On a Thursday afternoon last month, while many people were out shopping for Mother’s Day gifts, Kyla Hartsfield and Serena Sebring chained themselves to the gate of the Durham County jail. For seven hours, they blocked the entrance to demand the end of wealth based incarceration in Durham and across the South.
For the past three years, Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a Southern queer liberation group, has been raising money to help bail Black mamas out of jail for Mother’s Day. This year they raised over $220,000 and were able to free 46 folks across the South who were in a cage simply because they couldn’t pay bail.
“We were tired of begging for our people.”
In Durham, North Carolina, activists went a step further. Hartsfield and Sebring are both organizers for SONG, and their act of civil disobedience was meant to pressure county officials to fix a new bail policy aimed at reducing the use of cash bail. SONG and other groups focused on criminal justice reform say the new policy will stigmatize people with mental health and substance abuse issues.
“It came to a point where we were tired of begging for our people,” Hartsfield told Scalawag. She said the action sent the message that, “We will not have no more of our community coming inside of this place, and we will put our bodies on the line so you will not book one more person."
Durham’s new bail policy was crafted by the county’s top judges after progressive challengers were elected Sheriff and District Attorney last year with bold promises for criminal justice reform, including drastically reducing the use of cash bail.
Hartsfield said the group had high hopes for the new bail policy but feels like the result doesn’t address a lot of their baseline expectations.
The new policy recommends that magistrates not require cash bail unless they determine the arrested person won’t appear in court. It also forces them to use a checklist to make the decision.
Hartsfield said SONG is concerned about language in the new policy that takes a person’s mental health into consideration when setting release conditions, and language about methamphetamine use that she worries could be used to criminalize drug addiction. In North Carolina many people are in jail because programs for mental health and addiction are underfunded.
SONG wants to get rid of bond schedules, which establishes a specific cash amount for certain charges. They also want to replace “risk assessments” with a needs assessment to see what is getting in the way of people getting back to court. Hartsfield said these measures would essentially end the use of money bail, while still fitting within the North Carolina statute, which requires judges to seek cash bail if the subject poses a danger or is likely to flee or destroy evidence.
“You're putting people on the auction block.”
Weeks after SONG organizers blocked the jail gate, Satana Deberry, Durham’s District Attorney, announced that she will instruct prosecutors to not seek money bail except in cases where the accused is likely to cause harm to others or destroy evidence.
Quisha Mallette, another member of SONG, said that while progressive leaders like Deberry are taking encouraging steps toward criminal justice reform, these efforts fall short because they still treat bail like it’s a public safety issue when the real priority should be making sure people have access to what they need to get back to court.
"The idea of having bail implemented is to ensure that people get back to court for their court date,” Mallette said. “So, when you have that in place after a certain dollar amount that means wealthier people can just pay it and they can move on and show up for their court date or not. Other people who can't afford it end up being stuck in jail, so the policy on its face ends up criminalizing poverty."
Hartsfield said that SONG has seen a lot of success with giving the mamas they bail out a form asking what they need to get back to court. Then the organization has tried to meet those needs––offering rides and connecting the mamas with other resources.
Mallette said SONG will keep working to make sure money bail and wealth based detention are abolished, while doing what they can to free people in the meantime.
"We don't want people to be shortsighted in their actions or in their vision and so it's very easy to settle on solutions that seem to be that lowest hanging fruit, that seem really accessible, and that seem like a great opportunity for a photo-op. That's not what SONG is about. We understand that we are going to have to continue to do the trench work necessary in order to get to our final goal. So as there are certain low hanging fruit opportunities, yes, let's jump on those, but we still have to keep pushing towards our further goal."
“Freedom is our birthright.”
For Andrea “Muffin” Hudson, ending money bail is a personal issue. She was locked up for 51 days after getting pulled over for a traffic violation. She spent all but one hour a day confined to a cell, simply because she wasn’t able to pay to get out. After getting out she started the Durham Community Bail Fund and has been working with SONG to bail out Black Mamas.
Hudson also thinks the new bail policy doesn’t go far enough, and she said that forcing people to pay for their freedom is inherently immoral.
"You're putting people on the auction block and if their family can afford to buy their freedom then they will be able to buy their freedom. But that's not going to be possible with the way that our system and society is set up,” Hudson said. “We don’t have the systems or the capital to be able to buy our people's freedom continuously.”
Mallette agrees, and said that’s why SONG decided to go beyond the bailouts and block the gates to the Durham county jail.
"It's great and wonderful that we are able to bail Black mamas out but we don't want to have to keep doing that year after year,” Mallette said. “So, this action was a bigger step to bring more attention to the issue and to really give people a chance to think about where they stand on that."
At a homecoming celebration held for the mamas SONG bailed out this year, Speaking Kendra Johnson, the board chair for SONG, said their work to end money bail represents a long legacy of freedom fighters and that they won’t stop fighting until people stop taking away their freedom.
"Freedom is our birthright, it's not something that we should have to pay for, it shouldn't be taken from us, it shouldn't be stolen, we shouldn't be chained or shackled,” Kendra Johnson said. ”We know that Black mamas are the center of our families and they hold us all together."