#FreeBlackMamas works to bail black mothers out of jail in time for Mother's Day

Organizers have bailed out 70 black mothers in nearly two dozen cities this week and called attention to problems with the cash bail system.
Image: "Free Black Mamas DMV" rally outside of the Prince George's County Detention Center
Volunteers with "Free Black Mamas DMV" rally outside the Prince Georges County Detention Center on Monday in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. They are part of a larger effort to bail black mothers out of jail before Mother's Day and bring attention to the cash bail system.Michael A. McCoy / Reuters

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By Erin E. Evans

When Jaymeisha Jordan got out of jail a year ago, she was greeted by a group of cheering women whom she didn't even know. Jordan, who has a son, had been imprisoned in the Santa Rita County jail in California; her bail had been set at nearly $60,000.

Then the Essie Justice Group stepped in. The organization of women with incarcerated loved ones is among several across the country that have mobilized under National Bail Out's #FreeBlackMamas initiative, a campaign to pay cash bail for black mothers and caregivers before Mother's Day on Sunday.

"I got a visit from three Essie Justice sisters, who asked me for permission to bail me out," Jordan, who lives in Oakland, California, said in an interview. "I was emotional because I was just thinking people don’t do that when they don’t know the person. That’s so rare and unheard of. The Essie sisters were God-sent.”

The Mother's Day effort that began Monday had bailed out 90 mothers in 34 cities by Sunday.

Since it started in 2017, the #FreeBlackMamas initiative has raised more than $1 million and bailed out more than 300 black mothers. Activist Mary Hooks, who conceived the idea, told talk radio station KPFA that the effort was inspired by the tradition of free black people buying enslaved peoples' freedom before emancipation.

Black women are twice as likely to be incarcerated as white women, according to a 2018 report by The Sentencing Project. Eighty percent of women who are jailed every year are mothers, and 150,000 of them are pregnant when they are admitted, the Prison Policy Initiative reports.

"Black mamas are so very often at the margins of our society because of their race and gender and their socioeconomic status that we often don't see them," said Arissa Hall, project director at National Bail Out.

Though the #FreeBlackMamas campaign centers on black mothers, National Bail Out aims to bring attention to the human and financial costs of the cash bail system. Hall said its three priorities are to continue to bail out black mothers, build community with them, and provide leadership and solutions on how to end the cash bail system.

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The movement to end cash bail has gained momentum over the last several years. Then-California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to overhaul the state's cash bail system in August. (The bill is now on hold until November 2020.)

The ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in March, arguing that Philadelphia County relies too heavily on cash bail and violates criminal procedure laws that encourages pretrial release without cash bail.

A New York law eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses is set to take effect next year. In Durham, North Carolina, judges set a new cash bail policy that aims to minimize its use.

Kyla Hartsfield and Serena Sebring are willing to put their bodies on the line to keep black mothers out of jail. They chained themselves to the gates of the Durham County jail on Thursday to protest the cash bail system and stand in the way of any more black mothers being put in a jail cell.

Though they weren't arrested, the Durham County Sheriff's Department charged Hartsfield and Sebring on Friday with second-degree trespassing, disorderly conduct at a public building and failure to disperse on command. They were temporarily held in detention Friday but later released.

The protest action was organized by the Durham chapter of Southerners on New Ground, a queer liberation organization with chapters across the South.

"The intention is to bring attention to the money bail system and the ways that it holds people captive simply because they cannot post bail," said Grace Nichols, cultural organizer and member of Southerners on New Ground in Durham. "The action yesterday was to bring attention to the ways that we have worked for years to adjust the bail policy."

A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice reveals that keeping a person in pre-trial detention has severe consequences for marginalized communities, including poor people, black people, Latinos and women.

"There is little evidence to support the efficacy of monetary bail in achieving the intended goals of reducing harm to the community and increasing court appearances," the report states.

Bethany Stewart is a core organizer with Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which has bailed out seven mothers ahead of Mother's Day and raised $120,000 in three weeks. The organization, which bails out Philadelphia residents year-round, "advocates for the end of the cash bail system and empowers Philadelphians to affect change in the current system."

The Bail Fund and other groups, including national advocacy organization Color of Change, Atlanta-based Southerners on New Ground, and the Gilda Papoose Collective in the Washington, D.C., area have been sharing their efforts with #FreeBlackMamas on social media.

The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund works with the Center for Carceral Communities, an organization that helps people get acclimated to day-to-day life after being incarcerated by providing job interview preparation and counseling.

Stewart also leads a hub with Philadelphia's participatory defense program at the Circle of Hope Church in South Philadelphia to support people who have pending court cases. Every week, people can talk about the support they need for navigating the legal system, including child care, transportation and other services.

"Philadelphians that are isolated and incarcerated should reach out to us for community support," Stewart said in a phone interview. "You don't have to be incarcerated and ashamed alone. Philadelphians should see they can be empowered to make a change."

A year later, Jordan, the mother who was released last year, was rallying with the Essie Justice Group to call for the end of pretrial detention and the cash bail system. She has been working with the group to establish support services for women upon their release from jail.

For Hall, bringing formerly incarcerated people into the organizing work is one of the most important missions of #FreeBlackMamas.

"We don't just see ourselves as direct service providers," Hall said. "We see ourselves as comrades in this fight for our collective liberation — and we see the mamas and caregivers that we bail out as our comrades, as well."