As Mother’s Day approaches, let’s remember all of the moms behind bars and all of the children who can’t be with their mothers due to our country’s mass incarceration problem and dysfunctional bail system. Women are the fastest growing population in prison, far outstripping men in the rate of increasing imprisonment. There are currently more than a million women behind bars, the vast majority imprisoned for non-violent offenses, mostly drug or drug related. In jails (where people who cannot afford to pay bail sit waiting for trials), 80% of the women have dependent children. With these troubling numbers in mind, I offer a couple of concrete ways that concerned people can help them.
The first is a program to help women who are in jail pay their bail. Bail is the price courts assign to people charged with (but still presumed innocent of) crimes. When bail is paid, the accused can await trial at home, with their children and work, instead of in jail. For poor people and people living on the edge of poverty, even a short jail stint often means loss of work, eviction, or loss of child custody. Toni Preckwinkle, President of Cook County Board of Commissioners (Chicago), explained the bail system like this: “Every day, thousands of people, primarily minorities, sit in Cook County’s jail, not because they have been found guilty or pose a threat to their community, but because they are too poor to pay their bail,” due to a system that devastates lives and communities and costs taxpayers millions.
Because of this tragic reality, groups across the country will be bailing mothers and caregivers out of local jails and immigration detention centers so they can spend Mother’s Day and beyond with their children. The groups will also be holding teach-ins to explore the devastating impact of money bail and incarceration on our communities. The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund is organizing and coordinating the national fundraiser, National Mama’s Bail Out Day. You can donate and/or read more about the destructive impact bail has on poor communities here.
The second program to consider is the California program “Get on the Bus.” This program recognizes that most incarcerated parents are sent to prisons too far away for their children to visit. So, every year “Get on the Bus” provides children and their caregivers free transportation to prisons, along with snacks and food for the day (including lunch at the prison with their parents), a photo of each child with his or her parent, and, at the end of the day, a teddy bear with a letter from the parent and post-event counseling. Read more and consider supporting Get on the Bus here.
Our country has an incarceration fixation and a seriously warped bail system. Every day, a half million people who are legally innocent are nevertheless locked in jail because they cannot afford to pay bail. The for-profit prison industry and the municipalities that bilk poor people for every fine, fee and cost imaginable for misdemeanors, traffic offenses, and petty charges both contribute to this serious problem. We have a modern day debtors’ prison and we are in dire need of systemic changes that will have to happen on the local level, because we know this administration is not going to lead the reform. In the meantime, for Mother’s Day this year think about helping connect some mothers and children ripped apart by our country’s incarceration mania.