Free Black Mamas with Veronica Rex
One out of three people who are arrested in America can’t pay their bail, leaving them to sit behind bars for months while they wait for a trial—losing jobs, homes, and even custody of their kids in the process. Most of those people are black or brown. We talk with community organizer Veronica Rex about why the cash bail system is so broken, how community bail funds work, and how we can help bring home black mamas this Mother’s Day.
Veronica Rex is a mother, grandmother, and activist with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. She’s also experienced the injustice of cash bail firsthand. Last year, she was arrested—and she had to choose between bail money and legal support. So she sat behind bars for three months before she learned about the bail fund. Now she wants to share her story with the world, and help more black mamas stuck in pretrial detention get back to their families.
It’s like being in slavery again because you have to pay for your freedom. We should not have to pay for our freedom, and we should not have to sit behind bars until the system decides to give me a court date, until the system decides it’s time for my arraignment.—Veronica Rex, Philadelphia Community Bail Fund activist
On the agenda:
- What happens when people can’t make bail: they lose their jobs, homes, cars, and even their kids
- Why people who have to wait in jail for their trial are more likely to plead guilty, even if they’re not
- What it really looks like to be stuck in jail before trial, from lockdowns to strip searches to being denied medication
- How bail funds work, why they matter, and why you should give to one this Mother’s Day
Donating to a bail fund is an incredibly simple, incredibly powerful action. And right now, your money can go to bringing black mamas back to their families for Mother’s Day. Check out National Bail Out to find a bail fund near you, or check out the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund to support our local black mamas.
More reading on cash bail:
- Why cash bail favors the rich
- The ACLU sues Philadelphia’s courts for their bail practices
- Veronica Rex at last year’s Mama’s Bail Out Day
- 2002 Bureau of Justice statistics on jailed people
- 2009 Department of Justice statistics on cash bail
- 2018 American Economics Review study
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Katel LeDû And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Okay, so we talk a lot about work on this show, and today is no different. Except that we’re talking about something a lot of you might not associate with work, which is what happens when you’re arrested in America, and you can’t make bail. So, we have a really special guest on the show today; her name is Veronica Rex. She’s a mother, a grandmother, a community organizer, and someone who’s experienced this reality firsthand. Last year, she was arrested and unable to pay her bail and she sat behind bars for months until the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund paid for her release. Now she’s not just a recipient of the fund, but an activist and a volunteer for it. And she’s here to talk to us about why bail funds matter, and how to support them.
SWB This interview was so special to me because I learned a lot from talking with Veronica about what it really feels like to be stuck in jail and how dehumanizing and traumatizing it can be, which I knew intellectually, but hearing it from her helped me understand it a little bit better and understand that feeling that she had as much as I can. And also without even being convicted of anything. And I just loved Veronica’s warmth and generosity; she was so open to talking with us about something that is really hard, and personal, and intimate. And I just really appreciated her being there for that. But, I’ll admit, it was also kind of a tough interview because the reality is that this doesn’t happen to women like us. Like, if I were arrested—which already I get a lot of benefit of the doubt and I’m less likely to be arrested—but if I were arrested, I have resources! And I have a network of family and friends who would show up and post my bail. And in Philly and in a lot of other cities, the people who are stuck in jail because they can’t make bail are almost all black and brown. And so, there’s just such a divide there. And I knew that the reality for Veronica is just not the same as the reality for me, which I think makes it even more important that I listen to and hear from people like her, even though it’s a hard conversation to have.
KL Yeah. I had an idea that cash bail was bad but I didn’t understand just how destructive it is.
SWB Yeah! Can we do a little bit of a run down on what cash bail is and why it’s super fucked?
KL Yeah, definitely. So, the money bail system is all based on creating a financial incentive for a person who’s been accused of a crime—but not yet convicted—to attend court hearings at a later date. Which is already archaic, but the bigger problem is that usually the bail amount is so exorbitant—even though judges aren’t actually required to set it—that most people can’t afford it. Amounts vary widely, but the nationwide median is around $10,000 for felonies. It’s much higher for serious charges and can be less for misdemeanors, but even the lower amounts are more than people can pay, which Veronica talks about. And the prison policy initiative reported that of the 450,000 inmates awaiting trial on any given day, nearly all of them were jailed because they can’t make bail. And did you know that other countries just don’t do this?
