Justice League

Justice League

The staff at Connecticut Bail Fund begins each week with a list of pretrial detainees they intend to bail out. They drive across town to New Haven Correctional on Whalley Avenue—or alternately across the state to York Correctional Institution, the women’s state prison—where the detainees are brought into the visiting room to see them. “ a lot of people… who are in all the stress induced from being incarcerated, being told that there’s this organization that cares for them and wants them to be free and successful, it’s really emotional as you can imagine,” says Brett Davidson, who founded and codirects the Bail Fund. The second time the Bail Fund visits, up to 48 hours later, it’s to escort the detainees home. Often, the whole group will pose for a celebratory picture in the parking lot, an edifice of beige concrete behind them.

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The Connecticut Bail Fund opened in November 2016 amid a ripening national debate about the rate of incarceration in the U.S.—particularly among racial minorities. But the group of Yale graduates and activists who started it were particularly motivated by the inequities of the bail system itself, which detains people who can’t afford their bond, in contradiction to their legal presumption of innocence. Davidson adds, “The benefit of getting people out is getting to return home, fight their case from a place of freedom. All of a sudden there’s no longer the incentive to plead guilty just to get out of jail.”

By itself, they knew, a bail fund couldn’t fix the bail system, but it could intervene quickly and directly. The first large-scale bail fund was established by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920, when fear of a Communist revolution was leading to mass arrests of labor organizers and left-wing activists. Bail funds later became a resource for civil rights protesters in the 1960s. (Freed after their arrest for protesting, they could then continue protesting.) By Davidson’s count, there are now over 60 community bail funds nationwide. The Connecticut Bail Fund was the first in Connecticut. Davidson began its work by attending daily arraignment hearings. “Basically,” he says, “they will march like 20 people in chains into the room and everyone goes one by one in front of the judge and the judge determines whether or not they’re going to go free or be held on bail.” Davidson would then post bail for people whose bail had just been set, essentially escorting them out before they’ve been escorted in.

But the more crucial benefit of the Bail Fund was how it could then mobilize a community around a person newly—albeit conditionally—freed to re-enter it. “Theoretically, we could bail out anyone all the time,” codirector Ana María Rivera-Forastieri says, “but we want to do it in a way that people have a place to be connected to ultimately.” The group began visiting detainees first to find out what would be waiting for them outside the correctional facility door. A place to stay? A treatment program if they need one? “When you get out,” Davidson adds, “there are a lot of barriers to getting a job.” You might not even have “housing, a safe place to stay, clothes. We clothe a lot of people that we bail out through clothing donations.”

These were humanitarian considerations first and foremost, but the organizers also anticipated, hopefully, a life after the sentencing hearing for people they had bonded. “People are going to fare much better in court if they are able to show through documentation that they are in the process of working on health care and housing and employment and all this stuff,” Davidson notes. The organizers also saw in these steps a larger strategy of active participation, which includes not only preparing for one’s court date but also bringing supporters into the courtroom. “We’ve had people serve as character witnesses,” Rivera-Forestieri says. “We’ve had people submit letters of support. We’ve had people step up and ask the judge for a lesser sentence, no jail time, whatever. There’s a lot of opportunity to stand with each other in the court process.”

This model of engagement in the legal process is called Participatory Defense, which originated in San Jose, CA, and now has several hubs on the East Coast. At Connecticut Bail Fund, it also manifests as weekly meetings among defendants and their families preparing for court dates, as well as people who have been through the process before and are now offering the benefit of that experience. “For every case,” Davidson says, “we talk through an update of what’s going on with the legal case and action steps about how we can build a strong legal defense.” These steps can include empowering defendants to actively collaborate with their court-appointed attorneys and compiling a kind of personal file they and their attorney can present to the judge. “We’ll document the kind of role that someone has in their family and in their community… We show past trauma and overcoming hardship… Just ways of humanizing people essentially.”

One hope is that people who benefitted from Participatory Defense meetings will come back later to help conduct them. “There’s so much experience in those meetings,” Rivera-Forastieri says, “that doesn’t fall with us.” Rivera-Forastieri is also the group’s specialist in the Immigrant Bail Fund, which the Connecticut Fund runs in conjunction with other organizations. “There are no immigration jails in Connecticut,” Rivera-Forestieri says. “People are usually in Massachusetts, but we’ve bailed out Connecticut residents and families from over 20 detention centers across the country.” The bond itself—posted at the Immigration & Customs Enforcement outpost in Hartford—can be several times higher than bail in the state criminal system, but it is also the beginning of a kind of logistical puzzle involving flight and hotel reservations as well as exchanges of resources with immigrant rights organizations located near the prison. “There are some jails that require you to purchase a ticket and prove the purchase before they release the person,” Rivera-Forastieri explains. “Some require a physical person at the jail to pick the person up.”

The codirectors are always on the lookout for signs of burnout in their staff, and in themselves. The avoidance of it explains the smiles in the photos, the bail-out as a celebration of itself. During the holiday season and also on Mother’s Day, they do statewide campaigns. “The past two Mother’s Days, we bailed out 30 women from Niantic,” Davidson notes. “And we involved a bunch of volunteers who wanted to be part of the effort of bringing moms home to their families.” The codirectors measure their success primarily by comparing the sentence lengths defendants could have received to what they did receive. Rivera-Forastieri says, “There’s been several cases where the person has won asylum or their charges have been dismissed or they were looking at a couple years in jail and, because of their work, they are not going to be spending time in jail.” Last year, according to Davidson, 392 total years were subtracted from maximum possible sentences, and 50 cases were disposed altogether.

There is also something salutary in their work environment, which changed early this year from a storefront on Grand Street to a Colonial-style house overlooking the Quinnipiac River. They had become a staff of six full-time organizers, and “we were just too cramped in that space,” Davidson says. “But here, we have two floors and good natural lighting.” A larger space welcomes visitors in greater numbers as well, and that can be a reminder that the system they’re negotiating is still broken, but it can also be a sign that a community is forming to fix it. “Whenever we put up a call because we need to support someone in court and all of these volunteers show up,” Rivera-Forastieri says, “that feels like people know what’s at stake. In a way, that gives me hope.”

CT Bail Fund
19 Grand Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 340-1116 | info@ctbailfund.org

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 1 features Brett Davidson, Norman Clement, Ana María Rivera-Forastieri, Jeannia Fu, Vanesa Suárez, Rita Watson and Jewu Richardson.

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