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'The DMV on Steroids': Paying Bail in New York Is Next to Impossible

For many, the bail process is like a losing game of Life: Every mistake you make means three steps backward.

by John Surico
Aug 17 2015, 4:00am

The Vernon C. Bain Center (VCBC), a floating jail barge in the Bronx. Photos by the author

Last Monday morning, I took two subways and a bus to get to an immense floating jail barge anchored off the eastern shore of the Bronx.

The bus left me on an empty road, in between Hunts Point Terminal Market (which as of 2008 was the largest food distribution center in the world), a Department of Sanitation center, and an endless row of chop shops. The smells of diesel, garbage, burning metal, and saltwater contaminated the air, and served as a stark warning: this was no man's land, and there were no directions out. I walked alone along the side of the littered road, using the faceless gray blockade in the distance as my only guide. Eventually I came to a military-camp-style gate, where a guard pointed to a caged-in passageway rung with barbed wire—visitor row. Follow this for another five minutes, walk across a canopied bridge, and you've made it.

The Vernon C. Bain Center (VCBC), an 800-bed facility that looks like it was stolen from the set of Waterworld, is one of only four locations where you can directly post bail in New York City. The other three are the Manhattan Detention Center (better known as the Tombs); the Brooklyn House of Detention; and Rikers Island, which can be seen just across the bay as you make your way through this other barbed-wire labyrinthe that shelters Rikers runoff. The four facilities house the detained population in New York City, which sits at around 11,400 people on any given day— a correctional system that is bigger than that of some entire states. And with most of the inmates behind bars for nonviolent offenses, 30 percent of all criminal cases in New York include some sort of bail requirement for freedom.

Much of the recent conversation in the annals of New York City government and nationwide has focused not only on why these offenses exist, but also how high bails can trap people behind bars—exemplified most extremely by the tragic suicide of Kalief Browder, who wallowed away for three years on Rikers with a $3,000 bail. But relatively little attention has been paid to the structural and logistical issues family members face when schlepping from one end of town to the other to get their loved ones out of jail. In many ways, paying bail in New York City is as problematic as the bail system itself—another pitfall in a deranged criminal justice system.

I saw this tragically dark comedy firsthand.

Inside a tiny, enclosed room, off to the side of the entrance to the Bronx jail barge, there are eight small black chairs and two glass windows: one for former inmates to retrieve their property, and another where you can pay bail. Behind the latter, one or two Department of Correction (DOC) employees sit inattentively until someone appears at the window.

It was there that I met Alyssa Work, the project manager of the Bronx Freedom Fund, a charitable organization started in 2007 that helps low-income inmates post bail. As her last name suggests, Alyssa gets her hands dirty.

Several times a week, she travels here from East 161st Street, on the other side of the Bronx, to post bail for a client of the Fund. She hops on the Bx6 bus, which, the driver told me on my way over, is usually stocked with those traveling to pay bail or visit an inmate. For Work, the ride typically takes about a half hour. Sometimes, though, she has to pay bail at Rikers, which is a totally different story: that trip, she said, can take nearly two hours each way. And that doesn't count the wait at the jail complex itself.

"It's usually an hour wait when you arrive, because you have to go through security to pay bail on Rikers," she told me as she waited to get an employee's attention. "And then you have to go to a separate building just to wait to get your name called. Then you have to go back to the original building, and hope it all works out."

Work told me that she has waited up to eight hours to pay bail for someone on Rikers—in other words, an entire work day. And that doesn't include travel time, which puts the maximum hourly total closer to 12. At VCBC, she has waited nearly six hours. And on this particular afternoon—Monday is a popular day to post, Work told me, because it's after a weekend's worth of arrests—the average wait time for people that I observed over a six-hour period was between one and three hours.

Oh, and that was without a line.

One of the most stressful parts of the bail payment process in New York City is the rigidity in how to actually hand over money. The DOC has a list of available options, or lack thereof, on its website. But in most cases, I was told by employees that it was cash only, or cashier's check. Some facilities take money orders, but these have to be precise in payment and location (Keep in mind, too: with money orders and cashier's check, every mistake costs you.)

Only certain locations take credit cards; VCBC did not, but the Tombs in downtown Manhattan does—something the DOC website does not indicate. However, an employee at the Tombs told me there's an 8.95 percent fee (for a $1,000 bail, that's $89.50) should you decide to go plastic. And if you want to take money out of an ATM, which is present at every bail office, there's the familiar burden of a $3 fee.

Don't even ask about paying online.

For many people like Joseph, the bail process is like a losing game of Life: Every mistake you make means three steps backward.

The Bronx Freedom Fund pays by cashier's checks, but Work said she has seen people show up to facilities with wads of cash to pay $25,000 bails. The cash has to literally be right on the money, or else you have to find change yourself. And, in the middle of nowhere, like at VCBC or on Rikers, being left without a backup plan isn't always easy.

