Decarceration Group Keeps Bailout Project Momentum


FRANKLIN COUNTY – In the spring of 2020, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer during the escalating COVID-19 pandemic resurfaced an urgent anger across the country. Protests – most peaceful, some confrontational – and an influx of donations to bail funds suggested a shift in political attitudes.

It was amid this confluence of public unrest and public health crisis that the abolitionist group Decarcerate Western Massachusetts emerged. Volunteer-run and non-hierarchical, this coalition of community organizers focuses on the Bailout Project, a fund used to post bail for the release of people held awaiting trial in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

“If people can’t afford to pay bail, then they are held in jail until their trial date, which could be months,” said Jake Kuhn, a member of Decarcerate. “There are a number of reasons why it could keep getting delayed, especially during the pandemic.”

By definition, individuals held in pretrial detention have not been convicted of a crime, and their cases have not yet been heard. Those who cannot afford to pay their cash bail themselves and cannot source the funds elsewhere can be stuck in jail for weeks or months – or longer, depending on court delays and other factors.

“It wreaks havoc on a person’s life, their psyche, and their soul,” said Kuhn. “They are locked up – they can’t go to work – so then their housing, and then they could lose their housing. They’re separated from their support systems, from family, friends, communities.”

Decarcerate began posting bail in 2021, and has since done so for around 50 people, totaling over $38,000, according to Kuhn. Now, under a Democratic administration and an ongoing pandemic, the group is aiming to keep up momentum while some of the mainstream political fervor of the past two years has quelled.

“The political terrain we’re in now is very different from what happened after the uprisings,” said Danielle Squillante, another member of Decarcerate. “There has been a kind of organized response against demands to defund the police, or do any kind of substantive reforms – we’re seeing that from the presidential level all the way down. I think the levels of public support have gone down, even if the language itself has become more popular.”

“In summer 2020, which was right around when Decarcerate was formed, there was so much energy across the country for racial justice, and for criminal justice reform and abolition work in general,” said Kuhn. “Along with the energy came a lot of money – a lot of people were donating to bail funds. And a lot of energy has subsided, but there’s still a really high need for this kind of work.”

Community Partners
Decarcerate receives requests for bail made through a referral form on the group’s website. Most referrals come from defense attorneys, according to Kuhn, but some come from family members, other loved ones, or the detained individuals themselves.

The group doesn’t ask about charges or discriminate based on them, but it generally aims to post bails under a cap of $1,500. In certain cases, the group will split bails with other funds, such as the Massachusetts Bail Fund, which focuses on the eastern part of the state, or the Rhode Island-based FANG Community Bail Fund.

Once the group determines they can post a given bail, they coordinate via a secure messaging app to transfer the funds to an available volunteer, who brings the money to the jail in exchange for a surety document detailing the arrestee’s court date. Volunteers then provide them a ride or bus fare, or meet with their family members to coordinate pickup after their release.

After the case closes, the member who posted bail returns to the courthouse, collects the bail minus a clerk fee, and deposits the check into the Bailout Project’s bank account for future use.

The Bailout Project is fiscally sponsored by the Peace Development Fund (PDF), a nonprofit foundation with offices in Amherst and San Francisco that supports a variety of organizations with a social justice bent. Because of this sponsorship, donations to Decarcerate’s Bailout Project are tax-deductible. Squillante said the foundation provides administrative and bookkeeping help, makes securing grants easier, and “makes it more likely for people to make larger donations.”

Massive Bookshop, an “anti-profit” online bookstore based in Greenfield, has donated $3,500 so far to the Bailout Project. For Massive co-founder Andrew Ritchey, proximity to Franklin County Jail sparked an awareness that drew him to support Decarcerate.

“The jail is two blocks from my house,” Ritchey said. “There are people locked up in cages, and they’re not locked up because they’re violent criminals or they present a danger to society. They’re locked up because they don’t have 150 bucks, or 500 bucks or whatever it is, because they’re poor. That’s the brutal truth about this.”

Rejecting Assumptions
Aya Mares, a Decarcerate member, runs a letter-writing program connecting people on the outside with those on the inside. Many of the incarcerated people put in touch through Mares’s efforts have been young.

“A lot of these people I was writing to were in their early 20s,” said Mares. “I would hear their stories, and it hurts so much that their incredible imaginations and humor are kept from all of us. The letters felt like this portal that resists that.”

Mares and other Decarcerate members have created zines with exercises to help incarcerated people soothe their bodies’ responses to trauma, and find comfort when they need care and feel unheard by counselors.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that jails are where this society puts people who are clearly in harm cycles,” Mares said.

