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Abolition in the Now

A new campaign rooted in the South is getting mothers in prisons and jails across the country home for Mother’s Day.

Jails across the United States will be a bit less crowded on Mother's Day. After raising tens of thousands of dollars, organizers behind the first Mama's Bail Out Day—timed with the holiday—will be bringing home "as many mothers as possible." That bail, sometimes just a few hundred dollars, is all that separates them from their families and communities on the outside. The idea is at once practical and ambitious, relying on hundreds of individuals to collectively raise money to provide immediate relief to someone in jail. It also comes in a political moment when even meager steps toward criminal justice reform might seem to have ground to a halt.

The idea for Mama's Bail Out Day is about "naming the massive impact cash bail is having on families and on black mamas," says Mary Hooks, the Atlanta-based co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The idea came to her out of the haze of the election last November, she says, a way to enact "abolition in the now."

It is also a campaign that's deliberately expansive in its definition of motherhood, "queer and trans, old and young," Hooks says, "all the many ways in which we are mothered, and have chosen family. We want to honor black mothers who have held us down in a myriad of ways, whether that's SONG elders or the first lesbian you meet at the bar when you come out, who teach us things, mothered us along the way and helped raise us."

Nationwide, on average 700,000 people await trial in jails each day, 450,000 of them because they cannot pay bail; according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 109,000 women were in jails in the United States in 2014. SONG obtained public records on women in jails in Atlanta, Hooks says, and, for the 37 women there who couldn't afford their bail, to get them out would take $40,000. SONG aims to raise at least $225,000, she says, and there are now bail out actions planned in 18 cities, most in the Southeast.

"You find yourself in a cage. And the slow death happens there, the slow deaths of our families and our communities."

Even as the issue of criminal justice reform has mainstreamed, the rising population of women in prisons and jails has not drawn the same kind of attention. The Sentencing Project sets the overall number of women in the U.S. currently under supervision by the criminal and corrections system at 1.2 million, with twice as many black women incarcerated than white women. This trend in the criminalization of women, and of black women in particular, is alarming and ongoing: According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S. incarcerates women today at a rate eight times higher than throughout most of the 20th century, with women the U.S. accounting for up to 30 percent of the world's overall population of women in prison. In the last few years, the Movement for Black Lives has drawn persistent attention to police brutality and killings. "But we want to expand the conversation," Hooks says. "You survive, and you find yourself in a cage. And the slow death happens there, the slow deaths of our families and our communities."

"Folks are criminalized, targeted, profiled," Hooks says, "like black trans women, who are being profiled as sex workers. Whether they are or they aren't, they shouldn't be profiled, and if they are sex workers, they shouldn't be arrested!" (In New York, black and transgender women have filed a civil rights suit to challenge this pattern of police profiling.) "Black and brown communities, working class and poor communities, queer and trans communities, are being criminalized every day," Hooks says. "And because there is a profit attached to it, cities like Atlanta make major money off our people's suffering."

It can seem overwhelming to activists, figuring out where to start when it comes to such an entrenched system. But they have shown there are pieces of it that can be pulled apart, and some institutions appear to be following their lead. The editorial board of the New York Times has just argued for the end of cash bail. A blue-ribbon criminal justice reform commission in New York City recommends the same, and for the ultimate closure of the jail complex on Rikers Island—one of the jails where, if organizers are successful, some cells will be empty on Mother's Day.

When this started a few weeks back, Hooks says, they would be happy if they raised the money to get just one person out. Then they quickly raised bail funds in Atlanta—enough to get all 37 of those women out, even if they stopped there. "We could literally shut down the jail," Hooks says. And if they did this for even more jails? "At that point we would have to turn to our local leaders and say, 'Why are the lights still on because there is nobody in there?'"