KL Yeah. So, the Philippines and the US are the only countries that make such wide use of the bail, and have a legalized for-profit bond industry like bail bondsmen. A few other countries use cash bail sometimes, but much more rarely. And I do want to just make a quick note that most folks in jail are not yet convicted. So, once convicted, people serve sentences in prisons, but there are so many people sitting in jail for way longer than necessary because they’re just waiting for a court date. According to the DOJ in 2009, 62% of all people arrested were released pretrial. Only 4% weren’t released because they were not offered bail. The other 34% were offered bail but just couldn’t pay it. So, that’s a full one third of everyone who is arrested winds up sitting in jail for their arrest all the way to trial, which as we heard can be months because they can’t afford bail.
SWB Wow. Okay, so that means that 38% of people are not released pre-trial at all.
SWB And of those, almost all of them are not released because they can’t make bail. So, of that 38%, it was 34% couldn’t pay it and 4% weren’t offered it?
SWB That’s just a huge number of people who can’t afford our system at all. And you know, I was reading just today that it wasn’t actually always like this. So, also according to the Department of Justice, back in 1990 only 37% of pretrial releases had financial conditions—so, made people pay bail. By 2009, it was 61%.
KL Oh my god.
SWB And that shift is really because of the bail bonds industry.
SWB Because it’s good for business for you to make people pay cash bail.
KL Yeah, that’s right.
SWB And so now, when people post bail, 80% of the time, it’s through a commercial bail bond.
KL Oh my god!
SWB So, people are making money off of this. People are making money off of the worst thing that ever happens to you.
KL Right. That’s—
SWB Of course they are.
KL —awful. So, this is why the Philly Community Bail Fund and dozens of other nationwide funds like it are so, so, so, so critical. So, the Community Bail Fund is only a couple years old here. A group of organizers came together as part of the 2017 National Mama’s Bail Out Day to help mothers get home for Mother’s Day to be with their families. And that group of organizers continued to bail out black women for months and became an official bail fund later that year. I think it was November. So, that bail fund is part of the National Bail Fund Network—and there are over 50 funds across the country.
SWB Yeah. So, I heard about the Philly Community Bail Fund last Mother’s Day. And they’re becoming one of my go-to charities because I think bailing out black moms is such a simple and direct action that has this huge ripple effect. And I want to talk a little about now why that is because it might not be clear at first glance. But it all comes back to what happens when people who are arrested can’t make bail. So first up, do you have a job? Ha! Well, good luck with that! Because you can’t go to work! And maybe if you have a nice, professional job, you can ask for some kind of extended leave, but for most people who are worried about their [laughs] financial situation, they don’t have that. What they have is shift work—like retail or food service. And… well, if you are stuck in jail, you probably just lost that job.
KL It’s just like all of these challenges compounded.
SWB Right! So, also, if you’re a parent, you’ve got to think about: who is going to take care of your family? According to the Department of Justice in their 2002 survey—which is the most recent data we have right now, they had a 2018 survey, but we don’t have data from that yet. But in 2002, they said that over half of the people in jail who couldn’t make bail were parents of children under the age 18. And for women it’s even higher; two-thirds of women who are in jail are mamas.
KL [sighs] I mean… that is just horrifying to think about.
SWB Absolutely! So, there you are, right? You got arrested. You can’t make bail…and there’s no one to take care of your kids; you don’t have another family member to do it. You might get your kids taken away! And I know a lot of parents and any parent I know will do anything they possibly could to make sure that they took care of their kids. So, you know what one of those things is? People take plea deals!
