Fighting Mass Incarceration with a DIY Bail Fund
Two-thousand seventeen was a landmark year for bail in the United States. The founder of The Bronx Freedom Fund, which has donated bail money to New Yorkers for the last decade, announced in November the launch of the first nationwide bail fund, The Bail Project. While that news was heralded in The New York Times, a seemingly smaller but perhaps much more inspiring milestone was also reached late last year: on their own initiative, a small group of New York City-based anarchists with the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement (RAM-NYC) successfully bailed out the first person under their own community bail fund, dubbed the Revolutionary Abolitionist Liberation Fund. And while they may be overshadowed by The Bail Project, RAM-NYC’s DIY approach could prove to be a more practical way for everyday people to fight mass incarceration.
Despite operating in a city better served by bail funds than most others in the United States, RAM-NYC addresses needs that other organizations cannot. The group works with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which is constrained by Charitable Bail Organization Certificate rules that prevent it from assisting those charged with felonies or who require more than $2,000 in bail. Because RAM-NYC is not a charitable organization but a collection of individuals, its activities are not curtailed in the same way; cases that the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund cannot help with are referred to RAM, who contact the accused’s family to make arrangements to pay bail.
Not only is RAM-NYC able to circumvent local laws which affect official bail organizations, but their model for covering bail has the potential to spread faster than formal approaches. The Bail Fund plans to extend to three dozen cities over the next five years – still leaving most of the country uncovered. Thus, local groups interested in fighting mass incarceration would do more good organizing their own community bail funds along RAM-NYC’s lines, rather than waiting for The Bail Fund to come to their town, especially in often overlooked regions.
I spoke with RAM-NYC about the Revolutionary Abolitionist Liberation Fund and how other people across the country could replicate this effort, right in the hearts of their own communities, right now.
What was the impetus for RAM-NYC to establish the Revolutionary Abolitionist Liberation Fund?
RAM-NYC is committed to fighting against modern slavery, one of the main facets of which is the prison system (and the “justice” system in totality). We were particularly moved by the story of Kalief Browder, who was incarcerated for three years awaiting trial and who ultimately committed suicide due to the horrors he experienced at Rikers Island. Unfortunately, his story is the norm and not the exception, and we think revolutionaries must position themselves earnestly into this struggle.
In New York City, people’s inability to pay bail forces them to plead guilty to get out of jail, regardless of their circumstances. If an individual doesn’t pay bail, they can spend months or often years, like Browder, in jail awaiting trial. Pleading guilty allows people to finalize their situation sooner, but then the individual has a criminal record for the rest of their lives and is permanently a target of the justice system. On the other hand, if they maintain their innocence, their lives may be irrevocably impacted by their incarceration.
We were hoping that, by putting money towards relatively small amounts of bail, we could get people out before the system had a chance to permanently ruin their lives. Through this activity, we position the revolutionary anarchist and abolitionist movement intimately on the side of prison struggles, and we can get people out of the hands of the state.
Walk me through the process of bailing someone out.
Mechanically, it’s a simple process. We find someone who our small fund can afford to bail out, contact their family, and express our desire to do so. Once we have coordinated with them, one of us goes and pays their bail at a bail window. Of course the system doesn’t make it easy. The process of paying bail can take hours, and once we post bail, it can still take twenty-four hours for them to return home. The Liberation Fund itself is intended to be self-sustaining, in that after someone returns for their court case, the bail money will be returned to the fund and it can be used to bail another person out.
We also want to stay in touch moving forward. Our intention is to build relationships so we can put whatever resources we have toward helping people stay free and to introduce a new way of political and social life. We are currently organizing with people who were recently released to build programs and resources together, so we can try to build solutions to problems the state deals with by criminalizing people. If someone is jailed for drug use, for instance, what can we do to make sure they get the necessary assistance and aren’t forced into a compromising position?
This is a fluid process, and we believe organizing and working together is where we put our action and political ideas to work. So simply by staying in touch and treating each other with decency, we are doing something the state and NGOs will never be capable of achieving.
