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Black Maternal Trauma - Part 4: Paying for Freedom

By Uchechi Eke

Uchechi Eke     During President Barack Obama’s era, as it relates to judiciary and more specifically, prison and bail reform, the former President gave state judges discretionary powers to find alternative options to a custodial sentence if the perceived offender could not afford bail, such as a payment plan or community sentence. Just recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to repeal and roll back these powers, declaring that state judges no longer can practice such discretion, and if someone is accused of a crime, and cannot pay the bond amount, they will have to pay with jail time.

     Millions of people are separated from their families for months at a time—not because they are convicted of committing a crime, but because they are accused of committing a crime. On any given day, more than 400,000 people who are convicted of no crime are held in jail because they cannot afford to buy their freedom.

     We all know how discriminatory this is, especially as the majority of those stopped, searched, and arrested are young Black men—our boys. This policy also makes no fiscal sense for the public. For example, in the state of Texas, it costs over $50 per day to incarcerate someone, but less than $2 to supervise them on a community order. When Black and Brown people are over-policed, arrested, and accused of crimes at higher rates than others, and then forced to pay for their freedom before they ever see trial, big bail companies prosper. Every year $9 billion dollars is wasted incarcerating people who’ve not been convicted of a crime, and insurance companies, who have taken over the bail system, get richer.

     There is nothing more traumatic in this scenario than knowing that your son does not have the financial means to pay his bail and you are also unable to raise the exorbitant amount. This reminds me of the Kalief Browder case. Kalief’s family was too poor to post bond when he was accused of stealing a backpack. He was sentenced to a kind of purgatory before ever being brought to trial and finally the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, of the nearly 3 years that he was at Riker’s Island, more than 2 of those were spent in solitary confinement, ultimately creating irreversible damage that lead to his suicide at age 22.

     The judges reviewing the bond limit are required to assess the risk of ‘flight or danger’ to the community. Many Black boys and men pose neither of these risks. Many offences with which they are charged are minor misdemeanors, i.e., shoplifting or possession of a small quantity of marijuana.

     The impact on the Black boy who now sits in jail awaiting a trial date or sentence is formidable, as he now faces multiple hardships. His education is disrupted. His mental state declines. He is estranged from his family and friends. He will be ostracised upon his release, labelled,and stigmatised. He will find it difficult to reintegrate back into society, including by finding gainful employment, which may lead him to repeat his behaviour.

     And what about the impact on his mother, not knowing when her son will be home? Mom worries herself sick, knowing he will be ill-treated. This worry accompanies tremendous guilt that weighs her down for not being financially able to bail him out, not to mention the emotional strain on his siblings and father and the mental anguish when confronted by family members, friends, neighbours and teachers who constantly ask “where is your boy?”

     Families are forced to take on more debt, often in predatory lending schemes created by bail bond insurers while their sons languish in jail, sometimes for months or years—a consequence of nationwide backlogs and prosecutorial interests. Not to mention, the Prison Industrial Complex, which also profits from vulnerable families who cannot afford bail. We can’t fix the broken criminal justice system until we take on the exploitative bail industry.

     As mothers, we have a duty of care. This includes social, political and economic activism.

     I hope this piece has ignited a flame, one that will help MOBB United and MOBB United for Social Change to distinguish this discriminatory practice and continue the fight to ensure that our sons do not pay such a harsh price for their freedom—whether at the hands of the police or the prison system.

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