Tiara Moore spent last Mother’s Day in jail, away from her children on the holiday for the first time in 16 years. With her bail set at $100,000, the mother of five would likely have spent several weeks in jail waiting for her case to be dismissed, had community organizers not bailed her out.
This year, Moore was one of the organizers who helped bail out mothers like herself in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as part of the Black Mama’s Bail Out, a nationwide initiative to #FreeBlackMamas started by National Bail Out, a black-led collective of more than a dozen organizations.
“I’m just using what happened to me to help other people in the same situation,” Moore told Global Citizen. “That’s why I got involved, and have been doing this work ever since I got bailed out.”
Moore and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund bailed out seven mothers last week ahead of Mother’s Day, and are planning to bail out more in the weeks to come.
Over the past week, 95 black mothers and caregivers in 20 states were released from jails — their bail paid by activists and organizers — in time to spend Mother’s Day with their loved ones. Since the National Bail Out started the Black Mama’s Bail Out in 2017, the group has seen over 400 people released from jail.
And while it’s called the Black Mama’s Bail Out, Project Director Arissa Hall said the initiative aims to free mothers and caregivers, which includes aunties, cousins, trans people, and anyone else who helps raise families.
Many women remain in jail, even though they have yet to be convicted of a crime, because they cannot afford to make bail — a problem National Bail Out is helping to address one person at a time.
“But we don’t see these bailouts as the solution,” Hall said. “We see them as a tactical intervention for freeing our people by any means.”
Bailout crews made up of organizers and volunteers — bearing signs with phrases like, “We love you!” and “Free black mamas” — greeted mothers in 36 cities across the country upon their release from jail.
Delaine Powerful, National Bail Out’s operations coordinator, said the goal is to make them feel loved, supported, and welcomed back into their communities as they face the legal process ahead of them.
Delaine Powerful is the operations coordinator for National Bail Out. They helped oversee and support the Black Mama’s Bail Out, which saw more than 95 mothers and caregivers bailed out of jails in 36 cities across the US over the past few weeks.
The attention the #FreeBlackMamas movement has garnered has also helped existing bail funds grow. And community organizers and system-impacted people, including bailed-out moms like Moore, have used Black Mama’s Bail Outs to create awareness around the ways in which cash bail criminalizes poverty and to gain support for the creation of local bail funds.
Mothers who were bailed out during previous Black Mama’s Bail Outs led bailouts in Oakland, California, and Philadelphia this year — and plan to keep fighting to end cash bail year round until the system is changed.
The bailouts themselves are part of a larger organizing strategy to end money bail, pretrial detention, and, ultimately, to end mass incarceration, Hall explained.
While Americans make up just 5% of the global population, the US holds 25% of all people incarcerated in the world. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US, most people are poor, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
And the poorest among them are women and people of color, making them some of the hardest hit by the cash bail system.
“In this country, the growth of jails — which are the front doors to incarceration — is entirely because of the use of cash bail,” said Insha Rahman, program director at the Vera Institute of Justice.
“We are now setting money bail more often, and we're setting it at higher amounts beyond people's reach, and that is contributing to this swell of people who are in jail, while they're presumed innocent, because of their poverty,” she said. “They literally can’t pay for their freedom.”
People in pretrial detention have not yet been convicted of a crime, but they are removed from their families and communities. They may stay in jail for days, weeks, or months, awaiting their trial or an agreement.
During this time, they are not able to support their families personally or financially. And the longer they remain in pretrial detention, the more likely they are to lose their jobs, housing, custody of their children, and support like disability benefits.
Moore, who was in jail for about a week before she was released on bail, lost her job as a physical therapy assistant and was nearly evicted.
When mothers are incarcerated, the effects of their detention are widely felt. Most incarcerated mothers are single mothers, which can have intense destabilizing effects on families, communities, and the next generation.
In fact, children whose mothers are incarcerated are five times more likely to be placed in foster care than children with incarcerated fathers. These children are half as likely to reunite with their mothers as children placed in foster care whose mother was not incarcerated.
"Motherhood is only afforded to certain people, so we need to look at how we celebrate mothers and which mothers we’re not celebrating."
Poverty, pretrial detention, and mass incarceration are bound together so tightly that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle them. One so often feeds cyclically into the others that when given the chance to be bailed out some mothers are forced to decline.
“There have been instances where folks say no, for a multitude of reasons,” Powerful said.
