On Wednesday afternoon, the sun is beaming down on the courtyard of the Durham County Detention Facility, where about two dozen people are gathered. A small group forms a circle and begins a call and response, their words reverberating off of the jail's high, gray walls.
"If you can hear me, say power!" Serena Sebring bellows.
"Power!" the group responds.
"And miracles!" Sebring cries out, her companions responding in turn.
They are here to make miracles happen for women of color locked up inside this jail because they cannot pay to get out. It's the second year that Southerners on New Ground, a queer liberation group for which Sebring is a regional organizer, has held the Black Mama's Bailout in Durham, raising money to purchase the freedom of black women, trans, and gender-nonconforming people who are mothers and caregivers ahead of Mother's Day.
Moments earlier, the first woman freed—Lisa Oxendine, a mother of two—had emerged through the jail's glass doors. Sebring handed her a bouquet of flowers and led her to a social worker to talk about housing, employment, and any other needs she might have after eight days in the jail under a $1,000 bond on a charge of breaking into a truck. Sitting next to the social worker, Oxendine lifts the bouquet to her face and smiles, seeing a message written in marker on the brown paper wrapping: "We see you. We love you. Welcome home."
What was initially planned as a one-day action turned into four as the organization continued to collect donations and secure the release of women in the jail. By the end of Saturday, they had spent $18,900 on bail for nine women.
Black Mama's Bailouts and similar actions were held across the country amid a growing call for bail reform. Southerners on New Ground, founded in Durham, held bailouts in seven cities this year. Last year in Durham, SONG freed fourteen women for Mother's Day.
"Time was passing. I was missing things like trying to find a job, my children," says Sade Ray, the second woman freed this year, who was released after SONG paid the $400 in unpaid child support that kept her in the jail, along with a probation violation, for forty-six days. Like Ray, who has five kids, 80 percent of women held in America's jails are mothers, and the majority are women of color.
Nationally, about 60 percent of women in local jails have not been convicted of a crime, and about three-quarters of them are awaiting trial for nonviolent crimes, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Because of wage and wealth disparities, women and particularly women of color are less likely to post bail. Unable to get to work or pay rent, they may lose their home or job. Research also suggests people held pretrial are more likely to take a guilty plea.
For Courtney Sebring, one of two money-handlers for the action and Serena's daughter, seeing each person exit the jail felt "like when you see your family member at a reunion that you haven't seen in like ten years." This work, she says, "resonates with me personally as someone who understands the inside population of the jail as a place where black folks and black women in particular are targeted to be kidnapped and held here. It feels really important to me to be able to be part of a campaign that is bringing home some of the most important people in our community—black women, black mothers—who are so essential to our survival, our family structure, and do so much work to care for us."
In addition to bailing women out, SONG freed another two women by convincing judicial officials—who set bail amounts—to unsecure their bonds, meaning they don't have to pay in order to get out, only if they miss court.
"We're finding out the power of just asking for a bond reduction works more often than you'd think," Serena Sebring says.
Sebring says the bailout is worth doing "on its own merit"—people get to go home. But it's also part of a larger campaign by SONG to end the system of money bail across the South, including in Durham. Instead, the activists want to see pretrial-release alternatives that don't put people under excessive supervision and investments in what they need to get to court, stay out of jail, and live safe, stable lives.
"Bailouts are a tactic that allow us to do a few things," Sebring says. "First and foremost, to visualize what it would like look if we were to win, if we were to end money bail. What that would look like is families being reunited. It would look like people going back to their lives. It would look like community support and resources being offered, and it would look like freedom, people coming out of cages."
That goal seems more attainable after last week, when Durham voters elected a new district attorney and sheriff who have been vocal about reforming the bail system and Google and Facebook announced they would ban ads for bail-bond companies.
"In the context of the campaign, this week was kind of a huge watershed," Sebring says, "and an opportunity for our community to really change the conversation about community safety here in Durham."