SWB Even if they’re innocent! Even if the state doesn’t have enough evidence to convict them of a crime. No matter what, it’s really easy to look at that situation and be like, “I will do whatever I need to do in order to get home to be with my family right now.” Or sometimes it’s not because of kids, it’s because they don’t want to lose their house or their job. Or just because rotting away in jail for months and months and months makes you desperate! And you get convinced to do it. So, that means that not being able to pay bail actually makes people more likely to end up with a conviction on their record. There was a study out last year in the American Economic Review—a peer-reviewed journal— and what they found was that pretrial release decreases your probability of being found guilty by 14%. Mostly because when you have a pretrial release, you are 11% less likely to plead guilty. So, if you’re released pretrial, you are more likely to plead not guilty, you’re less likely to be convicted. That means people stuck in jail plead guilty. So, getting back to what we started with, which is work, well guess what happens if you’ve been convicted of a crime? You can’t get a job.
KL Yeah. I mean, a lot of employers ask you if you’ve ever been arrested, not just convicted.
SWB Yeah! Actually, Veronica is going to talk about that in the interview because she also talked about people who want to get arrests that they weren’t convicted of expunged from your record because that shows up on your record.
SWB So, employment is just one issue when you’ve been convicted of a crime. There are all these other things too. It can be hard to find a place to live. In a lot of places you can’t even vote until you’re off parole or off probation. And in some places—Kentucky and Iowa, for example—you can never vote. Anybody convicted of a felony never gets to vote again. And that’s why it’s such a huge deal that we’re starting to see some changes to the way that we handle people’s criminal records. So, last year—I don’t know if you remember—during the midterms, Florida had a constitutional amendment passed that automatically restored voting rights to people who had been convicted of most felonies after they completed their sentences and their probation. And that suddenly made 1.5 million people eligible to register to vote in Florida. 1.5 million! That could massively change how Florida votes!
KL That’s huge! I mean, this is great for Florida, but there are still—like you were alluding to—9 states where some or all felons are permanently restricted from voting.
SWB This is bullshit. This is just such a massive civil rights issue. And it’s not like helping people make bail is going to fix mass incarceration, but it is such an important and powerful small step because when you think about something like mass incarceration, it’s huge and it feels daunting. And it’s something that I feel very overwhelmed by. And it’s nothing that I can really affect in a direct way all by myself. But I actually can affect somebody’s life in a really direct way by contributing to a bail fund because if a person is able to get out pretrial, not completely lose their life and their family, and potentially have a better chance of not having a conviction on their record, there’s this massive ripple effect. All of these other things might change for them. And to me, that’s so powerful because it’s such a tangible outcome that people are really feeling. So, I love the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and I love that they are focused specifically on bailing out mothers and black mamas even more specifically. Because not only are women more likely to have kids at home, I also just learned that women are more likely to be unemployed at the time of their arrest, so they often have fewer financial resources and are less likely to have someone who posts bail for them. Really the problem is that no one shows up for black women. I think that’s fundamentally what we’re talking about—historically, people don’t show up for black women. And specifically when they are arrested, people aren’t showing up for black women. And so, I want to change that! And bail funds show up for black women, so that’s fucking great. And I think that I want to be part of that.
KL Yeah, that definitely has to change. Something I learned about after talking with Veronica is what we can do instead of cash bail—like, alternatives do exist. There’s supervised release, which is a parole-like system that requires people released before trial to regularly check in with social workers. There are tech solutions like electronic ankle monitors, which I’m not a huge fan of, but it’s not jail. And there are options where defendants get text-message reminders to show up in court, which makes them way more likely to do so. So, all of these are cheaper than incarceration and they allow people to keep their jobs, stay with families, and keep their lives intact.
SWB Also America could just stop arresting black and brown people so much.
KL [laughing] I mean… yes.
