whose numbers have risen 700% since 1980, making them the fastest growing demographic in corrections. Among them, black women are twice as likely as white to be arrested and held on bail; black and trans women are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse while there; up to a third of women have mental health issues; and about eight in ten women are mothers.
Particularly for women trapped in cells, not because they’ve been convicted of anything but because they can’t afford to return to their lives while a money-based system plods on, collateral damage can be enormous – separation from kids who need them, loss of jobs and peace of mind (think Sandra Bland) and isolation from community – for what are often minor mistakes. Noted one emotional woman freed from jail in Atlanta and reunited with her family, “All of us are fallen.” Acknowledging that, the bailout project seeks to minimize the damage by calling on the kindness of strangers, and using their collective resources “to purchase each other’s freedom.”
First published in Common Dreams.
Gratitude for the kindness of strangers. Photo by David Barnes of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
A criminal “justice” system where money talks. Photo by David Barnes.