One day each year, the Durham County Detention Facility – a beige-gray structure that looms over DPAC on S. Mangum Street – is flooded with music and chanting, smiles and hugs.
On that day, at around 9 or 10 a.m., someone walks into the jail and drops off tens of thousands of dollars. Then, one by one, women and gender-nonconforming people walk out of the building, free from detainment and from the burden of paying their bail.
Facilitated by the Southerners on New Ground Durham, Black Youth Project 100 Durham and the Center for Resilient Individuals, Families and Communities in conjunction with the National Bail Out collective, the Black Mama's Bail Out Action is an annual event designed to bail Black mothers and caregivers out of jail. SONG Durham has raised over $60,000 to fund this year’s Bail Out, which takes place on Thursday.
The newly released caregivers are greeted with flowers, gift bags and beverages. Then they’re asked if they need a ride to wherever they’re headed next. If they need further assistance, they’re connected with a case manager.
Durham resident Kyla Hartsfield, a Black queer community organizer with both SONG and BYP 100, said members normally invite friends and family to the Bail Out.
But to promote safety amid COVID-19, only a small team will participate in person this year. There will be no hugs.
“Even though we can't physically touch each other, the spirit of freedom definitely will take over,” Hartsfield said. “I feel like it takes over the whole jail because a lot of times we chant, and folks inside can hear us.”
People sitting in jail aren’t necessarily there because they have committed a crime, Hartsfield said. Rather, they have been accused and may not have the resources to bail themselves out. With the pandemic still rampant in North Carolina, these detainees are susceptible to COVID-19, she said. Hartsfield cited a quote she’s seen: “You can’t social distance in a jail.”
Jessica Smith, a professor at the UNC School of Government and director of the School’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab, said jails were already overcrowded prior to the pandemic. One criticism of the bail system, she said, is that it allows wealthy but dangerous people to buy their way out of jail, while it keeps nonviolent but poor people incarcerated.
It was an issue of finance and equity before COVID-19 hit, she said. Now, it’s an issue of public health.
“I would say that COVID-19 has certainly created another incentive to closely examine jail population, then reduce them safely,” Smith said. “Safely with respect to the pandemic but also safely with respect to community safety.”
In August, Durham County Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead announced eight positive cases among detainees at the Durham County Detention Facility.
“Per (the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services), we will test everyone when there is one positive test in a congregate setting,” Birkhead said in an Aug. 10 press release.
AnnMarie Breen, public information officer for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, said the Durham County Detention Facility is following guidelines from the CDC, the Durham County Department of Public Health and NCDHHS.
Per the NCDHHS COVID-19 dashboard, which lists cases in congregate living facilities, there is not an outbreak at the jail in Durham as of Tuesday.
But the dashboard reports over 9,000 active cases in Durham and over 5,800 total cases in correctional facilities statewide. On Oct. 16, the NCDHHS reported almost 2,700 positive cases, the state’s highest one-day increase.
As new detainees frequently enter the jail, one positive case could expose the rest of the detainees to the potentially deadly disease. Hartsfield said it is unfair that detainees must face this risk just because they cannot afford to pay bail.
Hartsfield said the Black Mama's Bail Out Action centers Black women, femmes and gender-nonconforming people, with the ultimate goal of ending money bail in Durham and in North Carolina as a whole.
“In this centering, we’re helping to get all folks free, so we have no money bail, no matter your color, gender or sexuality,” Hartsfield said. “You will not be charged with a ransom when you are arrested.”
Using Instagram Live (@songdurham), SONG Durham will host guest speakers and document the day so the community can engage virtually. Detainees will not be shown on the livestream, so as to protect their privacy.
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