SWB So, something I didn’t know until I talked with Veronica is how much more bail funds do than just bail you out. They provide all the other services to their clients and they can help them with legal needs, and help them with life needs. And most of the people that they bail out show back up in court. So, that means that that money gets returned to the bail fund, which means it can help bail out more people. So, I like this idea that my money is going to go really far when I contribute to the fund. Anyway, I hope some of you all listening will see how powerful bail funds can be. We’ll talk about this more in the interview, but you can go to nationalbailout.org to get all the information about the Mama’s Bail Out effort and also to fund bail funds in your area wherever it is that you live. [short transition music plays]
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Interview: Veronica Rex
SWB Today’s interview is really special because our guest is here with us in person! It’s Veronica Rex and she’s a volunteer and activist for the Philly Community Bail Fund and its Participatory Defense program. Veronica, thank you so much for being here; welcome to Strong Feelings.
Veronica Rex Hi, it’s good to be here.
SWB So, we’re very interested in having you tell us all about the Community Bail Fund, and the work that you’re doing, and I would love for us to start with that. So, can you tell us what the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund is and also a bit about an event coming out—the Mama’s Bail Out Day?
VR The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund is a group of individuals that came together that all had the same common ground of wanting to support the African American community. We have noticed that there has been a rise in black mothers being incarcerated; they are taken away from their families. Through this cause, through donations, and different types of fundraising, individuals have come together, and we go out and we express to the community and to others what the need is, what we’re doing. And through that, we’ve been able to bail out mothers that can not bail themselves out. And that’s mainly because of the high bail that is put upon the individual, which is above their means. So, a lot of times it could be a $250 bail, but mom can’t get out because there’s children at home, it’s only one income, and so forth. So, we found that this was really a need, and hurting the families and communities.
SWB Yeah, I’ve definitely read a lot about how often times people who can’t make even a bail that isn’t thousands and thousands of dollars—it’s maybe only hundreds of dollars—but because they can’t make bail, they end up waiting in jail for weeks and weeks and maybe even months. And so, I’d love to ask you a little bit more about that cash bail problem. What happens when people can’t pay their bond?
VR If you can’t pay your bail and if you can’t get a bail reduction which you can even afford to pay, then you have to sit in jail and you have to go through your process. So, you may be in jail anywhere from thirty days to a year. There were women there when I was away who had been there already a year sitting and waiting.
SWB & KL Wow.
SWB And I just want to be clear—these are people who have never been convicted of a crime, people who have been arrested for something—
SWB But they’re just waiting—
VR They’re just waiting.
SWB —to go to trial.
VR They’re just waiting to go to trial, just waiting for the process. Many people lose their jobs, you lose your cars, some mothers lose their children to the system due to not having people or other family members that can take care over as caregivers or caretakers at that time. So much is so detrimental to remove the foundation of the family. And the mother is the foundation of the family.
SWB And you mentioned that you specifically were arrested and you were waiting, trying to make bail, not making bail when the Community Bail Fund helped you. Can you talk a little bit about that story? What happened and how were you helped?
VR Yes. I actually last year was arrested and had a $50,000 bail. I actually went for a bail reduction and was denied. At the time, my family didn’t have the finances to bail me out along with helping me get the best defense. So, I expressed, “get me a lawyer, get me the best defense we can get.” At that time, I had to continue to sit there. So, I was away for 90 days. Throughout my stay on State Road, I came across a pamphlet with information and reference to the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund in support of bailing out mothers. I made a call to my daughter, gave her the information, and from there she left a message with all my information. And that Monday—this was on a Friday afternoon—and that Monday, one of the representatives from the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund came out to visit me on State Road. And I interviewed with them, they had questions that I had to answer. I had to have two people as backup for me, which I did, and they made contact to make sure prior to me coming home—which is a beautiful thing because prior to anyone coming home, they want to make sure that you have housing, that you have somewhere to go. If you don’t have anywhere to go, we try to put that process together before you get out. Because everybody doesn’t have a place to go when they come home. So, since I’ve been organizing with the Community Bail Fund, that’s one of the main, important things that we do—make sure there’s some stability once we do support that person to come home.
KL So, how did you go from recipient to activist with the organization?
