I recently visited the Riverside Correctional Facility to interview imprisoned women eligible for the Mama’s Day Bailout. Over four hours, I interviewed a dozen black women who remain in jail simply because they are too poor to post bail.
The women had been in jail anywhere between 35 and 538 days. Most have children and grandchildren. Some are expectant mothers. Others are the primary caretaker of elderly or ill loved ones. Still others are teenagers in high school, frightened and anxious to get back home to worried mothers. My heart ached as I heard their stories and made note of their illnesses, urgent medical needs, struggles with sobriety, and trauma. One woman sat in disbelief when she learned that she had been held for over 150 days on $300 bail. It is not uncommon for women to be unclear about the nature of their charges and next steps. The $30 needed for bond was beyond her reach. Those with bail of over $5,000 saw no possibility of release without our help.
I volunteer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, a community-led group that formed in May 2017 to post bail for black mothers and caregivers as part of the national Mama’s Day Bailout efforts. That year, we were able to raise $60,000 in one week to post bail for 13 women before Mother’s Day. We are hoping to raise $75,000 for this year’s Mama’s Day Bailout.
We are raising money to bail black mothers out of jail because we believe that cash bail is an immoral and unconstitutional practice that harms poor communities of color and does not keep anyone safe. It is a practice that deprives individuals of their freedom without adequate due process simply because of their economic status. In Philadelphia, more than 5,300 people are imprisoned in local jails, the majority of whom are being held on unjust probation and parole detainers or pretrial on cash bail. All of those held pretrial are imprisoned before they have been found guilty of any crime.
The typical person charged with a crime in Philadelphia spends 25 days in jail before being are able to post bail. Even a few days in jail can have life-altering consequences. Many of those for whom we’ve posted bail have lost their jobs, their homes, all of their possessions, and even custody of their children as a result of their detention.
We know that those held pretrial are much more likely to accept a plea deal regardless of their guilt or innocence. One woman we bailed out in 2017 had been held for 14 months. She had never spoken to her court-appointed attorney, nor had she seen the inside of a courtroom. She told us that she felt forgotten and despaired of ever seeing her family again. How tempting would it be to accept a plea deal with its promise of eventual release when facing such uncertainty? Most of those we have bailed out who have finally had their day in court have had their charges dismissed.
We focus on black women for our Mama’s Day Bailout because we believe that when we center those who are most marginalized, we work for the liberation of all people. Women are the fastest growing population in prison and black women are incarcerated at four times the rate of white women. Although we will bail out only black women and black gender-nonconforming people for Mother’s Day, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund raises funds to bail out all those held in Philadelphia jails year-round. So far, we have brought 47 people home.
Candace McKinley volunteers with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.