On Sunday, smoke from a grill wafted sweetly through an open-sided shelter at Hillside Park, where a few dozen people were talking, laughing, and eating. A rented bouncy castle wobbled nearby. Joyous music rattled in tinny speakers.
It was like any number of Mother’s Day celebrations taking place across Durham, except for one thing. The mothers it celebrated had all been released from the Durham County Detention Facility within the last few days, though they had not been convicted of any crimes.
The Mama’s Day Homecoming Celebration was emceed by Serena Sebring and Jade Brooks, activists with Southerners on New Ground, a twenty-five-year-old queer liberation organization with an intersectional social justice mission. Outside the jail on the prior Wednesday, Sebring sat at a folding table festooned with balloons and laden with care packages, alongside her daughter, Courtney (an activist with Black Youth Project 100), Brooks, and SONG member Kifu Faruq, among others.
All of them worked phones and clipboards with calm determination. They were arranging transportation and support for issues of housing, employment, addiction, and more, working with many community partners, including the Inside-Outside Alliance and Triangle SURJ. They were also navigating the hurdles that seem deliberately built into the system of money bail. For example, a judge unsecured one woman’s bondmeaning it no longer needed to be paid unless she missed her court datewhile SONG was paying it, resulting in a needless $10,000 expenditure.
“The system is designed to keep you in and take your money,” Brooks says. But it all seemed worthwhile when a mother emerged arm in arm with her daughter, beaming, and then took Faruq in a long, emotional embrace.
Black Mama’s Day Bail Out was a national action that spanned more than a dozen cities across the country. According to the Movement for Black Lives, the initiative, which was conceived by SONG, raised more than $700,000 nationally to free black mothers who were in jail on bonds they couldn’t afford to pay. The goal was not only to transform individual lives now but also to eventually transform what critics call an arbitrary, predatory, racially biased system in which the privileged can buy their pretrial freedom while the poor remain ransomed by the state for weeks and months, even for small municipal offenses.
“We have a country whose values say people are innocent until proven guilty, and that turns out to be the caseunless you’re poor,” Sebring says.
By the end of Wednesday, SONG had paid just over $35,000 to secure the release of eight women whose bonds ranged from $150 to $10,000. Over three more hectic days, which included a trip to Charlotte to support the action there, they bought the freedom of six more, spending roughly $100,000 total, raised locally and from the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund.
Studies by the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Assistance suggest that race and ethnicity affect the decision to grant bail, that African Americans are 66 percent more likely to be detained pretrial than whites, and that people who are incarcerated before their trials are more likely to be convicted than those released on bond.
“People who are poor often don’t have the resources to purchase their freedom, whereas people of means can be at home preparing for their trials with their families,” Sebring says. “People are also more likely to take plea bargains simply to get home. It’s a system of coercion.”
Even for people who are not ultimately convicted, the damage is already done.
“It takes shockingly little time for a life to fall apart,” Sebring says. “Within a few days, anyone pulled from their life is likely to lose their job, within a few weeks, their housing or their children. The impact on people’s lives is tremendous and long-lasting.”
According to the N.C. Advocates for Justice, African Americans are nearly nine times more likely to be incarcerated for criminal conduct than whites in Durham. Most of the county jail’s population is African American, and the overwhelming majority are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime, so the disproportionate effect of money bail on African Americans is clear. Black mothers’ roles as caregiversnot only for their families but for entire communitiesmeans that their incarceration has a ripple effect. It also has a weighty historical context.
“We wanted to call attention to the collective resilience black folks have been practicing throughout history,” Sebring says. “From the time of slavery onward, we’ve seen people coming together, pooling resources, taking risks, and getting each other free. On this Mother’s Day, it felt particularly important to focus on black mamas and caregivers, both for that reason and to call attention to the racial disproportion of people incarcerated more broadly.”
At Hillside Park, Shaquana Williams poses with her sister in a photo booth. Afterward, her eight-year-old son clings to her side, alertly watching her, as if she might disappear. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” on the PA system. Until Friday, Williams had been in jailher first timefor about six months, with no hope of release for one or two more. (SONG requested we not ask the mothers about their charges.) She worried about her son, whose father is incarcerated.
“It had me depressed a lot,” Williams says. “Every time I talked to him, he said, ‘Mama, I love you, I miss you, I want you home,’ and that made me sad. I wrote [SONG] and told them what was going on, that I wanted to be home with my kids for Mother’s Day.” She didn’t know until she spoke with her own mother on Friday that she was getting out of jail that day.
Williams was one of fourteen women SONG reached by writing letters to identify black mothers and caregivers who needed assistance getting bonded out of the county jail, though others remain inside. SONG also worked with local clergy members, who went into the jail, including Gloria Winston-Harris, pastor of CityWell Church. She was already working in prisons through Kairos Prison Ministry when she connected with SONG.
“For me, it was emotionally charged, because these were women that really didn’t believe somebody was coming to get them out,” Winston-Harris says. She’d brought several of her parishioners to the cookout. “On several occasions, the words that came out of their mouths were, ‘You came, you came,’ which speaks volumes about the lost hope for poor women.”
Winston-Harris says working with SONG has redoubled her commitment, as an activist and a minister, to helping people navigate a hostile system to return to their communities after a moment of crisis.
“As an experienced clergy going into jails, the process and procedures change,” she says. “We were told this is the way we have to do it, and once we learned the process, it changed. This will steal your joy, snuff hope out of you. That’s why you need an organization that says, By all means necessary. You change the rules, and we’re coming back.”
SONG advocates for bail reform that is transformative, not just superficial. (Read more about it at nomoremoneybail.org.)
The cash bail system has come under fire from legal reformers all over the country recently. Earlier this year, for example, a bill was introduced in the California Senate to eliminate cash bail; New Jersey, meanwhile, eliminated cash bail for low-level offenses.
“If the point is to hold it over someone’s head that going to court is important, there are other ways to get there,” Brooks says. “Instead of asking how much they should charge as an incentive for you to return to court, what if they asked, ‘What do you need to return? Childcare, transportation, a reminder, legal services, time off work?’”
Until the state can countenance this kind of practical empathy, it falls on organizations like SONG and churches like CityWell to make up the difference.
“People have responded with overwhelming generosity,” Sebring says. “We raised funds every way we knew howhouse parties, garden parties, direct emails, online fundraising, street outreachand we saw people representing the Fight for $15 digging into their pockets, putting a five in the bowl. And tremendous gratitude from the people inside. We heard through a clergy visit that one of the mamas has been sleeping with our letter underneath her pillow, and said something like, I don’t know what you put on that letter, but it smells like freedom.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Bonded for Life.”