Black Mamas Bail Out was first conceived as a continuation of centuries-long idea: that black people must be co-conspirators in their own liberation.
Erika Maye, deputy senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color of Change, one of the founding organizations behind Black Mamas Bail Out, credits the event, now in its fourth year, to activist Mary Hooks, co-director of the organization Southerners on New Ground.
“[She] came up with the idea of bailing our people out and getting mamas free in the tradition of our ancestors, who did anything they could to get free, including buying each other’s freedom,” she told The Root.
Held every year on Mother’s Day since 2017, the Black Mamas Bail Out campaign has raised more than $1 million and bailed out more than 300 black mothers and caregivers from jails nationwide, allowing them to be at home with their families by Mother’s Day. But this year, the danger of the novel coronavirus—and the particular vulnerability those detained or incarcerated have to catching it—has pushed National Bail Out, the collective that coordinates the massive fundraising effort, to begin the campaign earlier.
“Anything less than full release of people is really a death sentence,” said Maye.
National Bail Out first announced this year’s campaign on April 1 via its Twitter account.
“We know incarcerated Black folks are especially vulnerable to illness and even death during this novel outbreak,” the organization wrote. “Incarcerated people cannot practice social distancing inside a cage. Yet even in the midst of international crisis, society’s instinct is to continue criminalizing and punishing folks, especially Black people, under the guise of public health.”
“With the coronavirus, we recognize that there is an emerging crisis,” said Arissa Hall, project director for the National Bail Out collective. When news of the pandemic hit, she and other organizers immediately began thinking about the feasibility of rapid response bailouts.
Jails and prisons were hotbeds for contagious diseases long before the coronavirus hit American shores, because these facilities “provide the perfect conditions for an infection like the coronavirus to flourish and become really deadly, really quickly,” adds Maye.
Those detained or incarcerated are in close proximity to each other—in some facilities, sleeping within three feet of each other, well short of the 6 feet of distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are restrictions on hand sanitizer in correctional facilities because of the alcohol content, and those locked behind bars must share showers and are often in close contact with staffers as well as other incarcerated people.
Conditions in jails are even more dangerous than prisons, in this instance, because unlike prisons, jail facilities are designed for people to cycle in and out regularly, and are not meant to hold people for a very long time. Healthcare in these facilities are largely inadequate, prenatal care is all but nonexistent, for example. In some instances, the lack of proper care has been negligent to the point of costing lives.
“Even in the best of times, local jails fail to provide adequate healthcare to people inside of them. And it has already had lethal consequences,” said Maye, citing a recent CNN investigation into WellPath, which uncovered a disturbing pattern of preventable deaths by the government-contracted healthcare agency.
Because of these conditions, criminal justice experts and prison reform advocates have called for mass releases and compassionate releases in jails and prisons for weeks. But as both Hall and Maye point out, women—the fastest growing incarcerated population in the U.S.—have been overlooked in these releases, which have mostly occurred in men’s facilities.
This is devastating for several reasons. Black women are as likely as black men to be penalized because of their race when it comes to heavy-handed charges or being deemed “risks”—important factors that determine their eligibility for bail. Detained and incarcerated women are also typically the bedrock of their families: Hall points out that 80 percent of women in correctional facilities are mothers or caregivers, and more than 60 percent of women in prison have a child under the age of 18. Incarcerated women are also more likely to be kept in local jails than in prisons, according to a 2019 Prison Policy Report.
“We focus on black mamas and caregivers because they are marginalized even within movements for criminal justice reform,” said Maye.
“Unlike fathers who are incarcerated, most incarcerated mothers are single mothers, and they’re solely responsible for the care of their children,” she continued. “So when mothers and caregivers are in a cage, entire families and communities and homes become destabilized.”
This year, on top of raising money to free black mothers and caregivers, National Bail Out is also taking care to protect the health of women and their families once they’re released. They have service providers responsible for helping the released mothers with financial and healthcare needs and are working to provide groceries and affordable housing so they can self-quarantine.
“We’re operating under a very different landscape than we have before. And we want to make sure that we’re being responsible in our bailout,” said Hall.
While the organization is taking a lot of care to anticipate the needs of the people they release, Maye acknowledges that some of the issues will likely become clearer as they bail out more moms.
But the fight for freedom doesn’t end with the bailouts, Hall points out. From the beginning, the Mamas Bail Out campaign has been viewed as a tactic—a “necessary intervention,” in Hall’s words. After the women are released, National Bail Out works with them to get them more politically engaged and motivated, looking to tap their expertise and knowledge about the criminal justice system to push further change. It’s lost on none of the organizers that this is a major election year—a time to push for substantive reforms.
One of those changes is making sure people who are detained or incarcerated in the nation’s criminal justice system aren’t forgotten or left behind when it comes to public health and safety. Hall points to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as a “great example” of how politicians and elected officials respond to these kinds of crises.
A lifelong New Yorker, Hall noted that the governor has widely been seen as “stepping up” to respond to the pandemic but has overlooked those behind bars because it doesn’t serve him politically.
“People don’t care about the folks that are inside of jails and prisons because they aren’t their constituents,” she said.
Maye said Color of Change will be paying particular attention to prosecutorial races this year, where cash bail will continue to be a major issue. But the coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted the importance of smaller but deeply significant policies, like allowing those behind bars to make free phone calls.
But those battles will come in due time. For now, the immediate aim is freedom and survival.
“Our goal is to get as many moms and caregivers home in time for Mother’s Day as possible. That has been our goal for the past four years,” says Hall. “My goal is not only to do that, but to make sure that they are alive and well and supported.”