A federal judge ruled last week that St. Louis jails – including the infamous Workhouse where over 90% of people are detained pretrial – can’t incarcerate people simply because they can’t pay bail. The judge cited data from our St. Louis site in ruling that: “There is no evidence that financial conditions of release are more effective than alternatives for ensuring court appearance and public safety.” However, as of now, St. Louis courts are holding up new bail hearings for people entitled to them.
Summarized by Jacob Koffler
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.