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Many moms stuck in jail are too poor to afford bail. These activists decided to fix that.

Theresa was arrested in April, and without the $5,000 she needed to post bail, she couldn't leave the holding facility in Estrella, Arizona, until after her trial.

Theresa (whose last name is not being published to protect her privacy ahead of her trial) was nine months' pregnant with her third child when she was arrested. Instead of being surrounded by family and friends, she gave birth in jail, and her child was immediately taken by the department of child safety.

Even though Theresa hadn't been convicted of a crime, she was held in jail until May, when her friend came to take her home before Mother's Day. She was speechless.


Photo courtesy Analise Ortiz, ACLU of Arizona, used with permission.

Theresa's friend came up with her bail money with the help of dozens of community groups nationwide that are working to bail women out of jail in time for Mother's Day.

The initiative, in collaboration with Black Mama's Bail Out and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), also aims to raise awareness about America's growing mass incarceration problem — and how to fix it.

Theresa is one of the 1,400 women who give birth while incarcerated annually in the United States. These women have to work through bureaucratic processes to get their babies back.

"She's currently taking the steps she needs to take to get her baby back, but it's definitely going to be a fight," says Nicole Hale, community organizer for Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), one of the grassroots nonprofits working with the cross-country initiative. LUCHA has raised nearly $10,000 to pay the bail of mothers who are in jail.

More than 200,000 women in the U.S. are currently in jail or prison — one of the highest rates in the world — and 80% of those women are mothers.

And while black and Hispanic people make up 32% of the U.S. population, they represent 56% of those who are incarcerated.

Those numbers don't lie: The system disproportionally affects people of color and America's poor.

The Estrella Jail in Maricopa County, Arizona. Photo by Camaron Stevenson.

"Even spending a few days in jail has a profound impact on people's lives," says Will Gaona, policy director for the ACLU of Arizona. "Especially for those with low incomes, they're likely to lose their jobs, they may lose their housing, they're in danger of losing custody of their children."

The current cash bail system is part of the problem, Gaona says. It's inefficient and expensive and has a huge, negative effect on low-income individuals.

"We've accepted the idea that the government can hold people in jail — who are legally presumed to be innocent — only because they're poor," he says.

What's more, a study by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency found that conviction rates skyrocketed from 50% to 92% for individuals who are jailed pretrial.

"When you're in jail, you're stuck," Hale says, "for a lot of people who can't afford to pay bail, they don't really have another option other than to take a plea agreement."

Hale says the Mother's Day bailout is an opportunity to shed light on the problems with the cash bail system and inspire people to do what they can to fight it.

She says if you want to get involved, you can donate to the bail fund, refer mothers in need of bail by texting "CHANGE" to 94502, and share information about the event with friends and family.

"Every donation goes a long way," Hale says. "Once [Theresa's] case is finished, we'll get that $5,000 back, which turns into a larger, permanent bail fund that can benefit the whole community."

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