Antonio Harrell has $2 to his name.

The thirty-six-year-old is sitting in the Alamance County jail awaiting a hearing on misdemeanor charges related to trespassing and larceny because he could not afford his $1,500 bail and was not given a lawyer. Harrell lives in a home for disabled adults and busses tables at Smithfield Chicken and Barbecue part-time for minimum wage. He depends on social security to pay his bills. 

When he was arrested on November 9, he was in between paychecks. Brought before a magistrate, Harrell asked if he could be released on a written promise to appear, but the magistrate said no.

In jail, Harrell has not had access to the four different medications he relies on for his mental health. His next court day is not until December.

Harrell is one of three inmates n the Alamance County jail involved in a class-action lawsuit Tuesday filed by the North Carolina ACLU and Civil Rights Corps claiming people are being unconstitutionally detained by the county because they cannot afford bail, while wealthier defendants walk free. 

“A person’s freedom should never depend on how much money they have,” said Leah Kang, a staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, in a statement. “This unjust cash bail system violates people’s rights, has a devastating impact on communities, and must end.”

The defendants in the case, Chief District Judge Bradley Allen Sr. and Alamance County Sheriff Terry S. Johnson, could not be reached for comment. 

Most of the inmates in the Alamance County Detention Center are there because they can’t afford bail—about 79 percent of 350 imprisoned are there awaiting trial, many solely for financial reasons, according to the lawsuit. That’s up 7 percent from 2017, when on average 71 percent of inmates were held pretrial. 

Cash bail practices discriminate against the poor by not taking a defendant’s ability to pay into consideration and falling to provide defendants with an attorney when bail is set, the lawsuit alleges. It seeks to free inmates like Harrell and ensure policies are put in place to stop others from being detained solely due to economic hardship. 

Alamance has one of the highest rates of secured bonds in the state, with nearly 90 percent of people charged in crimes being issued one. While magistrates can factor a person’s ability to pay into their bail considerations, this hasn’t happened for folks like Harrell, turning the cash bail system into “a de facto detention order,” according to the lawsuit. 

Those unable to pay bail also can’t pay for lawyers and must wait for the court to appoint one. For a person charged with a felony, that can be days, but for someone facing a misdemeanor charge, it can be weeks. 

Weeks of jail time awaiting a trial “is the norm” for impoverished residents of Alamance, says Civil Rights Corps attorney Katherine Hubbard. 

“During these days of detention, they miss work, struggle to communicate with friends and family, and contemplate pleading guilty just to get out and return to their lives,” Hubbard said in a statement. “Meanwhile, those who have access to enough cash to pay for their freedom are released. This wealth-based system is blatantly unconstitutional and has no place in a country that purports all people are equal under the law.”

Another plaintiff in the suit is Lea Allison, a thirty-year-old mother facing drug and misdemeanor charges. She’s sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded jail cell, the lawsuit says, because she can’t afford her $3,500 bail. 

Before being arrested, Allison was already struggling to pay her bills and support her six-year-old daughter. She was supposed to start a new job the day after she was arrested and is worried she will lose it if she’s not released.

In Durham, District Attorney Satana Deberry has led the fight for bail reform by curtailing the use of cash bonds in most cases. 

“I think there are more and more communities in the country that want criminal justice reform. I think people have seen the real consequences to human lives—the mass incarceration, the prosecution,” Deberry told the INDY in May. “It’s important because people with a criminal record can’t get a job, can’t get a place to live. People in jail or prison often lose access to their families, their children, and their communities. Who are they going to be when they come out to us?”

Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.