Beautiful was facing 75 days “in the hole” when Black Mama’s Bail Out paid for her release.
Beautiful, 28, a transwoman, was all too familiar with “the hole.” She had already spent many days there during her four-year stint in pretrial detention at Shelby County Jail men’s lockup. Because of a fight, she could look forward to lingering in isolation. She would miss out on the finer things in jail life, such as the ability to buy commissary items.
That meant no noodles, no radio, no Airheads candy, and no Blue Magic or Sulfur 8 hair products. These were all the creature comforts that made her feel vitally human in lockup.
When a Black Mama’s Bail Out representative came to visit last summer, Beautiful was skeptical. As a black transwoman, she had been a target of violence and guile.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Beautiful, describing her thoughts that day. Confined on a second-degree murder charge with a $40,000 bond she could not pay, she had little hope of being released anytime soon.
Then it happened. The next day, Beautiful stood outside 201 Poplar, the sun shining on her face.
She credits “the grace of God” and people who believe she deserves a chance, said the now 28-year-old who is awaiting trial in the July 13, 2015, stabbing death of Terrence Whiting, her boyfriend.
It was actually a guard at 201 Poplar who gave Beautiful hope. He told her to reach out to Black Mama’s Bail Out, known for its annual #FreeBlackMamas Mother’s Day initiative to get black women out of pretrial detention. The national effort, which works locally through Official Black Lives Matter Memphis, kicked off earlier this year because prisons and jails have become hotspots for COVID-19 infections.
On Friday, the Shelby County Sheriff’s office reported 1,800 detainees in the men’s jail, representing 61% of its capacity. The women’s jail held 156 detainees at 41% capacity. The juvenile detention center had 59 youths at 44% capacity.
“Currently, we have 65 employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus; one employee is hospitalized and 27 have recovered,” said John Morris, Sheriff’s Department spokesman. “We have 134 detainees who have tested positive for COVID-19. Zero detainees are hospitalized and 11 have recovered.”
Morris said detainees with COVID-19 are separated from the other detainees. No youths are reported to be affected.
“You cannot social distance inside a cage. Period,” said Arissa Hall, director of National Bail Out, which launched Black Mama’s Bail Out in 2017.
Hall also pointed out racial disparities revealed by the pandemic and that African Americans in many areas have higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death. When you add “anti-black racism” and well-established medical system bias against blacks, “We know that is exasperated inside a cage.”
Detainees have reported not knowing who is infected, or whether they’re being moved for isolation purposes or have the virus, said Kayla Gore. Gore, an Official Black Lives Matter member, co-founded My Sistah’s House, a safe space for transpeople in Frayser.
One woman called Gore, worried she would lose housing she’s paid for through the end of May.
“It could really alter the trajectory of her life, simply because she can’t afford bond,” Gore said.
“We don’t know if she’s innocent or guilty yet. But we do know that it takes a certain amount of money to free her until she’s found innocent or guilty.”
National Bail Out, a collective of advocacy groups, has paid bail for more than 400 black women since 2017, including 43 in Memphis. They also provide supportive services that include finding long-term housing, counseling, transportation, and clothing and supplies. Volunteer bail buddies provide transportation to and from court, and help those released stay on track.
This year, the organization is working with 26 groups to raise money and bail out people in 27 cities and 19 states. Member organizations include Official Black Lives Matter Memphis, Southerners On The New Ground, Color of Change and Texas Organizing Project.
Why focus on women?
“Movements around criminal justice reform often leave out those most impacted, which include women and femmes,” said Hall, defining femmes as queer people with feminine expression.
As household heads, black women are usually the ones “holding it down” for families and communities, she said. The initiative aims to “create a more accurate, true depiction of the harms of incarceration and criminalization,” according to Hall, who said black women are one of the fastest-growing populations being held in county jails.
While the collective takes a grassroots approach to money bail, the issue is churning through legislatures and reform conversations across the country.
In Memphis, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich has worked to reduce the jail population during the pandemic by using assessments to keep only the worst offenders inside, she told the Memphis Flyer. Her office has dismissed hundreds of cases of recently charged people, and is releasing those charged with low-level crimes, she said.
