Meet The Volunteers Waiting Outside of Jails to Help Arrested Protesters

As nationwide protests continue, jail support has become a crucial lifeline for thousands of people facing arrest and police violence.
June 16, 2020, 12:00pm
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Photo by Janus Rose

Cities across the U.S. are seeing a record-breaking number of arrests, as worldwide protests continue following the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and other Black people killed by police.

Earlier this month, the NYPD kettled and mass-arrested 260 people in the Bronx as a large group of anti-racist protesters defied the city’s 8PM curfew. In total, more than 10,000 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began in cities across the country, according to the Associated Press.

The surge of mass-arrests and police violence has created an intense atmosphere for lawyers and volunteers, who have organized jail support groups to locate, document, and provide legal aid and comfort to the demonstrators being arrested each night. For organizers, jail support is a form of community care that goes hand-in-glove with street protests demanding justice.

“Jail support is solidarity in action. It says to our people that we will fight for them no matter how the state tries to punish them for standing up,” Alison Macrina, an activist and librarian from Philadelphia who has done jail support work, told Motherboard.

The idea of jail and prison support is not new. Activists have long organized such groups to provide aid to those who are arrested at demonstrations, and the need has grown with recent uprisings demanding an end to police violence. More recently, being arrested also carries the risk of exposure to COVID-19, as the rate of infection in crowded detention facilities is up to seven times higher compared to the general population.

After being held for 24 hours or more, protesters often face harsh penalties and financial hardship from court and legal fees, as well as intense emotional strain while awaiting trial. “This kind of repression can destroy lives and movements, which is why jail support is so important,” said Macrina.

The goal of jail support is to document arrests and injuries, use community funds to post bail, and offer support in the form of food, legal representation, phone chargers, or a ride home. “Basically anything that would help reorient someone who has just come out of a deeply dehumanizing experience,” said one jail support volunteer in Chicago, who asked to remain anonymous because volunteers are often targeted by police.

“Response has been overwhelming from the community,” the volunteer told Motherboard. “We’ve had several people ask how much things cost and it’s deeply affecting watching them process that we mean when we say ‘it’s free.’”

Jail support groups post up outside of police precincts and detention facilities around the clock to connect with people as they are released. It can be hard to know for certain at which facilities people are being held, however.

“Once a person is arrested and goes into police custody, the police are the only entity that has the information on where they are being held,” Abigail Robinson, a paralegal with the National Lawyers Guild, told Motherboard. “Without knowing the names of the individual arrestees it was virtually impossible to locate where they were being held.”

Police are also known to give inaccurate information—or lie outright—about where those arrested are being sent, Robinson added. “When straight answers were given, it was hard to determine if the cops were being truthful. Often the answers given by police were in direct conflict with the information given by folks being released about how many individuals remained in custody.”

Organizers use various methods to track arrestees through the system, so that legal volunteers will be ready when they emerge from lock-up. The National Lawyers Guild sends legal observers in bright green hats to protests to document arrests and record the names of those being taken into custody. Following the demonstration in the Bronx, NLG lawyers said the NYPD had been instructed to target legal observers and detain them in an area away from where the mass-arrests were happening, preventing them from recording these details.

Throughout the day, volunteers drop by jail support sites to keep them stocked with water, snacks, and other supplies like raincoats and umbrellas. In some cases, nearby businesses and residents have opened their doors to the organizers, allowing them to use their bathroom or shower during long shifts.

As an around-the-clock operation, jail support volunteers have faced challenges over the past month, especially as cities across the U.S. implemented curfews and cops were called on to clear the streets. The office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an email to organizers that legal aid workers were exempt from the curfew. But organizers feared the NYPD would not honor that interpretation, and jail support crew members were advised to print a copy of the email from the mayor’s office along with a signed attestation in case of police harassment.

Police are known for targeting legal and mutual aid volunteers in the past, and the recent uprisings are no exception. Earlier this month, students from the non-profit Chicago Freedom School were given a citation by Chicago Police for “preparing and serving large quantities of food without the proper retail food establishment license” after giving out snacks and supplies to weary protesters.

Nevertheless, jail support and mutual aid workers say they are undeterred. Morale is a critically important resource during political movements, and the kind of care provided by jail support volunteers will be crucial as protests continue in cities across the country. And as recent events have shown, there are no signs the demonstrations are slowing down anytime soon.