More than 7,600 people are held in New York City jails on any given day — and more than half of them are incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to post bail before their trial, not because they were found guilty of a crime. For the second year in a row, a local advocacy group called Voices of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY) is spearheading a fundraiser to bail out incarcerated black women from Rikers Island before Mother’s Day, with a goal of raising $30,000.
Alyssa Aguilera, VOCAL’s co-executive director, told The Outline that the initiative is part of a national, Black Lives Matter-affiliated movement called National Mamas Bailout Day. The movement doesn't solely focus on biological mothers, but also women who are vital parts of their familes and neighborhoods, including transgender women. In New York City and elsewhere, many incarcerated people who can’t afford to post bail are arrested for “crimes of poverty,” like petty theft or fare-beating. “Something like 80, 90 percent of incarcerated women are also caretakers — they’re mothers,” Aguilar said. “So when they’re in jail, [they’re not the only ones who are affected]; it’s also their families, their children, who are experiencing the trauma of incarceration.”
Nationally, the number of incarcerated women increased by 600 percent between 1980 and 2011, with women of color — namely black and Latina women — being the most affected. Between February and August, 89 percent of arraignments in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx involved black or Latinx defendants, according to a report by the Police Reform Organizing Project. And even though the Manhattan and Brooklyn District Attorneys said they would eliminate cash bail for most low-level offenses, advocates say that prosecutors continue to set bail for crimes of poverty.
“Imagine if you were charged with something and had bail set at $5,000: You can’t pay that,” Aguilera said. “Your option is to wait in jail until your court date comes, which in New York City can be months, maybe even years.” A lot of people, she said, “make the very rational choice” of pleading out for a lesser charge. “Then they’re left with a conviction — a permanent criminal record that impacts the rest of their lives over something they may not have done in the first place.”
For VOCAL, the Mother’s Day bail fundraiser is a way of immediately affecting women’s lives, while also calling attention to a larger structural problem. “We’re an organization that does advocacy around bail reform all year long,” Aguilar added. “We want to use this bailout as a way to call the fact that we use money bail into question."