For Squillante, working with Decarcerate has emphasized the need to challenge how the humanity of incarcerated people is dismissed by the carceral system and by the broader culture.

“I’ve met a range of people who have been incarcerated, either held pretrial detention for assault or larceny, I know people who have been in prison for decades for killing someone,” Squillante said. “They’re not that different from you – they’re not these moral monsters they’re made out to be.

“The reality is a lot of people end up in situations where they’re making riskier choices than they would make otherwise because of unmet needs. There are assumptions we make about people who end up in jails based on fear and misinformation. Part of the work of our group is to push back against them.”

Beyond Reform
In a statement provided to the Reporter, Northwestern district attorney David E. Sullivan wrote, “Our prosecutors work with defense counsel to arrive at appropriate conditions of release and attainable cash bail… As for pretrial detention, our goal is to never hold any defendant on bail without reasonable cause.

“Although there is always work to be done, bail issues occurring in other states, where people can languish in jail without appearing before a judge for weeks or even months on relatively minor charges, don’t happen in Massachusetts,” Sullivan’s statement continued.

“The Commonwealth has laws that require a person arrested and held awaiting arraignment be brought before a judge at the next open session… and that anyone incarcerated prior to trial must be brought before a judge every 30 days unless their attorney waives their presence.”

According to Rachel Weber, a western Massachusetts defense attorney who worked with Decarcerate during the early months of the pandemic, the full picture is not so simple.

“The public statements that David Sullivan makes are not always reflected in the day-to-day workings of what happens on the ground in court,” Weber said. “It is absolutely true that people in Massachusetts can languish in jail.

“The statute is one thing, but then the reality in the courtroom is that the defense and the DA [district attorney] are going to disagree about what ‘reasonable cause’ means. This word, ‘reasonable,’ is so loaded – there’s no such thing as neutral, objective ‘reason’.”

Squillante addressed the role of ostensibly progressive individuals in positions such as sheriff or DA.

“There’s a deep commitment, across the aisle, to incarceration,” she said. “You can say whatever you want in terms of your personal views, but the reality is nothing you’re doing in your position is changing anything – you can’t make jails nicer. You’re still detaining people who are not found guilty of anything. You’re still severing that family, breaking up those relationships.”

Expressing overall skepticism of reform, Weber pointed to the origins of the carceral system.

“There’s this unbroken historical line from slave patrols in this country to the formation of the current criminal justice system,” she said. “I don’t think that there is a way to reform the system – I think the system was created to oppress and kill Black people. That’s clear once you dig into the history.”

“Police budgets are only getting bigger,” said Kuhn, “and prisons are just getting more money, and more prisons are being built. The system continues to operate as it has been, and it keeps getting bigger.”

Decarcerate aims “in the long-term to reimagine our communities beyond police, prosecutors, and prisons,” according to their website. Squillante explained the connection between the group posting bail and its larger goals.

“We’ve spent the time figuring out the mechanics of a bailout project,” she said. “And we’re not satisfied with just doing that. Our focus is always going to be posting bail, but what could different interventions look like? We’re trying to figure out what that piece looks like, especially after there’s been successful campaigns in other states like Illinois to end cash bail.”

“I think most people’s knowledge of the role of jails is low,” she continued. “The system doesn’t target communities equally. How do we have that conversation in meaningful ways that deepen people’s understanding, maybe help shift their politics, and hopefully encourage them to get involved?”

Partnership with Massive Bookshop

March 2022 – Decarcerate Western Mass (DWM) is thrilled to announce a new partnership with Massive Bookshop, an anti-profit bookstore based in western Massachusetts. Massive Bookshop will contribute a portion of their book sales to the DWM Bailout Project, supporting their work of posting bails for people held in pretrial detention in Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties. Massive Bookshop co-founder Andrew Ritchey says, “As Franklin County is our ‘home’ county (and the jail is just a few blocks from Massive HQ), this new initiative will be a concrete and direct way for us to make a positive impact in our community.” Laura C. of the DWM Bailout Project agrees: “Our work is powered by a community-based, abolitionist vision. We are honored to partner with Massive and look forward to working together in the fight against pre-trial injustice.”

About Decarcerate Western Mass
Decarcerate Western Mass (DWM), founded in April 2020, is an abolitionist group organizing for decarceration in Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden Counties in Massachusetts. The DWM Bailout Project was launched in February 2021 in response to the urgent need to reduce the number of people detained in local jails and, more broadly, to organize to decarcerate prisons and jails across the country. decarceratewesternmass.org

About Massive Bookshop
The Massive Bookshop is an anti-profit bookstore and a means to direct money and resources toward community groups who do a lot of work but don’t get paid for it. massivebookshop.com

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