VR Well, [laughs] when the young lady came out to interview me, I was just so grateful that someone did respond. Because inside the jail when I mentioned it on the block that I was on—and I was on a block that had meetings every day because it was a recovery unit—and I mentioned it and the girls all were like, “oh, don’t believe it. Ain’t nobody coming to get you.” So, they thought I was talking stuff. So, you know. And I didn’t know whether it was going to happen or not, but I went out on faith. And my daughter was able to contact someone and they really came. And the ironic thing is the day that I was interviewed by the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund was the day that I was supposed to go to court. But the prison didn’t take me to court. Well, I wasn’t sent out for court that morning, so ,therefore, I happened to be there when the young lady came out to interview someone else, so she had the opportunity to interview me. And that was on a Monday. And the following Friday, I was released. And I didn’t even know I was being released because I hadn’t talked to my family, I would only call them once a week and I hadn’t made a call at home because I didn’t want to keep bothering them. So, I didn’t even have a clue that I was going to be released on the day that I was. I just was called and told to pack my things. And I just thought of screaming, [KL laughs] “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” And they were like, “you’re the longest person it takes to get out of here” because I couldn’t believe it. I’m crying [SWB & KL laugh] and then everyone’s going, “what’s the number? what’s the number?” You know, I got people following me to my cell and they were like, “you can’t go in there with her” and they were like, “what’s that number?” Because now they see there was truth to it, you know? But once again, I went out on faith. I had no idea.
KL Yeah. What a relief to feel that. So, you started working with the Bail Fund?
VR Yes. As soon as I came home, I did a community dinner. And I came home in February and at that time they were working on getting together the bail out for the mothers for that Mother’s Day. So, of course, I jumped right on board with supporting all the events that were going on. I was a part of going to State Road, greeting the mothers as they brought them to the end of the prison, and then they can come to us. At that time, we had gifts for all the mothers, roses, little snacks and things when we got them off the van. So, I was able to be a part of that, which really felt good. From that, I actually did the rally and we marched from City Hall, south of Broad Street. That was a great event as well. I also had an opportunity to speak there as well and share my story and that I’m one that they helped as well, so support the cause! [laughs]
KL That’s so awesome that you get to represent this thing that really made an impact on your life.
SWB So, Veronica, we mentioned in your intro that you’re also working with the Participatory Defense Program, that the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund has? Can you talk a little bit about that? So, what is the Participatory Defense Program and what does it look like to work with that program?
VR Actually, I had the pleasure of meeting with Mothers in Charge during the Bail Out on State Road for that Mother’s Day. And at that time, they were discussing about the Participatory Defense and offering assistance to me, and did I know about those things, which at the time I didn’t know about. From then, I was told to come down and see what it was like. So, I went down to the Mothers in Charge office and there I found out that they help you with your case if you came home with an open case. And they helped and supported me with my case and I think it made a world of a difference. Because it’s a simple fact—I was looking at doing at least a year in jail or the ankle monitor in the house. And through the Participatory Defense, they helped me do a social bio, which is a makeup of who you are. Not your record, but telling who Veronica is, what Veronica’s accomplishments were and are, and at what part of society does she fit in. This was presented to the judge, as well as family members, clergy and so forth wrote letters on behalf of me. Employers in past wrote letters on my behalf as well, as well as sixteen individuals throughout the Participatory Defense came to support me in court that morning, which really made a big difference I believe. When I first came home, I didn’t dig right into the Participatory Defense part, I just was doing the Bail Out part and my case was still open. And due to me losing my son the day after I came home and then had court that Monday, I accepted a deal, which at that time then I couldn’t go back on it. But then what they were trying to offer me that was changed and I ended up with the three and a half years probation with the opportunity to come back and have an early release of probation. So, it really did help out. So, now we share that information with the women and other individuals that are bailed out. I’m letting them know that with the open cases, that we want you to come into Participatory Defense hubs. We now have four hubs in Philadelphia. There is a South Philly hub, a South West Philly hub, Spring Garden is a hub, and we have one more I believe it’s in Germantown area. So, it’s building and we’re trying to get one in every location that’s close to people that they can come out. Each hub is on a different night of the week, that way you can make one or the other, so that the availability is there to support people.