How did you raise money for the Liberation Fund?
To get started, we did some benefit events and shows, which helped a lot. That allowed us to raise enough funds to get one person out. After we did that successfully, we saw that this process could be repeated easily and that we were in a position with the formation of our political group to make this a consistent project.
At that point, we did an online fundraising campaign, which helped to raise enough money for the next year. We’re hoping to raise more money as a buffer in case anything goes wrong, so that we can keep the fund running for the coming years.
How do you find people to bail out? And how do you find contact information for their families?
We distribute postcards in and around Rikers Island that people can fill out and send to us with their information. We let lawyers know about our fund in case they have a client who could use it. We’ve passed out info in a lot of places and get emailed pretty often. We also receive recommendations from a lot of organizations that know people who need help.
How does the Liberation Fund differ from other local bail funds?
RAM-NYC is committed to building a revolutionary movement. While our activities take similar forms to those of other groups, we are explicit from the outset that what we are fighting for is the total abolition of the state, capitalism, and the system of slavery that is encapsulated in prisons. This isn’t just an ideological stance, but informs all the decisions we make. We want to ensure that we are helping to create the social conditions that will aid the broader struggle, so that even though we are participating in a stop-gap measure right now, we are also putting important pieces in place to expand our revolutionary potential.
In practice, this means building relationships with people who face the worst repressive measures of the juridical system, who are most harassed by police, who are criminalized from birth. We see bailing someone out as the first step in letting them know we are on their side and will stand with them.
RAM-NYC, and the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement as a whole, is a project that is committed to tirelessly combatting the prison-industrial complex, the criminalization of black life, and the destruction of the poor. For the last few years, our New York group has developed multiple projects, all funded out of pocket: from tenants’ networks to copwatch groups. Through all of our initiatives and projects, we want to not just free people from bondage, but also build communities of resistance.
What resources, skills, and connections are needed to establish a bail fund? How much money is necessary? Is any legal expertise required?
Bail can be as low as $500 or $1,000, so huge sums of money are not necessary to bail someone out. Anyone with cash and information about the person who is locked up can go to any bail window in New York City and get them out. The good thing is that, because the original money that is given out will most likely be returned to the fund, it can be a continuous project.
In terms of expertise, there are some helpful guides online that detail the mechanics of the process, but those are pretty simple. Essentially the most useful tool is patience in dealing with a very archaic system that is trying to keep people locked up. It can be frustrating, but the patience will eventually yield results and the harm that could have happened to someone will be averted.
RAM-NYC’s efforts are, obviously, based in New York City. How much do you know about circumstances elsewhere? Can your model be replicated beyond the five boroughs?
Each state and city seems to have different legal restrictions and loopholes, so we would definitely suggest researching the intricacies of the bail system in your area. We have RAM chapters starting in several cities, and some are pretty active already. A lot of these groups are working to create Liberation Funds now, and they are using the model we have outlined.
The most important aspect of this project is the revolutionary outline we developed in our text Burn Down the American Plantation. In the text, we outline a political project that is focused on escaping captivity and building revolutionary organization from that process. If revolutionary groups can orient themselves to this process, we believe the movement will be stronger in the coming years.
What advice would you give to someone interested in starting a bail fund?
Before you start any political project, you should be clear about your intentions. If you are coming from a revolutionary perspective, you should not only be wary of nonprofits and NGOs, but avoid them as much as is feasible. None of your decisions should be made to make them function better or to bring them closer to the organizing that you are doing. Intentionally or inadvertently, they are the state, and when it really matters, that will become clear.
Secondly, we would suggest that you not let anyone dissuade you from bailing someone out once you have decided to. Sadly, there are many complicit forces at play that essentially aid the prison complex and state, sometimes unknowingly. The main things to remember about bailing someone out are: they will have a better chance of fighting their charges, they will develop better as people when they are surrounded by friends and family, and their general health and well-being will be much stronger.
If anyone is interested in consulting with us about how to start a bail fund or wants to get involved with our Liberation Fund, we encourage them to get in touch with us. The more people who can get bailed out, the better!