Thelma Joseph, an older woman in her 60s, found this out the hard way. Not only was her 25-year-old daughter still being transferred between jails for a drug charge, which automatically meant her bail couldn't be posted yet, but Joseph took a $20 cab across the Bronx after work to be told that her credit card wasn't accepted at VCBC. Both reasons rendered her half-hour trip on this late Monday afternoon to free her daughter a complete waste. Joseph was given a number, and told to call it in a few hours to find out just where daughter was actually being held. Then she could come back to this far-off corner of the urban jungle and pay bail.

"That means that I have to pay twenty dollars to go back home, another twenty dollars to come back here, and another twenty dollars to get home after that," she told me, fuming, in a thick Caribbean accent. "That's eighty dollars! How can I afford this?"

For many people like Joseph, the bail process is like a losing game of Life: Every mistake you make means three steps backward. If you bring the wrong form of money, you're left scrambling for dollars. If you forget an ID for yourself and a New York State ID number for the inmate, the game's over. And there are no shortcuts: if you go to the Tombs to pay bail because it's conveniently located in downtown Manhattan, but your relative is, like most of New York City's jail population, somewhere on Rikers Island, the process is slower.

"It makes the most sense to go where the inmate is," Work advised. "Because if you don't, the Department has to fax information back and forth between where you are and where the inmate is. This drags the process on even longer."

The officer at the Bronx barge shrugged when I asked him how much longer I'd have to wait if an inmate I was paying bail for was detained on Rikers. At the Tombs, while an older man snored away, sitting on the only bench in the tiny room, an employee said anywhere between one to three hours more. Work has waited four. Mind you, this is in addition to the original one-to-two hour wait, pending any other error.

And then there's always the chance that the facility is in lockdown, which, at the Tombs and Rikers, we know is a somewhat regular occurrence. A lockdown, whether it's the entire facility or just a floor, further delays the process, because it drags officers who would otherwise be manning the fax machines away from their desk. And from what Work and others told me, it doesn't matter if your relative or loved one is on a different floor: if one of the jail's component parts is broken, the entire system comes to a screeching halt. That includes bail.

One silver lining for New York City's bail offices is that they're open 24/7, so you can theoretically post bail whenever. But even that's misleading.

Work said at 8 AM, the offices here are slower than ever, with a rare sighting of an employee behind the glass window. Past 5 PM—or after most people finish their jobs—is primetime. But for an hour after 2 PM, the employees take an informal lunch break, and that puts everything on hold. Most times, Work added, people posting bail aren't made aware of this, which seems to be the modus operandi of the whole damn system.

"The worst part about it all," she explained, "is that they never tell you how long you're gonna have to wait."

A man named Richard, who refused to give his last name, involuntarily fell victim to this. He drove to the Bronx barge to pay a $500 bail for his nephew around lunchtime, and waited about three hours, even with no one else in front of him. At one point, he peered inside of the window, his hands clasped over his eyes, and asked out loud, "Where'd everybody go?"

When a man named Anthony arrived to pick up his property on Monday afternoon, he was met with a sign that read, "Lunch, be back in one hour." The 25-year-old, who refused to give his last name because of a pending trial, told me he had been released from the Bronx facility earlier that day after being detained on Friday afternoon for swiping his brother and himself in on one MetroCard. At the time, he had one of the 1.2 million outstanding arrest warrants in New York City—in this case, for failing to pay a previous fine—hanging over him.

Like many working New Yorkers, Anthony's mother was unable to leave her job and get to Bronx Criminal Court in the middle of the day. That was the timeframe of Anthony's arraignment, a precious three-hour period when a relative can pay bail at a courthouse, which, according to city data, applied to only 14 percent of all defendants. In some situations, too, a judge will allow the bail to be paid by credit card—but only at the court. Once the defendant is transferred, that privilege is gone, and it's basically impossible to free that person by day's end.

"After bail is set, a person generally has only three hours to come up with the money before being put onto a bus to Rikers," Peter Goldberg, the executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, explained to me. "For low-income families, coming up with a few thousand dollars on such short notice can be daunting, if not impossible. This short time frame forces people to chose between getting a loved one out of jail and attending to all their other obligations: work, school, childcare, etc.""

The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund has a similar model to the Bronx Freedom Fund: a nonprofit that posts on behalf of those facing bails under $2,000. In the coming months, Goldberg and his team will be conducting a study to find out the average wait times to pay bail in New York City. Currently, there is no raw data on the subject.

"Often a family scrambles to raise the funds at great monetary cost only to find out they've arrived too late," Goldberg continued.

Anthony's mom paid a bail bondsman that Friday night, but it still took three days for him to get out of jail. "They said they lost the paperwork or something," Anthony told me with a sigh.

Over the course of reporting for this article, I heard numerous "dog ate my homework" excuses like this. The judge didn't sign off on the bail bond. It was the weekend, so things were slow, naturally. Someone along the way lost the paperwork. Someone forgot to do something.

"The bail process in New York City is like if Kafka wrote a novel on criminal justice," City Councilman Rory Lancman told me.

Another young guy named Richard said it took eight days for his bond to go through, and he didn't even know why. He then waited an hour and a half at the Bronx barge to get a pair of Nike Jordans back.

