GettyImages-50858401.jpg

Coronavirus has arrived in the prison system. Last weekend, a second employee within Washington’s Department of Corrections tested positive for the coronavirus. In New York, an employee at Sing Sing prison and a guard and a incarcerated person at Rikers Island have tested positive as well. As concerns escalate about the potentially devastating impact of the virus in jails and prisons, criminal justice reform advocates and abolition groups are quickly crafting demands for widespread releases of vulnerable incarcerated people. While governors and sheriffs weigh their responses, community bail funds are stepping into the breach to get incarcerated people out of danger immediately and ramping up fundraising to help bring them home.

“The danger that incarcerated folks are facing right now is absolutely horrifying, and so community bail and bond funds are trying to get people out rapidly now before detention centers go into lockdown,” said Pilar Weiss, director of the Community Justice Exchange, which hosts the National Bail Fund Network, a directory of over 60 community bail and bond funds that stretch across the country.

“We’re doing as much as we possibly can”

The community bail fund model enables organizers to raise money that can then be used to continuously secure the freedom of those detained in jail pretrial or within immigration detention centers. By using community funds to pay courts directly, these organizations can bypass local bail bond agencies that often bind families into predatory contracts. And because the community fund’s money is returned after the person bailed out shows up for their trial date, it can be used again later to free someone else.

This strategy allows those entrenched in the criminal legal and immigration systems to avoid lengthy stays in jails and detention centers that can cost them their jobs, their families, and at times, their lives. While community bail and bond funds have been working for years to collect money and free incarcerated loved ones, the rapidly spreading coronavirus is bringing a new sense of urgency to their efforts.

“They’re playing this role of getting as many people free as they can, knowing that the ultimate remedy or intervention has to be from governors and Departments of Corrections and sheriffs and DAs—because there’s no way community bail funds can pay all the bail to get everybody out. But we’re doing as much as we possibly can,” said Weiss.

Public health crises like the current coronavirus pandemic are particularly troubling for local jails, which see more than 10 million admissions per year. That high level of traffic and churn, as well as tight living conditions and lack of access to basic hygiene products, could allow a highly contagious disease like the coronavirus to spread like wildfire.

As such, community bail funds have doubled down their efforts in the past couple of weeks, particularly in the face of inactivity and slow responses by local and state politicians and decision makers.

“There just doesn’t seem to be any urgency from any of the people who can make choices about releasing people from incarceration,” said Atara Rich-Shea, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bail Fund. “DAs can make sweeping choices and so can police commissioners and so can the trial court and they are totally dropping the ball and not doing any of this, putting so many people at risk.”

The Massachusetts Bail Fund plans to spend about $100,000 this week to bail out between 90 and 100 people. This past weekend in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Bail Fund secured the release of 7 people over 48 hours.

In the immigration context, the statutory minimum for an immigration bond is $1,500 but amounts can be as high as $100,000. Crucial differences between the criminal legal system and the immigration enforcement system shape the work of community bond funds working to get people out of immigration detention, including the number of people they’re able to bail out and when the money can be reused. The Connecticut Bail Fund, one of about 30 formal community bond funds working within the immigration space, is able to post about four to six bonds per month. Most of them average around $10,000.

“That money sits with the Department of Homeland Security usually for a very long time because case disposition in immigration court is much longer than the criminal legal system,” said Ana Maria Rivera-Forastieri, co-director of the Connecticut Bail Fund. “So, community bond funds in the immigration context are constantly having to fundraise because they’re actually not going to see their bond money back for a few years after it’s been posted.”

A system not built for the times

The urgency with which community bail fund organizers are currently working is heightened both by the inevitability that the virus will be introduced to correctional and detention facilities and the fact that the pandemic is changing the way these facilities are operating. It is becoming increasingly difficult for organizers to actually bail and bond folks out once they have raised the funds to do so.