“Some of those reasons being: In jail, I'm getting housing or consistent meals or some type of health care,” they explained. “That alludes to the fact that people have no control over their bodies, their health, their well-being [outside] and so they have no other choice but to stay in a place that doesn't treat them right but will give them those things.”
For some mothers, meeting these basic needs is unaffordable or inaccessible outside of jail. And, paradoxically, the cost of having those needs met by jail or prison is their freedom.
In places like Harris County, Texas, making bail means losing your public defender. The underlying assumption is that if you can afford to make bail — even if it was paid on your behalf — then you can afford your own lawyer, which for many, simply isn’t true.
“What we’re doing is building prisons and jails in opposition to mental health institutions, to providing jobs and housing for folks. So people are ending up in jail for a multitude of reasons — like bail — but they’re also staying there for a multitude of reasons and because, in some cases, it's better than being out,” Powerful added.
"This is what happens to people who look like you."
National Bail Out’s goal is to end mass incarceration, a mission the collective of community organizers, lawyers, and activists, said is deeply rooted in seeing through the work of abolitionists who came before them.
“I came into this work really grounded in the understanding that the criminal legal system was built to exploit and continue to oppress people who look like me as an extension of chattel slavery,” Hall said.
The 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865, made slavery illegal in all cases — “except as punishment for crime.” In its immediate aftermath, the loophole enabled several states to pass discriminatory laws that led to the incarceration of large numbers of black Americans, who were made to work without pay to replace the South’s recently emancipated workforce.
Discrimination against and the over-incarceration of black Americans was then further indoctrinated by what author Michelle Alexander famously termed the “new Jim Crow.” These are policies that encoded systemic discrimination into the legal system in a way that has perpetuated the cycle of poverty among people of color and helped to maintain their over-incarceration, Alexander says.
For Hall, this isn’t the stuff of textbooks — it’s family history. The 29-year-old New York native grew up with a close relationship with her great grandfather, who was a sharecropper from the South and the son of a slave, and her mother, who lives with a severe mental illness and was intermittently institutionalized through her childhood.
“I have seen personally what it's like for poverty to be criminalized,” Hall said. “For example, what it’s like to not have the resources that should be made available to folks with mental illness and how those with mental illness make up a huge population in our jails.”
Incarceration is something Hall saw around her all her life growing up in Brooklyn and Long Island. And the message that sent was “this is what happens to people who look like you,” Hall said.
“Because we were poor and black and didn’t have as many opportunities, jail was like a rite of passage into adulthood,” she said.
Black Americans are the single largest demographic of incarcerated people in the US, — around 40% of those incarcerated — despite making up just 13% of the general population in the US. And that’s why National Bail Out’s efforts focus on empowering and uplifting black communities.
“I believe we have to get at the root of incarceration, which is that the prison industrial complex is based on the capital of human bodies and chattel slavery,” Hall said.
National Bail Out is particularly focused on supporting black women impacted by the criminal justice system because they are so often left out of the conversation around criminal justice.
“When we talk about the criminal legal system and social justice, it’s always in a very masculine way. There's always a focus on cis men and oftentimes women are left in the margins, particularly femmes and trans folks,” Hall said.
The Black Mama’s Bail Out is not only an effort to free mothers from pretrial detention, but also to center the issues of incarceration that are unique to mothers and caregivers.
Delaine Powerful at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, New York. The historic site was one of the first communities of free black Americans in the US and predates the abolition of slavery, but is now in danger of closing due to lack of funding.
Unfortunately, Powerful says it can be challenging to bail out caregivers who do not identify as cis women because their gender identities are often not respected by law enforcement officials. As a result, trans women and people who identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming might be placed in men’s facilities, where organizers don’t always think to look.
“I deeply believe that this is a reproductive justice issue. This is really about how people are able to mother and to parent,” Hall, a mother herself, explained.
“Mother’s Day is celebrated across the country … but motherhood is only afforded to certain people, so we need to look at how we celebrate mothers and which mothers we’re not celebrating,” she added.
Women are now incarcerated at rates nearly 10 times higher than they were four decades ago. They often become involved with the justice system in the first place while trying to deal with poverty, unemployment, mental illness, or substance abuse. Most women are jailed for low-level and nonviolent offenses, the Vera Institute reports.
In New York, there is hope that this will soon change.
The state recently passed bail reform measures eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent crimes, effective Jan. 1, 2020. And while the legislation represents progress, many activists feel it doesn’t go far enough, including both Hall and Powerful.
