It’s not a secret that if you don’t have the right resources, you can easily end up in jail over petty, ridiculous things, like not paying traffic tickets. For many women, especially impoverished black mothers, this is all too real. Many find themselves incarcerated for “crimes” that aren’t really crimes, and are often a result of inability to pay various fees and fines.
Is not being able to pay late fees on traffic tickets, and missing court dates because you have an hourly job that you can’t afford to miss, actually a crime that should lead to a warrant for arrest? Definitely not. But it keeps happening.
This is why National Mama’s Bailout Day happened earlier this month–as a way to help out moms and mom figures who were unfairly incarcerated–and didn’t have means to get released on their own. As Fusion pointed out in a follow-up piece about the event, given the prevalence of black mothers being sent to jail for essentially being poor, these types of arrests are quite common. They are especially likely in places like Alabama–and once you’re arrested, you can lose custody of your kids and lose your job.
Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, whose organization The Ordinary People Society was a local partner for Bailout Day in Alabama summed it up:
“We’re talking about poor, single moms trying to survive and you just added another burden.
We’re dealing with young mothers who are really trying to take care of their children. These are single moms who are really, really struggling out here and trying to do the right thing, and just because they’re poor, they’re running from the police, they’re hiding.”
As Fusion explained, the “phenomena is so widespread that the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010 warned that the practice has created a two-tiered system of justice, where the jails are turned into debtors’ prisons for the poorest Americans—who are re-arrested and incarcerated for failing to pay fees and fines—while wealthier Americans, who can pay up front, avoid jail time, serve any sentence, and are able to continue on with their lives.”
According to a 2015 study from the Vera Institute of Justice, 3 out of 5 people are held in jail for about 23 days because they are too poor to pay for bail. It’s not surprising to find that black women alone make up 44% of the country’s jail population. According to The Sentencing Project, “1 out of every 25 women in state prisons is pregnant and 1 out of every 33 women in federal prisons are pregnant when admitted to prison.” Most states, except for 18, still allow pregnant prisoners to be shackled before, during, and after birth despite evidence from the medical community that this practice is opposed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Women who are pregnant aren’t even given special consideration. Consider mom of three, Jameika Pride, who was arrested when she was seven months pregnant and supposed to be on bedrest. (And being pregnant and in jail is no walk in the park, especially as most jails don’t accommodate pregnant women well.) Her crime? Driving without a license and insurance. She described how scared she was:
“All I could do was cry. I was just so scared that I was going to be having a baby and be locked up at the same time.”
While Bailout Day was an amazing feat–and illustrates a huge problem in the U.S., it’s also by no means the end. Because of arrests, for instance, black mothers often have their children taken away from them unfairly and put into foster care– as illustrated in the article “Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers” in UCLA Law Review:
“The turn to a punitive foster care approach is justified by stereotypes of black maternal unfitness. For example, in a qualitative study of Michigan’s child welfare system, the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s Racial Equity Review discovered that many social workers negatively characterized African American families, mothers, and youth in particular. The surveyed social workers failed to fairly assess or appreciate these clients’ unique strengths and weaknesses related to the ability to care for children.
They frequently described African American parents in case files with terms such as “hostile,” “aggressive,” “angry,” “loud,” “incorrigible,” and “cognitively delayed” without acknowledging the context or providing any justification for these labels. Also, the social workers often assumed that African American parents had substance abuse problems without making similar assumptions about white parents.“The belief that African American children are better off away from their families and communities” was seen in explicit statements by key policymakers and service providers.”
The article went on to say:
“Even worse, some feminist child welfare advocates not only ignore black mothers but also denigrate them. The campaign to increase adoptions, led by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, makes devaluation of black family relationships a central component. Black mothers’ bonds with their children are portrayed as a barrier to adoption, and extinguishing those bonds is seen as the critical first step in the adoption process. Terminating parental rights faster and abolishing race-matching policies were linked as a strategy for increasing adoptions of black children by white families. Supporting this strategy is the myth that moving more black children from their families into white adoptive homes can solve the foster care problem.”
This been a growing problem for the past 20 years. According to Childtrends.org, “Since 1991, the numbers of mothers in state and federal prisons has more than doubled, to an estimated 120,000.” Drug Policy Alliance Senior Director Asha Bandele recently spoke out about mass incarceration in African American and Latino communities, stating:
“What does it mean that we have just exponentially removed our mothers and our grandmothers and our sisters from our communities? What harm does that cause, especially black and brown communities?”
Those questions are crucial to the children in our communities–and need solutions bigger and more long lasting than Bailout Day (as amazing as it was), because the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.