Day 6

'Mama's Bail Out Day' allows jailed women to spend Mother's Day with family

On Mother's Day, thousands of women in the United States will spend the day behind bars because they can't afford to pay bail. U.S. communities are fundraising to ensure these women can go home.
A woman hugs her son at the California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)
Mary Hooks is the Co-Director of Southerners On New Ground, a community-based organization in Atlanta. (Courtesy of Mary Hooks)

Sunday is Mother's Day, and across the United States a coalition of community-based organizations is working to ensure that as many mothers as possible get to spend the day at home with family — including moms who would otherwise be awaiting trial in jail. 

Mary Hooks is one of dozens of activists in the U.S. fundraising to support women who are not considered dangerous or a flight risk, but whose families cannot come up with the money for bail.

"Most of the women who are sitting in cages right now are single mothers and caretakers," says Hooks. "We know the impacts that this has for folks inside — as well as the external impacts — can be dire."


Fourteen months apart 

For low-income families, pretrial custody can indeed have dire consequences.

Lavette Mayes spent 14 months in jail awaiting trial on aggravated domestic battery charges. She is the mother of two children. (Chicago Community Bond Fund)

In 2015, Chicago mother Lavette Mayes was charged with aggravated domestic battery after an alleged altercation with her former mother-in-law. In what she describes as a devastating shock, her bail was posted at $250,000, meaning she would have had to pay the court at least $25,000 to walk, despite not having been convicted of a crime.

"The people that processed me in were like, 'oh, you'll be fine. Everything will be okay. You've never been to jail. You don't have a record.' And that's what I thought."

Mayes says there was no way her family could come up with the money required. As a result, she spent 14 months behind bars, apart from her two children.  

"I came close to losing custody of my kids."  - Lavette Mayes

"It caused me to lose a lot of things," she says. "I lost my house. I lost my business. I came close to losing custody of my kids."

Last year, the Chicago Community Bond Fund was able to intervene in Mayes' case, negotiating a reduced bond fee of $9,500. Mayes' friends and family raised $2,000 and CCBF came up with the remaining $7,500 required.

Ultimately, Mayes pleaded guilty to an amended charge of aggravated assault in exchange for time served. Today, she is home with her six-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. But she says the time she spent in pretrial custody continues to affect her family — and not just in terms of their financial situation.

"When I walk out the door, [my kids] still have anxiety disconnecting. Right now we're in counseling because of the anxiety," she explains. "They never knew anything but me being at home and a mom."


Minor charges, major consequences

According to Hooks, a vast majority of mothers in pretrial custody are not dangerous, and have been charged with relatively minor offenses.

"When we here in Atlanta did an open records request to get a snapshot of who was in the jail and what their charges were … we found charges such as 'urban camping'," Hooks explains.

"One should never see a cage because your tail light is out, or because you're homeless."

"We know that there's a profit on the other side." - Mary Hooks

Hooks says part of the problem is that the U.S. bail system is big business.

"Whether that's for the city, the bail bonds industry, the private probation industry, the tow truck industry … We know that there's a profit on the other side," she says.

The threat of spending months in jail awaiting trial also means that many women who can't make bail end up taking plea deals — whether they're guilty or not. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 90% of federal and state court cases are resolved through plea bargaining.

Hooks says the efforts of cities like New Orleans to dismantle the cash bail system show promising signs that change may be on the way. 

"Folks can sign out on their own recognizance, saying 'hey, I know I have a court date. I will come and be present.' And then for those who are like, 'I know I have a court date, but I'm also dealing with some life struggles…' [they're] being directed to community-based resources and services."

Pregnant in pretrial custody

For some women awaiting trial, bail remains out of reach — even with support from organizations like Southerners on New Ground and the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

A handcuffed woman sits after arriving at the Los Angeles County Women's jail in Lynwood, California. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Meghann Perry was 27-years-old, pregnant, and fighting a heroin addiction when law enforcement discovered that her husband at the time was growing marijuana in their home. Because Perry had been to jail previously, she was deemed to be in violation of her bail conditions and taken back into custody.

"At this point there were no other options for me for bail," she says.

With just four months left in her pregnancy, this was a nightmare situation for Perry. In this clip, she describes how it felt to believe she would be forced to deliver her daughter in custody:

Meghann Perry talks about being pregnant in pretrial custody 0:43

My daughter would have been one or two-years -old by the time I was released.- Meghann Perry

Fortunately for Perry, Maine Pretrial Services was able to intervene in her case, determining that she was not a flight risk, and arranging a special bail contract that allowed her to give birth to her daughter in freedom.

"It was an incredible gift," says Perry, who remains convinced that she would have lost custody of her daughter permanently, if bail had remained out of reach.


Together for Mother's Day

This week, Mayes and Perry will both spend Mother's Day at home with their kids.

Children draw Mother's Day cards to take to their mothers at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

"I know how it feels behind walls," Mayes says. "Not to be able to talk to your kids. Not to be able to see your kids. Not to be able to touch your kids."

To be separated from your child in that way — with no notice — is heinous.- Mary Hook s

"The choices that I made were bad ones," Perry admits, adding that it means so much for her to be with her now 16-year-old daughter today. "I appreciate the relationship that she and I have so much."

Hooks, meanwhile, says there's no excusing the harm that cash bail inflicts on families.

"To be separated from your child in that way — with no notice — is heinous." 

To hear Mary Hooks and Lavette Mayes talk about 'Mama's Bail Out Day' , download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.