At least eight mothers were bailed out from Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, as part of National Bail Out’s Black Mama’s Bail Out last week. Rikers is notorious for its poor treatment of detainees and is scheduled to close by 2026.
“I don't think that setting limitations on who is eligible to not have bail by deeming people worthy or unworthy is OK. But, in comparison to other reforms that have been passed, I definitely do think that it's a step,” Hall said.
Last week, Hall, Powerful, and other community organizers helped bail out eight mothers and caregivers from Rikers Island in New York City — and plan to bail out more. The jail, notorious for its mistreatment of detainees and inmates, is scheduled to close by 2026.
“When we free our own people, we deny this assessment that they are ‘risky.'"
Hall adds that despite this progress, the implementation of the reform measures has yet to be seen. But there is a role for everyday people to play in ensuring that the new policies are actually put into practice.
Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, encourages people to participate in court watching programs, which observe hearings and measure the behaviors and actions of officials in courtrooms against publicly announced policies. Attending court hearings, which are open to the public, can help put pressure on prosecutors, judges, and court actors to implement these laws correctly, Goldberg explained.
“There’s also [district attorney] elections coming up, which folks absolutely need to be involved in,” he said. “If pretrial justice and justice generally are things that are important to you, the make sure that your local DA is running on a platform that will implement these changes quickly and and effectively and push them forward even further.”
Activists like Hall and Powerful have had a key role in even pushing reform this far.
“We have seen something in the past five years in this country that we thought was undoable three or four decades ago,” Rahman said.
Before New York passed its bail reform legislation on March 31, New Jersey overhauled its cash bail system in 2017. It has since seen a dramatic reduction its pretrial jail population, without the increase in crime that critics anticipated. California also passed bail reform measures last year, though many have expressed concerns their implementation.
“These amazing changes that we've seen, that were once unthinkable — that's because of the groundswell of activism and a greater public awareness of the harms of money bail and this consensus that the money bail system is ‘evil’ [and] it needs to go,” Rahman said.
The New York legislative session ends on June 19, meaning there is still a chance for cash bail to be eliminated entirely throughout the state.
By uniting communities of color to support and help bail people out of jail, Hall hopes National Bail Out’s work is also helping to counter the idea that communities don’t want to bring arrested and formerly incarcerated individuals home.
“I think the beauty of people freeing their neighbors, their community members, questions this idea of public safety,” Hall said, referring to the broad and vague concepts of “public safety” and “dangerousness” that judges or risk assessment algorithms consider when setting bail. Both have historically been applied in a way that discriminates against people of color in the criminal justice system.
“When we free our own people, we deny this assessment that they are ‘risky,’ and we say: not in our name. We, the community, are saying we don’t want you to hold someone [in detention] because you deem them risky to me.”
Instead of removing people from their communities as punishment for harming others, National Bail Out believes processes of justice should be community-oriented.
“We need to have a conversation around why we feel that people who have committed harm should no longer have access to support, to love, to care … why we feel they shouldn't be able to exist outside of cages,” Powerful said.
The organization envisions a system without cash bail that is built around supporting both the person who commits harm and those harmed.
A security sign leading up to Rikers Island Bridge. More than 10,000 people are detained in the jail complex, which sits on an island between the Queens and Bronx boroughs. About 85% of those detained at Rikers have not yet been convicted of a crime.
National Bail Out’s work doesn’t end with bailing out mothers — it starts with it.
“It’s not just like, oh, you were just bailed out. You’re part of a community of people,” Hall said.
After bailing out mothers, National Bail Out offers support to ensure they have everything they need to not be reincarcerated and to make it to their court dates. This could be anything from a MetroCard to take the subway home to food or access to a social worker.
“When folks don't even have the funds to pay for bail to free themselves from cages, how do we expect them to have money for housing, to eat, to be able to take care of their families and loved ones?” Powerful said.
The organization also started the Free Black Mamas Fellowship in August 2017 to empower bailed-out mothers to become activists. The eight-week paid fellowship provides political education, organizing training, and leadership development.
Moore, the mother whose bail was set at $100,000, was one of last year’s fellows.
“We recognize that those who are closest to the problems should be molding the solutions and really believe in the leadership development of our people that have been inside [the system],” Hall adds.
“They came to get their people, and that’s really powerful,” Hall said.
This week Global Citizen is publishing a series of stories focused on the impact of cash bail and the criminal justice system on people affected by poverty. Go to End Bail, Fight Poverty to read these stories.