The jail population at 201 Poplar was about 2,600 at the beginning of the year, she said, compared to 1,800 on Friday, a reduction of about 800.
Just City Memphis counts changing how bail works as part of overall criminal justice reforms they advocate, said Josh Spickler, the organization’s executive director.
“Of the 80 people we’ve freed during our COVID response bail out, the Memphis Community Bail Fund has bailed out 15 women,” Spickler said. Many of them are mothers, but every one of them was able to return home to loved ones, and seek shelter and safety like the rest of us. Lack of money should never be the reason that families are separated, but money bail is especially brutal during this crisis. We must end it.”
New York state, for example, instituted bail reforms on Jan. 1. The state started limiting cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, among other changes, said Taryn Merkl, senior counsel at The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. Some reforms have already been rolled back, though.
“New York state changed its bail bill already to add back additional crimes that could be made bail eligible,” said Merkl, noting critics were concerned about certain groups of detainees who might get out and commit crimes.
New Jersey is having much better results.
The state uses pretrial risk-assessments to evaluate risk instead of asking for money to decide who gets out on bail, Merkl said. Officials use data on who is more likely to commit a crime or fail to appear in making that decision.
“The pretrial risk assessment tools strategy as implemented in New Jersey is definitely kind of leading the field in terms of bail reform that was implemented in a really thorough manner …,” she said.
The assessment, which produces a score, is used at the time of arrest and before a person’s first court appearance, according to a 2019 report by the MDRC Center for Criminal Justice Research. Fewer people were expected to pay bail as an initial condition of release. Speedy-trial laws put a time limit on processing certain cases, and a pretrial monitoring program was created.
The new policy resulted in fewer arrests, the report said. One example shows the largest reduction occurred in the summer when arrests tend to peak. For example, July 2017 had 2,000 fewer arrests than predicted. Pretrial incarceration rates for 2015 to 2019 declined 44%, Merkl said.
Pretrial assessments are controversial, too. For example, California was set to institute reforms, but voters will now decide what happens in November, according to Merkl.
“There’s critique from both sides,” she said. “There’s critique from criminal justice reformers, who are arguing that the use of the pretrial risk assessment is going to result in biased outcomes and is unfair. And there’s critique from the more traditional law enforcement groups and the bail bonds industry about how the state should stay with the current system.
“It’s really going to be interesting to see what happens with the voters in California this year,” she said.
Instead of extracting money from people who least afford to pay, Hall said #FreeBlackMamas models a different path.
“What we actually need is for people to be supported, for people to be cared for and for communities to be in a relationship to one another,” Hall said. “The point is people do not belong in cages. Period.”
Gore was in the afterglow of Black Mama’s Bail Out’s successful summer 2019 convening in Atlanta when she got back home to Memphis and saw Beautiful’s letter.
“We were concerned about it affecting her sanity being isolated for so long,” said Gore, noting the collective “reacted pretty fast” in sending bail money and support.
Black Mama’s Bail Out put her up in short-term housing. She got new clothes because she went into jail a size 0 but came out “full figured and fine.”
“I was so juicy when I got out,” Beautiful says, laughing.
Supportive services in Beautiful’s case includes a lawyer who is conversant on trans issues. This kind of cultural competency might come in handy when she goes to court again and faces a prosecutor who has insisted on referring to her by male pronouns.
“I didn’t know how to act or feel,” she said, remembering the sun shining on her face when she walked outside the jail.
Beautiful stops and sobs into the phone. It’s the same phone given to her by Black Mama’s Bail Out so she can stay safe, connected and on track with court appointments.
She inhales deeply. Then exhales.
“I’m scared,” Beautiful said. “I’m ready for it to be over. Memphis is going to be a memory for me. I want to start over.”
Get educated about the issues.
Get to know National Bail Out Collective
They are community-based activists and lawyers connected across the nation. Participating organizations include Southerners on New Ground, Official Black Lives Matter Memphis, Color of Change and Texas Organizing Project.
Contribute to #FreeBlackMamas.
#FreeBlackMamas is still raising money to bring as many women home as possible by Sunday. To support someone who can’t afford bail, visit the link below.
This story is brought to you by High Ground News and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.