A Jackson group formed to get black mothers out of jail. Now, they want to abolish cash bail

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Tamara is photographed in downtown Jackson, Tuesday, June 18, 2019. Tamara was released from jail after the Mississippi Bail Out Collective paid her $5,000 bond.

What began as a typical Sunday evening turned into two nights of trauma for a Madison County resident named Tamara after the neighbors called the cops on her 10-year-old son.

Tamara was sitting on the couch watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix when two police officers knocked on her door last month.

The police were responding to a call that Tamara’s son was trying to spray people with a fire extinguisher. Accompanied by an officer, Tamara walked to her car, took out her purse and handed over her driver’s license. She had nothing to hide, she thought, as she explained her son’s behavioral issues. The officer nodded along while listening to his earpiece and left.

But police returned that evening with two squad cars and a van. They told Tamara that she had a 2017 non-violent felony warrant in Hinds County, a charge Tamara said she had never heard of before. Handcuffed, the social worker and mother of three wound up at the jail in downtown Jackson. (Tamara requested the use of her first name only, citing fear of losing her current job.)

Tamara, 37, felt the shock of her arrest as she adjusted to jail. It was hard to track the passage of time; it was hard to sleep. The other women in her cellblock offered her soap and other necessities. “You don’t even have power over your own body,” she recalled in an interview. “The basic right of a human being — that’s lost.”

She managed to call her mother, who reached out to local organizers. The next day, a lawyer and a couple of social workers with the Mississippi Bail Out Collective arrived at the jail to assess Tamara’s situation. By the third day, the Bail Out Collective helped her get a bail hearing in front of a judge and paid the entirety of her $5,000 bond. Now out of jail, Tamara maintains her innocence and is fighting the charge in court.

The Mississippi Bail Out Collective is the state’s first bail fund. Last month, the collective helped free Tamara and two other women from jail as part of a nationwide effort aimed at bailing out black mothers for Mother’s Day. Formed by Jackson-area groups including Black With No Chaser, Clean Slate Health Services, One Voice, Mississippi Votes and the Office of the State Public Defender, the fund wants to free many other Mississippians jailed on criminal charges for which they haven’t been convicted but cannot afford to pay bail set by a judge.

“We hope that people will understand that we’re trying to correct a wrong within our system and really create a system of human justice that actually is about community safety, accountability and restoration,” said Rukia Lumumba of the People’s Advocacy Institute, lead partner of the fund.

Lumumba said the fund is modeled on the National Bail Out collective. In recent years, organizers have established bail funds across the country; many of these funds are predicated on the notion that a person’s freedom should not be contingent on whether they can afford money bail.

While other bail funds across the country often post bail for people charged with misdemeanors, the Mississippi Bail Out Collective currently focuses on people charged with felony crimes in Hinds County, the state’s most populous county and the location of its capital city, Jackson.

Few people are currently held in Hinds County jails on misdemeanor bail, Lumumba said, in part due to a 2016 consent decree with the federal government to reform the county’s criminal justice system. Changes to the state’s rules of criminal procedure in 2017 could also lead to a decrease in the use of cash bail.

Though comprehensive data on people jailed in Mississippi are scant, a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics census found Mississippi ranks second highest in the number of local jail inmates per capita. A recent census by the MacArthur Justice Center counted over 5,700 people detained in local jails as of May, including over 2,700 people held for longer than 90 days.

Studies have found that people who spend time in jail after an arrest are more likely to become unemployed; that those who can’t pay bail are more likely to be convicted due to a higher rate of guilty pleas; and that judges often set higher bail for African Americans than for white people.

Organizers of the fund say that the collective will not only help people who otherwise can’t afford to post cash bail to get out of jail. Once those folks are out of jail, the fund will also connect them to health care and behavioral health services, find housing and provide care packages of basic necessities.

Simone Windom kisses her one-year-old son, Lemore Windom, at a park in West Jackson, Friday, June 14, 2019.

“As soon as somebody’s released, we’ve got their back 100 percent,” said Simone Windom, an organizer with the fund who was herself once bailed out by the National Bail Out collective (the charge was later dropped).

National criminal justice reform group Fwd.us and the National Bail Out Collective provided the $15,000 used to pay Tamara’s and one other woman’s bond last month; the fund worked to get a third woman with stage four cancer out on compassionate release. Bail fund organizers said that for future events, the fund will accept donations from the public as well.

When a person’s case is resolved, the bail money will return to the individual who posted bail — in this case, the bail fund, which can then re-use those funds to bail someone else out of jail.

The Mississippi Bail Out Collective is a step toward reforming Mississippi’s bail industry and ending the use of money bail, said Zoe Towns of Fwd.us.

Currently, commercial bail agents in the state can charge defendants who use their services 10 percent of their bond’s value as well as a $50 fee, money that usually doesn’t get returned to defendants themselves. An investigation by The Marshall Project last year found that over the course of 18 months, Mississippi bail companies took in $43 million in fees.

“It’s really cash for bodies,” Lumumba said.

Mississippi Bail Agents Association president Chris Williams said the group did not have a position on the new bail fund.

For Tamara, the collective’s help meant she didn’t lose her residence, her job, her children, or her vehicle during her short jail stay, she said. It also meant that she could retain an attorney on her case.

After she learned the fund was posting her bail, she collected messages that needed to be conveyed and contact information of family and friends from the other women in her cellblock. The next day, “I was burning up the line,” Tamara said.