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Author: The Bail Project team

The Bail Project / Articles posted by Lillian Kalish


If you had $14 billion dollars a year to invest in solutions to our most pressing social problems, what would you do?

As we bail people out day after day and connect them to voluntary services and programs, we can’t help but imagine the number of health centers, jobs programs, affordable housing units, daycare providers, and more that could be funded with this sum. It would surely go a long way towards breaking the cycle of poverty and criminalization that traps so many Americans in the revolving door of mass incarceration.

But the sad reality is that every year, federal, state, and city governments in the United States spend $14 billion tax dollars jailing people before trial. That’s nearly $40 million a day.

And that figure doesn’t even begin to capture the full economic impact. Including the estimated collateral costs in lost wages, foster care, court costs, etc., researchers have put the total annual cost of pretrial detention at $140 billion.

These lost dollars ripple across entire families and communities, disproportionately draining resources from low-income communities of color and falling particularly hard on women.

Budgets should be about where our priorities lie. And, as a recent Pew poll shows, Americans overwhelmingly support alternatives to pretrial detention, not more incarceration.

As we take our model of community release with support across the country, we seek to demonstrate what the alternative could look like, one that is more humane, equitable, and cost-effective.

This winter, our Tulsa team met Geanell, a young woman who had been in pretrial detention for nearly a week because she couldn’t afford a $2,500 bail.

By the time we interviewed her at the jail, she had suffered anaphylactic shock, likely as a result of stress, and lost two leads for affordable housing. Her husband was about to sell most of their possessions to buy her freedom. Luckily, we were able to post Geanell’s bail and she was reunited with her children and partner while her case was pending.

When Geanell met Michelle from our Tulsa team, she immediately felt like someone was looking out for her. Together they worked to stay on top of court dates, coordinate rides to court, and connect with programs that could help Geanell’s family find a permanent home.

“[Michelle] was there to guide me,” Geanell recalls. “If I didn’t have her or my husband, I’d be in a really different situation.”

Then, a few weeks ago, Geanell received great news: her case had been dismissed. Freedom gave her a fighting chance in court and this chance made all the difference.

“It doesn’t always have to be family,” Geanell said, reflecting on her experience, “but you need someone in your support system.”

Geanell is one of over 200 women in Tulsa that our local team has bailed out and supported since our launch last year, when we decided to focus our Tulsa operations on adapting The Bail Project’s model of community release with support to the unique needs of women in this community.

Women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States, and are disproportionately impacted by cash bail: Black women who cannot afford bail have a median yearly income lower than the average national bail amount. The overwhelming majority of women in jails are mothers, and most are the primary caregivers for their children.

In few places is the increase in women’s incarceration more apparent than in Tulsa, where the number of women in the local jail has grown 3,400 percent from 1970 to today.

Securing adequate support systems in Tulsa is a significant challenge. One in five residents lives below the poverty line and repeated cuts to public services, including healthcare and housing, combined with mass incarceration, have exacerbated an already crushing meth epidemic.

But we can’t afford not to intervene. Working in partnership with the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office, Still She Rises and other community partners, we are extending a lifeline to the woman of Tulsa and reimagining a pretrial system that addresses their needs and protects their dignity.

I’m thrilled to be sharing an update about our work in St. Louis, MO.

As you may know, St. Louis was The Bail Project’s first site. From the beginning, a key goal of our work here was to decarcerate and close The Workhouse, a jail in St. Louis City where nearly everybody is detained before trial and over 90 percent of the people are Black.

The Workhouse is notorious for its horrible conditions – rats, snakes, roaches, overflowing sewage, inadequate medical care, no heat or air conditioning, even on 125 degree days. If there’s a place that will make you throw the towel and take a guilty plea, it’s this jail.

We knew the Workhouse had to close, and that it would take different tactics to make it happen. So, along with our partners Action STL and ArchCity Defenders, we helped start a coalition to Close the Workhouse last year. Bailouts, organizing, public education, storytelling, and civil rights litigation – the coalition combined them all into one powerful movement for equal justice and true freedom, led by people who have been incarcerated at the Workhouse themselves.

One year later, this dream is within reach. Tireless organizing from our community has shifted public opinion in favor of closing the Workhouse, and the success of our St. Louis team in bailing out over 700 people from the Workhouse and providing them with adequate pretrial support has demonstrated that our model offers a viable alternative to cash bail and pretrial detention.

