LGBT rights group SONG kicks off rescue mission

It’s no secret there are racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reported that one out of every 100 African-American women is in prison.

Atlanta-based Southerners On New Ground wants to change that.

“I was like, what would it look like for us to embody our vision, for us to really think about what enslaved Africans have done as a passage to get free?” said Mary Hooks, co-director of SONG.

And the idea for Black Mamas Bail Out was born: by gathering collective resources, they could buy each other’s freedom. Specifically, for now, the freedom of black Atlanta mothers in jail because they can’t afford the cash bail required to get out.

“As a black lesbian mother, I feel this issue very deep in my heart,” Hooks said. “I know what it’s like to be arrested and have the state change your life. … I’ve been bailed out before. I’ve bailed out my homies.”

According to a report issued by the Georgia Department of Corrections on May 1, there were about 3,800 women in Peach State prisons, about 1,500 of whom were black (men make up 93 percent of the total Georgia prison population, and 62 percent of those men incarcerated are black). Though the statistics were not accounted for by race, more than 2,100 of the women imprisoned in Georgia have at least one dependent.

The campaign to break the cage

One of the major reasons why Hooks is so passionate about this project is because of the collateral damage caused by putting people in jail: parents can lose their children, families can lose their homes and people lose their minds “in the cage.”

Several weeks ago, SONG put in an open records request to see what it would be working with.

“We saw there were women who were sitting [in Atlanta jails] who had charges like drinking outside of a package store, using fighting words, urban camping — which is homelessness,” Hooks said. “Due process has not taken place and they’re sitting in a cage. … About 37 of these women had a different scale of bail amounts and when we totaled it up, I was surprised at how little it is.”

Those 37 women have a total bail of about $40,000.

“Just to see it and calculate what’s actually possible kind of blew our minds a little bit,” Hooks said. “I’m no judge. I don’t know what these folks have done, but I do know that per our Constitution, you should be able to get out of jail and commit to coming back to court.”

Black Mamas Bail Out is an experiment — and the community response has been enormous.

“Once we spoke it into existence, we’re like, we’re going to do it. Other comrade organizations on a national level were like, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ We began scheming and dreaming and we began asking out on social media,” Hooks said.

On National Give OUT Day, which is the largest fundraising day for LGBT organizations, SONG set a goal of $15,000.

It more than doubled that.

SONG brought in over $33,000 on Give OUT Day, which also won it the national prize of an additional $10,000.

“Our goal is to get as many out as we can. If it’s one, if it’s 10, if it’s 100, we say blessings,” Hooks said. “If they’re out, it eases the suffering for the rest of us.”

Cashing out cash bail

Another focus of the bail out is raising awareness of the cash bail system.

“Our current City Council, they can actually pass an ordinance that could end the use of cash bail, allowing people to sign out on their own recognizance or with the support of community-based programs,” Hooks said. “We need folks to take a stand around this and begin calling our current City Council folks and our Fulton County commissioners. Why are our people sitting in cages because they cannot afford bail?”

SONG will kick off its Black Mamas Bail Out on Mother’s Day with a community event to raise awareness and continue fundraising — Hooks said there’s about a seven-day changeover with people in city jails.

“Bring love offerings for the mothers that are our honored guests on that day,” she said. “It’s all hands on deck. … We’ve linked up with a lot of service agencies to come talk to people about social security, the steps to take to getting their kids back. The abandonment that our children feel when their mothers are gone is heinous.”

The event will include speakers all afternoon, a job fair, activities for kids and families and opportunities to get involved in the movement, plus information about the cash bail system and appealing to City Council.

New Orleans, Louisiana ended its cash bail system, and Houston, Texas appears headed in the same direction, Hooks said. And though the project is aimed at black women, Hooks said all minority and impoverished communities can benefit from what it’s doing.

“Forty-six percent of us LGBTQ folks engage and have police encounters, have been profiled,” she said. “For those who survive and aren’t killed by police guns, the slow death happens inside jails and prisons.”

Black Mamas Bail Out Homecoming & Celebration
Sunday, May 14 from 1 to 6 p.m.
Howell Park, 983 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. SW, Atlanta