SWB Yeah, so this is really powerful, and this is something that I didn’t quite realize about the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund is just how many programs they have that extend beyond the moment where they bail somebody out. And I’m curious if you could tell us a little bit more about that because you mentioned that they helped to support you through your case, and then also through just getting your life back organized after being incarcerated and losing so much.
VR Yes, they do. I know some individuals they had to help them with utility bills, some people they actually helped down payments for an apartment or room. Myself, they supported making sure that I had transportation every month so that I could seek for a job or the programs, which I did training programs throughout the time. They also paid my phone bill, just to make sure that I had a way to communicate and keep in touch. And at the time, I really appreciated that. And I do have some background and work history, but I wasn’t moving quickly to going back to work due to other tragedies in my life. And they came behind me once again. They actually helped me update my resume, send my resume out. [laughs] From that, I got a bite and I actually started a full-time position with benefits and all, which I’m so appreciative of and grateful.
SWB Yeah, that’s great! And I mean, congratulations on that new job—
VR Thank you.
SWB —and also I’m really glad that you’re able to get some support, but also that’s the work you did to get that job. [all laugh] They still can’t get you a job, we don’t have to give them all the credit!
KL So, Bail Funds seem to gaining a bit more public awareness. We actually just read that the Eagles donated $50k to the Philadelphia Bail Fund at the end of 2018, which was surprising! Seeing an NFL team like that give to a decarceration effort is really interesting. So, are you finding that people are understanding the cause a little bit better now?
VR Yes, I think they are. The more they hear about it, the more you’re seeing us now. This will be the third year. I believe people are understanding and doing more research and looking into things and reading. And I just want to say, I need to apologize to the Eagles. [SWB & KL laugh] And I say that because during my incarceration, I was on lockdown because the Eagles won. And I was so upset that I couldn’t come out and shower because of the Eagles. [laughs] And however, I am so grateful that they have donated to this cause and they have a heart. It’s a beautiful thing! So, I apologize; I was upset. [all laugh]
SWB Well, I think the Eagles are doing okay. [all laugh]
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB I think you still deserved to be upset that you were put on lockdown just because of them. [all laugh] So, I’d love to also talk about some of the broader context of this. So, Philadelphia has a Bail Fund. Actually, there’s a couple in Philadelphia and I know that there are a lot of different Bail Funds that have come up nationally. But using cash to bail people out is really just one very first step. I’d love to talk a little bit about the existence of cash bail in the first place and the high dollar amounts that you were asked to come up with and that other families are asked to come up with. And then, of course, the whole system of mass incarceration that particularly affects black Americans. And so, I’m wondering—Philadelphia has been talking about ending cash bail and talking about decarceration for a while now. We have a District Attorney, Larry Krasner, who ran on a campaign of ending cash bail. And yet, here we are. We still have so many people who are ending up behind bars for, like you said, this huge length of time. So, I’m curious from your perspective—is change happening? How are those things going?
VR Change is coming, but it’s coming very slowly. Bail in the beginning was to make sure that someone returned back to court for their court appearance. It would have been about their land or other things, it was not financial. And throughout the time and history, things have changed and it became about the dollar amount. And knowing if you put a higher dollar amount on individuals that were poverty level, [laughs] that they would not be able to sustain it and come home. So, that would keep them oppressed and where they are. And through that, it’s like being in slavery again because you have to pay for your freedom. We should not have to pay for our freedom, and we should not have to sit behind bars until the system decides to give me a court date, until the system decides it’s time for my arraignment. So, basically, we’re sitting there just waiting, which you’re denying me my rights, my freedom. And I think don’t they say you’re innocent until proven guilty? I found it to be totally the opposite. Because I felt like I was guilty from the time they took me to Eighth and Race and I had to prove my innocence in order to get out of it. And it’s very costly. And those finances that they look for takes a lot from individuals, as well as I’m still trying to get the understanding of court cost and restitution. Once again, you pay a bail, they take a percentage, your people may get a percentage back. But now I have to pay you a certain amount of money or I can’t get off probation or parole because I still owe you. But if I can’t get a job because now I have a record…
SWB & KL Mhmm…
VR You know? So, here’s the cycle. It just goes over and over. It’s big. There’s more to it, there’s layers and layers; it runs deep.
