BLM Philly Wants to Bail Out Women For Mother’s Day

In less than four days, organizers have raised more than $15,000 to release incarcerated women who can't afford to pay bail.

UPDATE: Organizers have now collected more than $18,000. 

This Mother’s Day, Black Lives Matter Philly wants to give at least a dozen women – and their families – an unexpected gift.

The organization has joined several others to bail out incarcerated women who, despite the fact that they haven’t been convicted of a crime, are currently being held in Philly prisons because they can’t afford to pay bail.

BLM Philly, the youth-led Philadelphia Student Union and the No215Jail Coalition (along with at least five other groups) launched a fundraising campaign for their efforts on Monday. They met their $6,000 goal within 24 hours – so they raised the bar to $10,000. Wednesday afternoon, they surpassed that amount, too – the organization has collected more than $15,300 as of Thursday morning. 

The Philly crusade branched off from a national Black Lives Matter Mother’s Day bail out effort, which aims to draw attention to inequality in the criminal justice system. The movement is also being implemented in cities like Memphis, Tennessee and Tucson, Arizona.

Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, said the response has been “huge” and that it speaks to a timely issue in Philly: bail reform.

“Never did we imagine we should be able to [reach our financial goal] in one day,” Rivera said. “I think that speaks to just how important the issue of cash bail is to citizens of Philadelphia. I think it speaks to the need for bail reform here in the city.”

About 30 percent of prisoners in Philadelphia (a city that has more than twice as many inmates per capita than the national average) are pretrial status – meaning they haven’t been convicted of a crime. Many of them, according to Philadelphia Department of Prisons spokesperson Shawn Hawes, are being held on low-level charges, for things like prostitution, shoplifting or drug-related offenses (typically nonviolent charges).

Commonwealth Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm has repeatedly called for bail reform in Pennsylvania. Speaking on the phone Thursday morning, she called the state’s bail system “broken.”

“We do unfortunately see these cases where low-income folks who are accused of nonviolent offenses but don’t have the means to make bail are sitting in county jails, wasting taxpayer dollars,” Storm said. “They aren’t a threat to society. And then we have high-risk offenders who can afford to get out.”

The system isn’t necessarily effective: even short periods of pretrial detention correlate with a greater likelihood of defendants being sentenced to jail and recidivism, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute. Plus, research indicates that Black and Hispanic defendants have a higher likelihood of being detained and facing higher bail amounts.

Thanks to a recent $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the city hopes to reduce its jail population by about 34 percent in three years, mostly through bail reform. But right now, thousands of people are being kept in Philly prisons simply because they can’t afford to get out.

Storm said the Mother’s Day bail out movement “could do a lot to raise awareness of this, but most importantly it could get some of these people home, especially if they’re mothers and their children are sitting at home without the love and compassion of their mom.”

Rivera said Philly organizers are hoping to free somewhere between 12 and 17 women from Philly prisons before or on Mother’s Day, depending how much money is raised. As of right now, organizers don’t have the names of women they’re planning to bail out. They’re working with attorneys Kier Bradford-Grey and Mark Houldin of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, as well as the No215Jail Coalition, to make that determination. The fundraising page says they aim to help release “mamas in all of their varieties – queer, trans, young, elder, and immigrant. The more money we raise, the more women we can bring home for Mother’s Day.”

It’s unclear what charges the women will be facing, and organizers said they aren’t focused on specific bail amounts – but if the group aims to bail out between 12 and 17 women with about $15,000, the bail amounts would likely fall between $800 and $1,250 on average.

Organizers said they wouldn’t specify whether or not the women would be facing violent charges, something that Stone said would make her “want to dive deeper into what the decisions were. People who pose a threat to their families and to the community should be incarcerated, but those who aren’t a threat should be out free on bail pending the judicial system making a determination.”

Cash bail is a frequently-debated issue in the race for Philly DA – and most candidates are calling for some level of bail reform.

As part of their fundraising efforts, Philly Mother’s Day bail out organizers emailed and tweeted at all eight DA candidates (seven Democrats and one Republican) and asked them to donate to the cause or to encourage their supporters to donate to the cause yesterday.

The groups hadn’t heard responses from anyone as of Thursday morning.

Other groups involved in the Philly project include the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement of Philadelphia, Decarcerate PA, Sankofa Community Empowerment, Philadelphia Black History Collaborative, Youth United for Change and the Caucus of Working Educators.

Follow @ClaireSasko on Twitter.