Three years ago this week, we received news that would change our lives forever. For ten years, we had been running The Bronx Freedom Fund, a community bail fund in New York. For years, we dreamed of expanding our effort nationally to free as many people as possible while fighting to end cash bail. Thanks to a grant from TED’s philanthropic collaborative, The Audacious Project, we got that opportunity.
We were able to start a National Revolving Bail Fund with the power to help tens of thousands of people in the coming years. Within months, we hired teams of passionate staff from local communities all over the country, bringing an immediate lifeline to those sitting in jail while presumed innocent. Since our first bailouts, we have never lost sight of the widespread human suffering that cash bail creates in Black and low-income communities. That is why we have focused on conducting bailouts day in, day out while building local partnerships with over 140 direct service organizations to provide wraparound support for those who need it upon release. We have grown to a staff of nearly 100, a community of advocates from all walks of life and dozens of cities, many who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system, all equally committed to creating a society beyond cash bail and jails. The impact has been tremendous. As of today, we have secured freedom for 11,066 people in more than 20 jurisdictions.
While The Bail Project is a national organization, our work is local. Our dedicated and brilliant staff leading the work on the ground are proactive and responsive to changing conditions. So in Chicago, when Cook County Jail emerged as a Covid-19 hotspot, our local team conducted a mass bailout to get hundreds of people home to safety. When thousands of Americans rose up to protest the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and demand an end to our nation’s history of racial injustice, our teams sprung into action. In Indianapolis, our local team worked in coalition with Indy10 Black Lives Matter to support over 2,000 protestors with essential supplies. In Tulsa, our local team was at the jail the morning after Trump’s rally, bailing people out who had the courage to speak out against injustice and white supremacy. In Cleveland, our local team distributed food and other basic supplies to community members and conducted bailouts, risking their own freedom. In St. Louis, our local team worked with partners to support the protests while continuing their efforts as part of the Close the Workhouse campaign. And in Louisville, where our local team did over 2,000 bailouts in the past two and a half years, they supported protestors by conducting dozens of bailouts, providing assistance to hundreds more, and working to ensure protestors had legal representation when they needed it.
But the ability to continue bailouts has never been our end goal.
As we wrote in 2018, the history of bailouts and bail funds is long and winding, but there has always been a common thread. As tools of direct political action, bail funds are a means to an end. In a society that treated everyone with equality, dignity, and respect for our human and civil rights, bailouts would not be necessary. So while we are grateful for the incredible new support that will allow us to bring free bail assistance to more towns and cities in the coming years, we also know this is only necessary because of the brutal injustices and inequalities that keep millions of legally innocent Americans locked in and churning through local jails. The very existence of bail funds reminds us that injustice prevails and that the end goal must be our own irrelevance.
We must ensure that no person in America ever has to sit in a jail cell because of their race or poverty. Bail funds are an important tool to bring about that change. But we must also look beyond cash bail. We must question our society’s addiction to the cruelty of incarceration. We must challenge each other to imagine a society where jails no longer exist, a society that eradicates racism and poverty, a society that rises to our collective challenges with compassion, care, and creativity, rather than handcuffs and jail cells.
In this moment of national reckoning with America’s living history of racial terror and oppression, social movements are more equipped than ever with the tools to disrupt institutions and systems, like cash bail, that perpetuate these injustices. From community bail funds all over the country to innovators in restorative justice practices and artists creating a new social consciousness, the winds of change are at our backs. Our strategies may be different, but we’re all dreaming of a more just, more free, more equal America.
So on this Fourth of July weekend, let us hold on to that vision, remembering, as Fannie Lou Hamer once said, that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
IMAGE: flickr Mobilus In Mobili CC BY-SA 2.0
Thank you for reading. The Bail Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is only able to provide direct services and sustain systems change work through donations from people like you. If you found value in this article, please consider supporting our work today.