When Sheritha Scott found out about National Mama’s Bailout Day, she had reason not to trust it.
She heard that local organizers were paying bail for mothers and caretakers in time for Mother’s Day as part of a nationwide initiative, but she was worried that it was all a trap by the police. She feared she would turn herself in to make good on the warrants hanging over her head—all of them from traffic violations—only to be torn from her children.
“I’ve just been running for so long,” Scott, a 28-year-old single mother of five, told Fusion.
The last time she was hauled into the Houston County city jail in Dothan, AL, a local cop had pulled her over before she even left a store parking lot. (The officer had pulled Scott’s sister over just the day before in the same car.) Scott, who was charged with driving with a suspended license, had to call her mother to come pick up her young children, who were in the back seat.
Scott recounted being held in the city jail in Dothan, a town of around 70,000 not far from the Florida state line, for more than 10 days because she couldn’t afford bail. Finally, her then-husband, who Scott says regularly abused her during their relationship, scraped together $800 in bail money so she could take care of the kids.
The idea of going to jail also brought back bad memories of being incarcerated for 280 days in 2013 and 2014 over misdemeanor traffic violations in Florida. That’s when she lost custody of her kids, the oldest of whom is now seven. While she has since won back custody of two children, her mother maintains custody of the other three.
But Scott decided to ignore her fears and go to the jail in hopes of clearing her name. When she entered the jail on Sunday night and was taken into custody, Scott said she immediately started praying. After a few short hours, Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, whose organization The Ordinary People Society was a local partner for Bailout Day, showed up to pay a cash bond for her release, and she was free.
“Even just one night in that place would have broken me down,” Scott said. “By getting this over with, this is me keeping my promise to my children that mommy will never go anywhere.”
The vicious cycle goes something like this: you get a traffic ticket you can’t pay. Failing to pay could mean additional late fees or even the doubling of the original fine, depending on where you live. Missing a court date or incurring another violation could lead to a warrant for your arrest.
In Alabama, the state can suspend your driver’s license for a whole slew of reasons, including a failure to pay traffic tickets. Then you have a choice. Driving with a suspended license might allow you to keep your job for now, but you could easily wind up in jail. Being arrested can lead to losing custody of your children, your job, and your benefits. And even though you’ve lost your source of income, those unpaid traffic are still hanging over your head.
Glasgow put it this way: “We’re talking about poor, single moms trying to survive and you just added another burden.”
It’s a practice prevalent enough to feel commonplace in certain police jurisdictions, an issue that rose to national consciousness after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, where the Justice Department found the city’s majority white police force had for years brought in significant revenue by targeting black residents for traffic stops at wildly disproportionate rates. The phenomena is so widespread that the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010 warned that the practice has created a two-tiered system of justice, where the jails are turned into debtors’ prisons for the poorest Americans—who are re-arrested and incarcerated for failing to pay fees and fines—while wealthier Americans, who can pay up front, avoid jail time, serve any sentence, and are able to continue on with their lives.
The Bailout Day initiative came out of a January meeting of 25 black-led organizations who wanted to take action around the issue of bail reform, where racial disparities are stark. Three out of five people who are held in jails—for an average stay of 23 days—remain behind bars simply because they’re too poor to post bail, a 2015 study from the Vera Institute of Justice found. Black people are jailed four times as often as white people, and black women alone make up 44% of the country’s jail population.
Scott was one of dozens of women freed across the country as part of the Bailout Day. The effort was organized by a number of groups associated with the national Black Lives Matter movement, including the LGBTQ organizing project SONG, ColorOfChange, and the Movement for Black Lives. The groups raised a stunning $250,000 to buy the freedom of black women in Atlanta, Oakland, Montgomery, and beyond as they await trial. The bailout also gave women with outstanding arrest warrants the rare opportunity to turn themselves in with the assurance that there would be a helping hand waiting to bail them out immediately.
As one of the local partners in the initiative, Glasgow and his daughter, Kenyetta Rich, (who live in Dothan, AL) were given $35,000 in donations from the national pot. They planned to pay bail for as many women as they could, as long as the money held out.
Rich put out a call on Facebook for women who could use their help with open warrants, and her inbox was soon overflowing with grandmothers and aunts asking about the bailout, with demand high enough that she said the jail became her “second home for the weekend.”
