Sadly, Tanisha Bynum's case is far from unusual. Thousands of Americans are held in jail for minor infractions because they can't afford to pay bail—and black women are particularly impacted.
Photo by Diana Rudick via Getty Images
After being rear-ended by another car, Tanisha Bynum, a black single mother of four, was arrested for driving with a suspended license. She was held in jail for three weeks while pregnant without being tried or convicted of any offense. Her bail was set at $10,000.
Those three weeks took a devastating toll on Bynum and her children. "My kids didn't know where I was. I lost my job. I got behind on my bills," the caregiver and sole breadwinner of her household told Broadly. "I don't have a criminal record and I've never been incarcerated. The only crimes I had are tickets, so it was really shocking that they kept me in jail." The state of Florida kept Bynum behind bars because she didn't have enough money to post bail—the same circumstances keeping around 450,000 people in jails across the US on any given day.
Bynum was finally bailed out on Mother's Day by the Dream Defenders, a Miami-based racial justice organization, as part of an effort by the Movement for Black Lives to combat cash bail and shed light on the practice's crushing impact on black communities. So far, they've bailed out around 200 people, according to Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and a driving force behind the Movement for Black Lives' National Bail Out Coalition.
It was no coincidence that the bailout campaign began with black mamas, shedding light on how this population is endangered by the prison industrial complex. The inhumane system of cash bail has a particularly harsh impact on women like Bynum. Due to their frequent roles as caregivers as well as other facets of race and gender-based discrimination, black women are disproportionately impacted by being held on bail.
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The rate of female incarceration has increased by over 700 percent over the past three decades (with the vast majority arrested for nonviolent crimes)—and black women are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as their white counterparts, comprising 44 percent of the women's jail population but only 13 percent of the general US women's population. Around 80 percent of women in jail are parents, and spending just one day can lead to a mother losing her child.
The idea behind Mamas' Bail Out Day—which this year raised over $700,000 to help approximately 100 moms spend Mother's Day with their loved ones—came to Hooks toward the end of 2016. "To be able to do this for Mother's Day, where people are honoring and loving up their moms, was a way to remind people about how mass incarceration is impacting this particular set of mothers," Hooks explained. "This was an action we could do that literally shifts the material conditions of our people. We wanted to amplify the issue of ending cash bail, and this is also a love offering to our people."
Had the Dream Defenders not paid her bail, Bynum doesn't know how much longer she would have had to spend in a cage. She's still struggling to catch up on her finances and figure out how to afford the $200 court-mandated fines she has to pay every month for the next six months to avoid another arrest. "I missed two pay periods, and my kids are getting ready to go back to school. Those two pay periods could have been my kids' school supplies," she said.
Bynum explains that her case points to a larger, cyclical context the US prison system constantly ignores. "When you're a single mom and you're taking care of a family, it doesn't leave a lot of extra money for stuff like tickets," she said, explaining that her driver's license was suspended over unpaid tickets and adding that she couldn't afford not to drive in such a rural neighborhood. "They should look at the bigger picture before they throw you in jail. Why was I driving? I had to go to work. I had to take my kids to their sports games."
Financial hardship factors heavily into the circumstances that lead to most black women's arrests. "In our search to find women to bail out, most were in jail for failure to pay, a lot of things connected to people's financial capacities," explained Chardonnay Singleton, organizing director for The Dream Defenders. "When you have a suspended license, usually it's connected to something else—when you can't pay your car insurance your driver's license gets suspended in Florida. This means that you're criminalized for not having money and then charged double through cash bail."
Low-income people spend an average of 23 days in jail before going to trial, simply because they cannot afford bail. As of 2014, the median income of a black woman prior to her arrest was $12,735. Black women are not only disproportionately likely to live in poverty before their arrests, but also more likely to be assigned higher bail amounts and be targeted by child protective services to lose custody of their children while behind bars.
For women living paycheck to paycheck, the loss of income and employment while in jail can be difficult or impossible to make up once they're out. Organizers encountered women who lost their health insurance, cars, apartments, or even custody of their children while in jail. Some women who had housing before being arrested were evicted due to missing rent, forced to navigate homelessness upon their release.
"Going into Mama's Day, we wanted to make sure we were also asking questions about black trans women and gender nonconforming women," Hooks explained. "We know that mothering doesn't just happen from those who give birth. Mothering happens with anyone who is investing in supporting and caretaking."
Black LGBTQ women and femmes are particularly at risk of being held on bail and experiencing trauma or even death while incarcerated. At least 47 percent of black trans people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, and one in three trans women report sexual assault in local jails. Trans individuals are at least four times as likely to have incomes below $10,000 as their cis counterparts. Black trans women are among the populations most vulnerable to being arrested and incarcerated because they are unable to afford bail.
"Black and brown queer and trans people are more likely to have interactions with the police, increasing our risk of being arrested," said Hooks. "Particularly in the South where we also have the highest rates of poverty, if bail is being set our folks are going to be arrested and made to stay in a cage."
Building on the power of Mama's Day, the National Bail Out Coalition continues to bail out impoverished black folks, with campaigns for Father's Day, Pride, and Juneteenth. Along with these bailouts, the coalition is engaging in a political education campaign to expose the harms of cash bail and bring more people into the black liberation movement.
The coalition's ultimate goal is to end the practice of cash bail in the US. As Hooks explained, "Keeping people locked up because they're too poor to pay—whether that's bail or another fine—is unconstitutional... Someone is being locked up in a cage without the due process of being charged or convicted of anything. Because it's attached to money, it also creates a debtor's prison, which we know is unconstitutional as well."
While activists emphasized that it was not a perfect system, they pointed to Washington DC—where around 88 percent of pretrial defendants are released thanks to a combination of policies that discourage cash bail and speed up sentencing procedures—as proof that court systems can function without money bail. Hooks cautioned that solutions to end bail should not be measures that reform one slice of a broader system propagating the criminalization of vulnerable populations. Instead, the end goal of the bailout campaign is to weaken the entire prison industrial complex by undermining its economic rewards, and ultimately abolishing the prison system.
"We are still really connected to these women, to being part of their lives and bringing them into the larger movement," Singleton said of Bynum and the other mamas the Dream Defenders bailed out this year. "I feel really blessed to have met Ms. Tanisha. She's been a light in my life since connecting with her... We continue to support Ms. Tanisha however she says she needs support."
As long as the US continues to ignore the fundamental mandate of "innocent until proven guilty" and imprison poor folks who have not been convicted of anything, black women like Bynum and their families will suffer.
"The first week I was home, every time I had to leave my kids for a minute they were like 'Mommy where are you going? Are you going to come back? Are you going to come right back?'" Bynum recalled. "They were really worried about me leaving and not coming back."
You can support the National Bail Out Coalition by donating to the Brooklyn Bail Fund.