Last October’s well-publicized bailout of 105 New Yorkers who were awaiting trial is now history. But a volunteer who participated says it underlines why changing America’s pretrial detention system should be a high priority.
It was called an irresponsible experiment or even lunacy, but the “mass bailout” organized last fall in New York City by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights (RFKHR) can claim some success.
The month-long Mass Bail Out Movement (MBO) last October attracted widespread press attention, as well as 1,200 volunteers and about $2 million in funding support to underwrite early release for 64 adult women and 41 high-school-aged males from the city’s Rikers Island facility and other county jails.
There are no plans to do it again, in New York City at least, but the effort to awaken Americans to the need for rethinking pretrial detention, and more specifically bail, is only just beginning.
The event was “a single, time-limited, collaborative action,” said Sierra Ewert, a Program Director at RFKHR, adding it was intended to “call attention to the unjust and inhumane system of money bail, model alternatives to pre-trial incarceration, and increase the pressure to close Rikers and pass the structural reforms needed to end wealth-based detention and unjust pretrial incarceration.”
That may sound over-ambitious, but the organization plans to work with coalitions such as #FREEnewyork led by Just Leadership USA and the #CLOSErikers campaign, as well as share lessons learned with partners engaging in bail outs as a tactic.
Updated reports on those bailed out are still pending as their cases remain open.
But critics are wasting no time to judge the results of the MBO and downplay the significance of what actually happened. The New York Post called attention, for example, to the numbers of those bailed out who did not show up for their court dates.
These are the facts that observers tend to focus on. They are tangible, measurable, and a means through which the movement can be either praised or condemned.
But focusing on the individuals affected is the wrong way to look at what happened last year.
The target is the system itself—and the issue at the top of the agenda for all Americans is to reform how individuals awaiting trial are handled by our justice system—an effort which is now getting broad bipartisan support across the country.
I was one of the volunteers for MBO, and my experience underlines why this movement demands expansion.
I spent a morning at the Brooklyn House of Detention, a nondescript building in Brooklyn, N.Y., situated on Atlantic Avenue, one of the borough’s main streets. With its windows covered in black paint, the building sits across from a Michaels store, an outlet of a retail chain that sells yarn, beads and other accessories to hobbyists.
It makes for an ironic counterpoint, as if the first stop for those recently released will be to pick up yarn for their knitting project later that day.
I waited in the room where individuals wait for surety forms to be processed or for released inmates to receive their belongings. Uncomfortable and horribly lit, against one wall of the room there’s a wooden bench. Lining another one are three school-like plastic chairs, one of which has a black shoelace that has collected enough dust to suggest it had been there for some time.
The stride and demeanor of each person who walks into the room makes obvious which window is being visited.
The woman bailing someone out keeps her friend on speaker phone during the 45 minutes she waits for her bail to be processed. She clutches a white crinkled envelope, struggling to manage holding her phone, purse and Mountain Dew. A few hundred-dollar bills peek from inside the envelope. It seems like she’s done this before.
But few in the room are able to adopt the woman’s seemingly nonchalant attitude.
There’s a young man, for instance, who is growing increasingly frustrated as he waits. He has a job interview at 12:00 pm, and it’s already 11:00. He paces the small room as the woman behind the property pick-up window dispassionately tells him no, he cannot have his driver’s license back at this time.
The woman posting bail does not look up as he begins to raise his voice. She speaks louder into the phone so that her friend can hear her clearly. After some time he leaves with no ID and a cancelled job interview, exasperated and too frustrated to contest further.
A few minutes later she is called to slip her white envelope under the window and leaves too.
The room is quiet, apart from the sound of shuffled papers coming from the two women sitting behind their respective windows that stand less than six feet from each other. Sunlight streams through the window of the door and the warmth feels out of place.
A Symbol of Freedom and Imprisonment
This room is a symbol of freedom and imprisonment: a space where one can come to free their loved ones from the jail of poverty as well as the place where those same loved ones come to collect their belongings.
And long after the mass bailout movement has ended, the anomalous existence of this room keeps on.
New York City’s pretrial population averages about 7,500. Over half of this demographic is unable to afford bail.
The MBO was a reminder that poverty is criminalized in this country.
While the young man who was waiting for his papers may have received a temporary reprieve, he still missed his job interview—making his chances of escaping the poverty that was a factor in his brush with the law slim.
He missed what might have been his first and best chance at moving past his incarceration. And he missed it because, as the woman behind the window impatiently explained to him, he did not have the paperwork or parole officer’s permission to get his driver’s license back—as if a driver’s license is correlated to crime, as if the woman behind the window and the parole officer assigned to him had the right to withhold his identity.
Immediate freedom may be bought in this small room, but the residual consequences of being justice-involved remain bleak.
The MBO made clear that the status quo can be challenged. But it will take a lot more than one-time events to end the injustices visible in that room, and beyond that, to end a system of money bail and pretrial detention that harms everyone it touches.
Olivia Heffernan is a graduate student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where she studies human rights law and journalism. She also works part time at the Marshall Project and the Columbia Justice Lab. Visit her website at: livheffernan.com.