“We’re dealing with young mothers who are really trying to take care of their children,” Glasgow told Fusion. “These are single moms who are really, really struggling out here and trying to do the right thing, and just because they’re poor, they’re running from the police, they’re hiding.”
All told, they bought cash bonds for 37 women in Dothan and Alabama’s capital city, Montgomery. (Multiple requests for comment to city and county officials in the jail and courts system were not returned.)
The vast majority of the women Rich and Glasgow helped in Alabama were turning themselves in on open arrest warrants—and fines running into the thousands of dollars—for misdemeanor traffic violations. But instead of sitting in jail for days or weeks as their families worked to piece together bail money, the bailout turned the Dothan jails into revolving doors over Mother’s Day weekend, with women turning themselves in after making arrangements and with the Glasgow or Rich and only staying for only as long as it took them to sort out the paperwork.
Sheritha Scott is just one of the countless people trapped in this insidious loop, one that’s become a fact of life in communities of color around the country. She said she wasn’t even aware that there were four separate warrants out for her arrest—two for driving without insurance and one each for a speeding ticket and a no-seatbelt violation. Altogether, she owed $1,700.
Thanks to Glasgow and bailout organizers, Scott left with two new court dates, and told me she finally feels free to start planning for a future.
When we spoke last week, Scott said she’d woken up at 4 AM that morning to get a new driver’s license, a critical step toward securing a new, better-paying job. She already had an interview with a poultry distribution plant in the next town over, and excitedly told me she starts work with an orientation on Thursday.
Having her warrants wiped away also freed Scott to devote herself to the cause of helping people who have, like her, survived sexual assault and domestic violence. (She was raped by her grandfather when she was 15 and endured eight years of a brutally abusive marriage.) She is applying to make a sexual and domestic violence support group she founded a nonprofit organization.
“That is where all my joy comes from, just knowing that now that I’ll be able to go all the way [with the group],” she said. “I can do everything I want to do, I have so many goals for this organization and I just cannot wait.”
Scott has a new lease on life, but like so many other people caught in this vortex, she’s not out of the woods, something she’s all too ready to admit. She still has to pay those outstanding tickets, and wants to set up a payment plan she can afford on a tight budget—she’s hoping for somewhere around $50 a month. Her next court dates for the traffic violations are in June and July. If Scott misses an appearance or a payment, she’ll end up right back where she started, with her licenses suspended and a warrant out for her arrest.
While talking on the phone with the women who had just walked out of the Dothan jail, newly free on the evening before Mother’s Day, their elation was palpable. They spoke about how life-changing it is to get a fresh start after months or years or constantly looking over your shoulder while trying to build better lives for themselves and their children. They also told me that help came just when they needed it the most. The word each woman returned to was “blessing.”
Jameika Pride, a mother of three, walked into the jail seven months pregnant on charges of driving without a license and driving without insurance. She was supposed to be on bedrest.
“All I could do was cry,” she said after being bailed out. “I was just so scared that I was going to be having a baby and be locked up at the same time.”
Moments after she was freed, Shangquia Mitchell called the bailout “the greatest blessing I’ve got thus far.”
Mitchell spoke about her 6-year-old son—he’s an A and B student who plays tennis—with the universal tone of proud mothers. He was with her two years ago when police pulled Mitchell over and wrote her a traffic ticket. Although she can’t remember the offense, she hasn’t forgotten his reaction.
“He started to cry and yell, ‘Don’t take my Mom!’” she said. She recalled soothing him by telling him that they were just writing her a ticket.
Nearly three years later, Mitchell owed $3,070 for six tickets—a number that feels astronomical when you’re trying to support a family on a minimum wage job.
“It feels like a relief, so much weight lifted off my back,” she said.
For Glasgow, the impact of the National Mama’s Bailout Day runs far beyond the individual lives touched—it’s about rebuilding black communities. Reforming bail practices to keep families together is how you start “restoring a whole generation,” he said.
But the core focus—bailing out as many mothers as possible—was equally vital, he said.
“A lot of them been running a long time, until they get caught up and go to jail, and stay there until somebody pays,” Glasgow said. “Now we’re showing these moms that somebody cares…that somebody wants to give them a hand up.”