Black Lives Matter bails Memphis moms out for Mother's Day

The organizers decry a "wealth-based detention" system that keeps poor Memphians in jail longer because they are unable to afford bail. 

The Memphis chapter of Black Lives Matter is taking part in a national movement to bail women out of jail. They plan to bring inmates from the Shelby County East Women’s Facility home in time for Mother’s Day on May 14.

Their action is meant to challenge money bail as a requirement that disproportionately keeps women of color in jail. 

BLM-Memphis hopes to raise $5,000 at their April 26 fundraising concert at Coach’s Grillz & Barbecue. The local effort joins The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which is leading national fundraising effort and hopes to raise $400,000.

“Bail is a terrible and unfair system for holding people pre-trial. It is a two-tiered system that favors the wealthy, who can bail themselves out and hire a lawyer,” said Josh Spickler, executive director Just City, a local criminal justice reform organization.

Erica Perry, a spokesperson for BLM-Memphis, attended a bail reform convening in January hosted by Color of Change and the Movement for Black Lives, the organizers of Bail Out Day. Mary Hooks of Southerners on New Ground suggested the Mother’s Day bail out, Perry said.

“This action gives the community an opportunity to work together to do something about money bail, one of the pillars of mass incarceration,” Perry said.
 

“Every month in this city an average of 250 people cannot afford to post bond under $5,000. Everyday an average of 700,000 people are condemned to cages and separated from their families simply because they cannot afford to pay bail."


According to Department of Corrections data, 285 women were jailed at the Shelby County East Women's Facility at the end of March. Of that group, 171 are held for pre-trial felonies and 61 are held for pre-trial misdemeanors. 

“It gives community members and other stakeholders an opportunity to really see the impact of money bail. And most importantly this action reunites families for Mother’s Day, a day which so many of us hold dear.

We’re supporting mothers (both birth, trans and other women who mother) who are entangled in the criminal legal system, highlighting the need to abolish money bail and drawing attention to the human costs of incarceration on communities and families.”
 

Just City has a longstanding relationship with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund and is collaborating with BLM-Memphis on this action. Just City has two ongoing bail fund projects in Memphis and Nashville which serve to bail out incarcerated Tennesseans and facilitate a partnership between public defenders and the accused.

Spickler says it is often weeks before the accused are assigned lawyers while Shelby County inmates wait in jail unable to pay a dollar amount.

“Pretrial detention should ensure two things: It should ensure you show up for court and it should ensure the safety of the community,” he said.

“There’s little correlation between a dollar amount and those two points. Bail has very little to do with safety. A wealthy person is able to make bail, although they pose no less risk than someone who cannot afford it.”

Spickler notes that people served by bail funds come back to court 97 percent of the time without any financial stake and without being monitored.

Both Perry and Spickler are concerned about how mass incarceration and bail disproportionately affects people of color. The Mother’s Day Bail Out movement is specifically focused on bailing out black mothers, which they define to include queer, trans, young, elder, and immigrant women.

The Bail Out Day website calls mass incarceration “modern-day bondage” and cites the statistics that black women are twice as likely to be jailed as white women and one in five trans women has spent time in jail.

“Bail is unjust because people should not be separated from their families, miss work, doctor’s appointments and school simply because they are economically poor and/or don’t have the money to pay for bail,” Perry said.

“Every month in this city an average of 250 people cannot afford to post bond under $5,000. Everyday an average of 700,000 people are condemned to cages and separated from their families simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.”

“If the bail fund exists in ten years, we have failed. It is not a permanent solution. This action is meant to show the flawed way pretrial detention works. We are hoping to highlight and accelerate attention to this disparity.”

Both Just City and BLM-Memphis plan to continue to advocate for bail reform after Mother’s Day. Spickler says our criminal justice system needs an evidence-based tool that assesses risk for the community and to take money out of the pretrial process.

“Wealth-based detention is not justice,” Spickler says.

“If the bail fund exists in ten years, we have failed. It is not a permanent solution. This action is meant to show the flawed way pretrial detention works. We are hoping to highlight and accelerate attention to this disparity.”

“When black mamas are taken from our communities, we all suffer”, Perry says.

“Now more than ever, we must break open the conversation about how we can continue to dismantle this system that destroys our humanity and breaks up our families.

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer. A Memphian since matriculating at Rhodes College in 2008, she has also been a contributor for the Choose901 blog. 
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