In both situations—whether you or a relative is paying bail directly, or paying a bail bondsman—the time it takes for the inmate to actually be released is unpredictable. For Anthony, it was three days. For Richard, eight. For others, two or three.

When a group of three Latina women, who had traveled, like me, from Queens to the Bronx barge, just to wait over an hour, said to Anthony and I that they hoped one of the women's husbands might be released soon, Anthony laughed, and replied, "He ain't getting out tonight."

When I visited the Tombs the next day, a bail bondswoman who works across the street told me it depends on the crime—more serious, more time. But, she added, a lot of clients pay a bail bond salesman for the convenience. In other words, the system has gotten so onerous and burdensome that people would rather go into debt than deal with it themselves.

"Those people will just make you wait, and wait, and wait," she told me. "People just simply can't do that."

The bail window at the Tombs jail in Lower Manhattan

That day at VCBC, Work was in and out within a half hour or so. The place was empty when she posted, and she's an exception in the system: Last year, the Bronx Freedom Fund posted for 140 people facing bails under $2,000. Work is someone who pays bails more frequently than most people. But most New Yorkers have never dealt with the inner depths of bureaucracy, nor do they have any idea how to maneuver through it.

"The bail process in New York City is like if Kafka wrote a novel on criminal justice," City Councilman Rory Lancman told me. "You don't know where to go, you don't know what to do, and you don't know when your loved one is even getting out."

Another comparison he offered: "It's like the DMV on steroids."

Councilman Lancman, who represents an eastern swath of Queens, is the chair of the Courts & Legal Services Committee in the New York City Council. He was behind the recent push for a $1.4 million citywide bail fund, which, this past June, was approved in the City Council's budget. (The model is based on the Bronx Freedom Fund.) But he doesn't want to stop there.

After hearing numerous tales from constituents, all of which sounded awful similar to the ones I told Councilman Lancman about during our interview, his office has decided to try for some small tweaks to the system so that it'll run at speeds actually fit for the modern age. How mind-numbingly simple they seem speaks to the madness of it all.

"It's amazing that in 2015, you cannot post bail by credit card or on the web!" he exclaimed to me over the phone. "You can buy literally anything online with your credit card. You can pay any of your bills on the web, using encrypted payment methods. But you can't post bail for a human being."

"Most people are shocked that they don't exist," he continued. "So one of our ideas is just to add those payment options." And also: get rid of those damn fax machines.

The shock hits on what Lancman calls a "black hole of information." I told him Joseph's story; how she arrived not knowing if her daughter was in jail, or that her credit card didn't work at that facility, sending her back across the Bronx in an expensive cab. These people, he said, are in dire need of vital information that should be provided either via email or text. He called the current system "byzantine and opaque."

Another reform might be to expand BEX, a program set up by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency that extends the time defendants can sit in arraignment court if the court knows a relative or loved one can get there to pay his or her bail in time. "We don't want a lot of these people to be taken to Rikers Island," Lancman added.

Councilman Lancman hopes to meet with the de Blasio administration, which he applauded for its work on summons and Rikers Island reforms, after Labor Day to discuss solutions. A City Hall spokesperson said the administration is "very interested" in addressing the technical issues of paying bail, and are in "the early stages of research."

It's probably easier to buy a gun online than free a loved one from jail.

Making that process more seamless, Lancman added, is a win-win for everyone involved: Department of Correction employees, who would have fewer people in their jails to oversee; the inmates, who, of course, wouldn't be in hellhole jails anymore; the family members, who might be able to see their loved ones sooner rather than (much) later. And the city, too—the logic being that a family member should be able to pay the city as quickly as possible, so their relatives and inmates can be spared from taking on costly bonds.

Because not only does a clogged system have a disastrous impact on those looking to post bail, be it economically or emotionally, it also costs the public a shit-ton of money.

How much? The city pays $450 a day to hold an inmate in a New York City jail. The average stay is 24 days, and, in 2013, nearly 16,000 people were unable to make bail set at $2,000 or less for nonviolent offenses. Within this total, 6,000 people were unable to make bails set between $500 and twenty bucks.

While these numbers reflect on other realities—that most inmates swept up in the "broken windows" policing dragnet are from low-income, minority neighborhoods—they also cast a shadow over the bail payment process. In a way, it's no surprise that 45,000 people each year in New York City can't post, because even if many wanted to, obstacles are all over the place. It's probably easier to buy a gun online than free a loved one from jail. "It's almost cruel to say it should be user-friendly," Lancman said.

Again, Lancman said, most people aren't like Work; that is to say: an expert in this excruciatingly exhaustive experience. "Ordinary people don't know the world of bail bonds, or what they need to bring," he argued. "For a person who is able and willing to make the bail, why should it take days? Is this really in the interest of the person?"

The bail process is just another burden for the impoverished in New York—as if an assembly-line court procedure and a hellish summons system weren't enough. And just sitting there, watching it unfold in front of you for hours on a terrifying floating jail barge somewhere in the Bronx, it's genuinely hard to explain the theater of it all.

"It's not just the truth, but the operating principle, of our criminal justice system," Lancman said, "And that is, the process is the punishment."

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