SWB Yeah, yeah. I mean, another layer that I’ve definitely read about is how often even people who there isn’t a strong case against them, they may be innocent or at least wouldn’t be convicted in court are encouraged to make a plea deal just because they’ve been sitting in jail so long. It’s like the only way to ever go home is just to take the plea deal. And I think about that a lot and then I think about the impact of having that criminal record afterward that then that again goes back into that system.
VR And the part that you take the deal because you’re ready to go!
VR Especially if you don’t have family that can support you or you’ve got kids out there that you want to get home to. “Okay, I’ll just do this.” And then they make it sound so sweet in the package and this and that and only a…however, you don’t know when you sign off to that that you are now entwined in the system.
VR And it’s easy to get in and hard to get out because all the red tape that goes with it. The same thing is how can you maintain or hold a job if I have to see my probation or parole officer once a week? Who has a job you can leave once a week and go spend three or four hours waiting to see a probation officer? How would you ever be able to maintain and keep that job? You have to be off probation for six months before you can try expungement. And the expungement process takes a while. It doesn’t happen in thirty days, it doesn’t happen in six months. You know, it could go as longer just to get the expungement to get off— where you weren’t guilty and wasn’t found guilty—to get it taken off your record. And then it doesn’t show. It’s just…
SWB And every one of those things can be used against you if it’s still there. You know, I was reading just last month the ACLU sued Philadelphia’s court system, stating that their practices were unconstitutional. The reason that they were stating they were unconstitutional is that a) they’re setting these high dollar amounts like you’ve talked about for people who cannot afford them—people who are poor and can’t pay them. And they’re doing it whether or not the person is being considered a flight risk. And then the other thing that they noted is that bail hearings are an average of two minutes and twenty seconds long and accused people are often not allowed to even speak at their own bail hearing or consult with their public defender before or afterward. And so, they have stated that Philadelphia’s courts, despite all of this talk about ending cash bail and all of this talk about not pursuing the kind of high bail amounts for low level crimes, that kind of thing, that’s still persisting. And I think that that’s something that’s really disappointing to me after living in the city and watching us elect somebody who made a big stink about it and then…what’s happening?
VR Right. And that is true. At Eighth and Race, you get called when it’s your time after how many hours, and you go into this room, and this TV, and this person comes on and you can barely hear what’s going on, and it’s people in the background talking. You don’t even know who is there on your behalf and who is talking for you. And basically, you aren’t allowed to ask any questions or say anything. The judge just reads over whatever he sees or whatever notes he has and he goes, “da da da da da da” and then he says, “and you understand this?” And it’s not like you can say, “uhhh.” You’re not going to get the explanation or get a chance to tell. And that’s really so demeaning because you sit there, and you sit in that chair, and you listen, and they just go “da da da da”—you know? He’s just throwing it. And they don’t let your public defender get a chance to even weigh in because they’ve got the DA over here saying, “oh it’s about…” And going back years in your history of life with changes of a past you may have overcome many things in thirty years, twenty years, that’s not even noted or brought up at the time. It’s just looking at what happened then and in this case what happened.
SWB You mentioned that that happened to you, right? That they brought up something from thirty years ago, but, of course, didn’t mention anything else you had done?
VR Correct. Yes. I was in an incident when I was 22 years old. And it was domestic, and I was 22 at the time. And since then, I have worked, married, had four children, obtained an associate’s degree, certification drug and alcohol counselor, a bachelor’s degree in behavioral health, and actually was two classes from my master’s in business and healthcare administration until I lost my daughter in ’09. None of that was brought into play at the time of making the decisions about my case. It was just that there was an encounter back in ’87 [laughs] and that’s where it went. And at that time, I was 52 years old and my first time ever being incarcerated. So, they didn’t look at all the accomplishments and changes that I had made back from being a 22-year-old to this 52-year-old woman.
