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"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 caregivers—not only for their families but for entire communities—means 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."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Jai Green passes a cheeseburger to Shaleek Brown during a Mother's Day picnic to celebrate mothers who had been bailed out of jail by SONG, Southerners On New Ground.
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 jail—her first time—for 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 how—house parties, garden parties, direct emails, online fundraising, street outreach—and 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."