I’m so proud and humbled that our team has been a part of Close the Workhouse. You can learn more about the campaign in the latest episode of BET’s ‘Finding Justice’, which aired over the weekend. The segment features interviews with many of our fellow activists and clients.

We still have a ways to go. There are still about 800 people – overwhelmingly Black people – incarcerated pretrial in St. Louis City. Closing the Workhouse will be a necessary first step in helping us find justice. I look forward to the day I can write back with news that this jail has finally closed its doors forever.

In the meantime, I’ll pass along this shout-out, as it belongs not only to our teams but to everyone who makes The Bail Project possible!


From St. Louis to Indianapolis, dozens of Bail Project team members across the country are working zealously to secure freedom for thousands of people, restore the presumption of innocence and combat mass incarceration. With teams in nine cities and counting, we wanted to introduce you to some of them!

Thanks for joining us on this journey. To a future where freedom is truly free.

The story of communities coming together to purchase people’s freedom has been essential to every movement for Black liberation and racial justice – from abolition, to the Civil Rights Movement, all the way until the Black Mamas Bailout and other similar efforts of today.

Pooling funds together to purchase someone’s freedom dates back centuries, to when free Black Americans, oftentimes through their church congregations, would pool together funds to free enslaved people.

In the 20th century, bail funds as political tools of resistance began to spring up. In the 1940s, for example, The Civil Rights Congress (CRC)  – a legal defense organization which fought against the death penalty for Black defendants – created a bail fund to assist those charged with “political crimes.”

By 1951, the CRC’s bail fund had amassed around $770,000 and helped raise awareness of a number of cases, like Rosa Ingram’s. They had also freed countless people incarcerated for being suspected political dissidents. However, the CRC’s bail fund was perhaps too effective in fighting back – in 1952, the federal government deemed the bail fund too “subversive” and liquidated it.


Throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, dozens of new funds were created by racial justice organizations to fuel the momentum of activists and ensure that people incarcerated for fighting for racial equity and equality were able to persist.

In 1965, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the NAACP created a bail fund for activists fighting for school integration in Springfield, MA – a northern city that saw a huge increase in the Black population during the Great Migration and subsequently passed a host of anti-Black laws.

Source: MassLive


When 44 Black and white activists were arrested for campaigning in Springfield, CORE and NAACP worked quickly to raise money for bail so that the movement could continue.

These are just two examples of countless bailout actions throughout the 20th century to free activists and ordinary people alike. From serving as a lifeline for social movements to their current use as a potent tool to end mass incarceration, bailouts carry forward the torch of freedom into the 21st century. We’re honored to build on this rich legacy by taking the bail fund model to the next level.

Last month, the entire national team gathered from across the country to celebrate our one-year anniversary and strategize for the road ahead. Luckily, we were able to capture some of the magic on video, which you can watch on YouTube here!


One year in, we’re now operating 11 sites and have secured freedom for over 3,600 people, while helping amplify existing movements to combat mass incarceration.

From Louisville to Spokane, St. Louis to Tulsa and beyond, we’ll continue posting bail until freedom is truly free and the presumption of innocence applies equally to all. Thanks as always for your support, and stay tuned as we gear up to launch our next round of sites in 2019!

The year was 1963, and Dr. King was in Birmingham, Alabama to lead a civil disobedience campaign in one of the most segregated cities in the United States. As expected, Birmingham’s notorious police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, soon had Dr. King arrested and jailed. It was then, while incarcerated pretrial on $5,000 bail, that Dr. King wrote his seminal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Rowland Scherman – U.S. National Archive and Records Administration, Public Records

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” he wrote. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Dr. King spent 11 days in jail before A.G. Gaston, a Black businessman, posted his bail.

This was not the first time Dr. King was jailed for leading nonviolent protests against racial and economic injustice, and it would not be the last. He was arrested 30 times over the course of his life, and often held on high bail amounts to prolong his incarceration and force him to take guilty pleas.

Half a century after Dr. King’s tragic death, his vision of racial equality and economic justice is still far from being realized. As we come together to mark his legacy, we’re reminded that what matters most is action in the face of injustice no matter the cost.

Thank you for joining us in the fight against mass incarceration and the criminalization of race and poverty. Together, we will continue challenging this two-tier system of justice  – one bail at a time – until the day freedom is truly free.