SWB Which I think almost all of us had lots of things when we were 22 years old—
KL [laughing] Yes.
SWB —that we wouldn’t want brought up and used against us now. And that’s just not how our criminal system is designed to work.
VR No. It works totally against you.
KL So, what do you wish more people understood about the reality of being arrested in America?
VR I had no real understanding of incarceration. I had known people—family members and so forth—that had been incarcerated. And at one point in time, I looked at it as, “oh, they’re okay, this and that.” However, until I was actually incarcerated and seeing the treatment and how inhumane it is—the way you’re treated, where you sleep, what you can do, what you can’t do—and all this is before you even go to court or trial, you are treated this way. How you’re shackled to go from one place to the next, how it takes so much away from you as a person, as a human being, you know? It’s so dehumanizing. The stripping, the strip search. It really is. And I say that too just to say when I was there and I had a cellmate—it was her first incarceration too—and I never forget they came banging on the door and then unlocked the door and we’re both looking like what’s wrong and they were like, “you know what to do!” And I’m like, “I don’t know what to do.” And they were like, “get down, take off everything! Don’t you know the routine?” And she’s like, “I’ve never been locked up before!” And I’m like, “I’ve never been locked up!” So, neither one of us had ever been through a strip search. And the way we were treated like… you know? It was really harsh the way…
KL That’s scary.
SWB It sounds traumatizing!
VR Yeah, it’s very… I couldn’t rest in there at all. I would close my eyes at 12 midnight and by 3am, I was up. And I was up every night that way. And they wouldn’t give me anything to help me sleep, which I was on meds prior to going there. And they don’t follow through with all of your medical stuff as well. My hypertension and other things I had problems with while there, but I did do a-grievance and I did get what I needed. And everybody doesn’t know how to do those either and what to do. A lot of people are just unfortunate. Some people that are caught up in the system—as far as their capabilities and understanding and knowing what their rights are—so, they’re really just out there. And that’s one thing that I really want to help and make change with the young women that I see come in and out of the system and are not given the support that they need. So, I want to make change.
SWB Yeah, absolutely. I think what you’re describing, it’s definitely not what justice looks like.
SWB And I really glad that organizations like the Philly Community Bail Fund exist because it’s clear that there’s such a tremendous need for support getting out of that system and working to right that wrong. We’ve got Mother’s Day coming up!
SWB We’ve got a big plan to bail out a whole lot of black mamas!
SWB Where can folks go to learn more about the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and hopefully donate some of their dollars?
VR You can go on our website—Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. And when you go on, there’s a link on the page which you can do your donation.
SWB Me and Katel will be doing our donation after this interview for sure.
KL Totally. Yes.
VR Thank you.
KL Thank you so much for joining us today.
Fuck Yeah of the Week
KL Alright, Sara, what is our fuck yeah this week?
SWB Well, I’m pretty excited because I just made my Mother’s Day donation to the Philly Community Bail Fund!
SWB Yeah! They’re at phillybailout.com and it’s super easy, just like Veronica said. And it also made me think a little bit more about our interview with Veronica. I’m still so floored by her coming in and opening up to us and just how vulnerable she was and how powerful it was to hear that story directly from her. So, I want to say, “fuck yeah, Veronica!” Thank you for being so generous with not just your time, but also with sharing a piece of your life that is a little bit risky to talk about. It’s hard to share a personal story in general and it’s even harder when you risk people judging you or further taking resources away from you. And so I’m really thankful that she was willing to share that with us and share that with all of our listeners.
KL Absolutely! Fuck yeah to that. I really hope everyone listening will donate, especially since Mother’s Day is coming up. So, go nationalbailout.org to get all the info about the #FreeBlackMamas campaign. It’s just so worth your attention.
SWB That’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer. You can check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thank you so much to Veronica Rex and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. And thank you for listening! If you liked our show today, definitely subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And hey—get Strong Feelings right in your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]