In the past six weeks, bail funds have taken social media by storm. They’ve been around for a long time — bail’s pretty expensive and there aren’t a lot of people who can afford to fork over a large amounts of money, even if they get it back later. Cash bail sheds light on the intersections of poverty, immigration, public health and human rights. As the old saying goes, it’s expensive (and unhealthy) to be poor.
“Jails, prisons and detention centers are horrific places to be,” said an organizer (who wishes to remain anonymous) in an interview with Motif. “But in a pandemic, they’re even more dangerous and deadly.” FANG’s bail fund had its start in March when one of their members was on trial and later incarcerated in neighboring Bristol County, Massachusetts. During that time, FANG made a concerted effort to pay the fines and bails of whomever was in the courthouse on a particular day. As the pandemic worsened, the bail fund became official, and they worked toward the release of people in incarceration or ICE detention.
FANG’s #ShutDownICE campaign is almost two years old. The bail fund is deeply linked with that campaign, as a way to get people out of detention. “One of our core beliefs is [prison] abolition,” said the organizer. “We think that nobody should be in a cage for any reason.”
The fund has been successful in bailing out people who have bails at or below $1,000, and FANG has expanded the fund to include anyone incarcerated as part of the Providence street uprisings, putting out a phone number loved ones can call. As a result, they’ve managed to post the bail of several inmates at the ACI.
The aftermath of the Providence looting shows the need for bail funds. More than 65 people were arrested in conjunction with the events of that night. The charges range from disorderly conduct to more serious crimes like breaking and entering or receiving stolen goods. Bails range from the hundreds to many thousands of dollars. In a country where pre-COVID, 49% of Americans said they live paycheck to paycheck, and with unemployment now nearing catastrophic levels, people’s ability to make bail isn’t getting better.
FANG isn’t the only one running with the ball on cash bail. They’re part of the AMOR Network, an alliance of state social justice groups. They were working, along with the RI ACLU, on securing bail hearings for inmates at the Wyatt Detention center, an issue that has become more pressing as COVID runs rampant in prisons nationwide. The tools to fight COVID — social spacing, aggressive cleaning, mask-wearing — aren’t always possible or done in prisons.
Rep. Anastasia Williams (District 9, Providence) introduced a bill in January into the judiciary committee to address this problem. H-7243 amends conditions of bail and recognizance to permit the release of a person charged with a misdemeanor without financial commissions. The bill is to prohibit financial conditions for bail and release, with three exceptions: cases of domestic violence, the person charged requests such financial conditions and obstruction of justice or witness tampering. The bill was held for further study at the end of January.
FANG’s goal of prison abolition is a long ways off, but bail funds are part of the first step toward getting there.