In a just world, Mother’s Day would be a time when every person could freely choose how to express gratitude for the mothers, caregivers and the maternal figures in their lives. I imagine many people would choose to celebrate in different ways, from delicious meals, extra-long embraces and words that communicate how deeply they appreciate the loved ones in their lives. Others may choose to spend their day laying flowers at a gravesite, planting seeds in a mother’s memory or having heart-to-heart conversations about both the triumphs and tribulations of motherhood or non-motherhood. No matter what actions are taken, the beauty of this version of Mother’s Day is that everyone gets to choose. What should be a day about honoring where one comes from is turned into a somber occasion for many families.
The criminal legal system as it currently stands, many Black mothers and their families do not have that choice. Black mothers are incarcerated at nearly twice the rate of white mothers. They are disproportionately incarcerated for misdemeanors, drug possession and trying to survive in the face of interpersonal violence. The extent of an incarcerated mother’s celebration might be a 10-minute phone call to her children—a phone call that a correctional officer is listening to, the Department of Corrections is recording, and Securus or another jail and prison telecom company is charging her predatory rates for. In 2019, the U.S. was incarcerating 231,000 women and girls, and almost 60 percent of them had children under 18 at home.
Above all else, prison is not rehabilitative in the first place; and locking people in cages simply because they cannot afford bail is unconscionable as it harms the lives of their children and families in the long-term. The incarceration of Black mothers is about control, oppression, and violence. We must break the vicious cycle. That is a very tall order, and not one that can happen overnight.
What can and will happen over the next few nights, however, is a national effort to bail out Black mamas in time for them to celebrate Mother’s Day with their children and loved ones. More than a quarter of all incarcerated mothers nationwide are currently sitting in jail awaiting trial. Presumed to be innocent, the only reason they are there is because they do not have the resources to afford bail. That’s why we have been proud to partner with the National Bail Out’s Black Mama’s Bail Outs for the past several years. We do this to ensure that as many mothers as possible can go home and be with their families on Mother’s Day and beyond.
Make no mistake: these bailouts shouldn’t be necessary in the first place, and they’re not a lasting solution. The use of cash bail is one of the most racist, classist practices in the criminal legal system and is routinely deployed to detain women with limited income.
In addition to ending cash bail, we need incarcerated people to be released immediately, particularly those with underlying conditions who are at a higher risk of getting COVID-19, the elderly, those doing time for drug possession charges, and those who acted in self-defense against abusive partners. Also, it’s critical to release mothers whose children have been taken away, when they are the first and only parental force.
There can be no care where there is punishment. We need to build an entirely new system that is based on deep care, the same kind of care that is at the root of motherhood.
Let’s start today by showing deep care to all Black mothers.
Erika Maye is deputy senior director for criminal justice and democracy campaigns for Color Of Change, the largest online racial justice organization in the country. Color Of Change helps people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by over 7 million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America. Visit www.colorofchange.org.