Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Every day, nearly half a million people are held in American jails and most have not been convicted. They're simply awaiting trial and unable to afford bail. For the women held in our jails, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 80% of them are mothers. Every Mother's Day since 2017, the National Bail Out has brought together Black-led organizations to raise money and bail out as many mothers and caregivers as possible to ensure they can spend Mother's Day with their children. Rodreshia Russaw is Executive Director of The Ordinary People Society, and I talked with her about her participation in the Mama's Day Bailout.
Rodreshia Russaw: The Ordinary People Society is a national organization that was formed in 2001 from Pastor Kenneth Glasgow here in Dothan, Alabama to address the Criminal Justice System and also voting rights throughout not only the state of Alabama but other southern states. We are a nonprofit faith-based organization that works on the ground, considered grassroots, that works with those that are formerly, currently incarcerated, impacted by homelessness and other various crises.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, tell me about Mama's Day Bail Outs.
Rodreshia Russaw: Yes, the National Bail Out which is founded Mama's Day Bailout is something that we have been a partner in for the past six years. Every day, every Mother's Day, a collective group of organizers and grassroots organizations get together and we bail out mothers. This is very critical for us because we know that many folks, especially that are incarcerated women that can't afford bail and many of them are also sitting in their local jails off for minor charges such as traffic charges or a failure to appear in court. This allows us, for those who are in economical situations, financial situations that they don't have the ability to make bond, this allows us to go in and make bond for them so that they can return back to their families.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I just want to remind folks, and correct me if I'm wrong here, when you're talking about bail money for jail, you're talking about folks who have not been adjudicated guilty. These are folks just being held.
Rodreshia Russaw: That is correct. Many of them have not been convicted at all of a crime. They are just being held, it can be a simple bond. We're talking about women that are locked up in cages off of minor charges, or even the failure in the court system for not appearing in court. We have many clients that we serve through this bailout who never receive the proper notice to return to court, address has changed and that was a failure on their part that it was never changed. We have to get down to what the root of the problem is, of why this keeps occurring.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I also spoke with Qiana Johnson. She's founder of Life After Release, an organization led by formerly incarcerated women and dedicated to supporting and empowering women who've been convicted or incarcerated. She talked to me about partnering with the National Bail Out.
Qiana Johnson: When I came home, I was released from prison on August 21, 2017, and I did my very first bailout in 2018. This is the part of the work that gives me probably the most solace, is to be able to take a woman, a mother, a caregiver out of a cage and bring her home with her family for Mother's Day because I've missed two years, two Mother's Days away from my sons. To be able to bring these mothers home and put them in place with their children where they belong is so comforting to me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk to us about what those two Mother's Days were like for you and for your family?
Qiana Johnson: It was horrible. I think this is the first time that I can talk about it since coming home without actually crying. It's because I'm able to work with mothers and have them come home and be with their children now that I'm not going to cry this time. It was horrible, it was racing to the phone to be able to get a 15-minute phone call with my son just to hear them tell me Happy Mother's Day.
It was the shame associated with not being there with them. On my last Mother's Day before I came home, it was the uncertainty of not knowing when I was going to come home because they had messed up the paperwork that caused me to stay in prison six months longer. It was a lot of emotions that I went through. I was angry, I was hurt, I was miserable, I was sad, some of them all at the same time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How did you work to keep mothering, to keep parenting even during the time that you were jailed?
Qiana Johnson: It was intuitive, it was natural. I tell folks all the time when a mother is removed from her surroundings, it is devastating because everybody in her life starts to disappear. When you remove a man or a father from the community, what starts to happen is people start to gather around and support him. The baby mamas, the mama's mamas, the grandmas, the aunties, everybody comes and starts to support that man, but when a woman is removed, everybody starts to separate themselves from her, they start to shame her, they start to ignore her.
It was all of those things that was happening for me. Being able to walk in my truth now is something that is allowing for others to walk in their truth and for others to be able to come home and to do something that is without shame or without guilt and to be able to actually heal. Most women when they go to jail, they go to jail for things are property-related, for theft or for fraud or for some type of property-related crime.
Very seldomly will you see-- something that people think is preventable like, "Why don't you just go to school? Why don't you just get a job? Why don't you just do--?" There's a lot of shaming and miseducation and misunderstanding that is associated when a woman goes to prison because society believes like, "Why did you have to do that?" We blame the women for their incarceration, whereas for the men we comfort and we find ways out. That's the reason why society has not caught up to the fact that we are jailing our women now. It's time for the women. They haven't caught up to that yet.
Melissa Harris-Perry: My thanks to Qiana Johnson, founder of Life After Release, and Rodreshia Russaw, who is Executive Director, The Ordinary People Society.
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