“Not only are people in the most dangerous place to be during a pandemic inside a jail or prison, but also the release mechanisms are starting to go away. Places are not staffing, they’re closing hours, they’re closing court appearances and there’s gonna be fewer and fewer ways to get people out,” Weiss said.

The virus has quickly revealed the outdated nature of the bail system, and the ways it’s ill-equipped to handle a major public health crisis. In Massachusetts, like many other states, the bailout process requires an extraordinary amount of physical contact, from a cash-only policy that requires going to a bank to withdraw large sums of money, to the requirement that a bail commissioner be physically present when a payment is made.

“I think that one of the things that this pandemic has exposed is our complete uselessness in the face of these kinds of problems and how the systems that we have created are so byzantine and complicated,” said Rich-Shea. “People shouldn’t be held on bail in the first place and when they are in Massachusetts, it takes so many points of contact and so many different parties in order to get someone released.”

While volunteers at Massachusetts Bail Fund are still continuing to do the work, they are also constantly placing themselves at risk—a risk that could be mitigated if courts placed additional release mechanisms in place such as making available an online option for bail.

At the Connecticut Bail Fund, a lack of an online option to post bond is also extremely troubling given the mounting concern that enforcement and removal operation offices will soon be closing.

In a moment of crisis, a pivot toward permanent structural change

While getting as many people out remains a priority, advocates for decarceration are increasingly pushing for major policy changes in light of the structural inefficiencies the crisis has highlighted. Fortunately, holding space for both individual bailouts along with larger advocacy efforts has long been a part of their work.  

“Community bail and bond funds are sort of always holding these two tensions or these two actions—and this is true even not in moments of crisis—where they’re paying in the immediate to get people out and then they’re also advocating for radical structural change,” says Weiss.

The Connecticut Bail Fund is currently demanding that the Department of Homeland Security release everyone from immigration detention. “We have always been very strong in our demand that there should not be immigration detention period,” said Rivera-Forastieri. “It almost feels like these are all the things that we’re asking for right now because people are in a very serious, precarious situation, but people were also in a very serious, precarious situation before this virus hit our communities. If we are able to push the federal government to engage in serious decarceration of people in immigration detention, then there’s no going back.”

They are also calling for an end to all ICE and CBP operations, including a moratorium on ICE check-ins. It is crucial, too, that other systems and public entities—particularly health personnel—do not cooperate with ICE, they say. Late Wednesday, ICE released a statement saying that in response to the pandemic, the agency would “delay enforcement actions” and use “alternatives to detention.”

For those working in the pretrial space, their demands of elected officials and other stakeholders also center around decarceration. Last Friday, the Chicago Community Bond Fund and a coalition of over 75 community, legal, and advocacy groups released a list of demands addressing longstanding concerns related to those inside, those who are newly arrested, and those who are on community supervision. One of their primary demands of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has been the immediate release of all people detained pretrial.

“Our jail has about 5,500 people in it on any given day. Two thousand of them are there only because they can’t afford to pay a bail, and so we thought that was the most natural space to begin this process of decarceration,” says Matt McLoughlin, director of programs at the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “If a judge has set a money bail, they cleared that person for release effectively. They don’t believe them to be a danger to the community or a flight risk and obviously the only thing keeping them in a dangerous situation is their access to wealth.”

The Chicago Community Bond Fund is also insisting on free access to hygiene products for those inside, as well as adjusted electronic monitoring protocols to allow people to leave their homes to purchase essential items and seek medical care.

While fear and concern continue, some are hopeful that this moment is finally driving home the importance of the ongoing fight for abolition and decarceration. “In this moment, suddenly you see these jurisdictions around the country saying actually we’re not going to incarcerate for a certain thing and I’m hoping that after this, that this sticks with [people],” said McLoughlin, echoing Rivera-Forastieri’s sentiments. “I hope for a lot of people, this is just exposing how unsustainable and ridiculous [it] is that in most states there are more prison beds than there are ICU beds.”  

Tamar Sarai Davis

Tamar Sarai Davis is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.