After three sleepless nights, dressed only in my nightgown, I heard the number that would change my life forever: $250,000 — my bail. Just like that, my whole world changed. I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. I almost fainted.
It took the judge 30 seconds to set a price for my freedom. Because I couldn’t afford it, I sat in Cook County Jail for 14 months, even though I had not been convicted of a crime. I was caught in the crosshairs of a justice system that destroys the lives of poor and working class people for no defensible reason.
At the time of my arrest, I was going through a difficult divorce. My mother-in-law had been living with me and my two children on the South Side of Chicago. One night, things escalated into a physical altercation that sent both of us to the hospital. I was taken directly from the hospital to jail. I was still in my nightgown, and I was not allowed to contact anyone for three days. Worse, I was taken away from my 14-year-old daughter and my 5-year-old son — I wasn’t allowed to call them or let them know where I was, even though I had no previous record of arrest or trouble at all.
After three days in that freezing cell, I was finally taken to my bail hearing. There must have been dozens of people there, with just one public defender representing us all. He did not know anything about me, my family, or my background. I was just told I wasn’t allowed to talk to the judge. My life would be reduced to 30 seconds where I could not even speak for myself. The attorney was speaking quickly, but it didn’t seem like he was saying much at all. And all I could do was stand there with my hands behind my back.
One by one, we’d step up, and the judge would announce the price for our freedom. It was like being at an auction. I could not afford to pay my $25,000 bond, which was the ten percent deposit on my full bail amount needed to secure my immediate release. As a result, I was locked up behind bars for over a year awaiting trial. All that time, I didn’t see or touch my children once. Our family was devastated. When you incarcerate a mother, you incarcerate the whole family.
Lavette Mayes shares her firsthand account of being caught in the cross hairs of a broken bail system. Animated video developed by ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice.
After multiple hearings, my bail was finally lowered to $95,000. The Chicago Community Bond Fund was able to help me pay the 10 percent bond, and I was released. But the damage was done. Because I’d been incarcerated for so long, I’d lost my business and my housing.
After my bond was paid, I was still on house arrest, under electronic monitoring. This was the same as being incarcerated for me, and it made it nearly impossible for me to be an attentive mother to my kids. I couldn’t take out the trash or supervise my son playing down the block. Armed sheriffs would show up at my house unannounced regularly. I could not stand the thought of returning to jail or being on house arrest for another 14 months—or more—while awaiting my actual trial. I needed to be with my children. They had suffered enough already.
While I was on electronic monitoring, I was forced to take a plea deal, even though I knew I could win my case if I fought it. I had already been trapped behind bars for the amount of time that the court would have required if I had been found guilty, and fighting the charge would have meant staying under an electronic monitoring setup that felt like its own version of jail.
My story, however, isn’t unique. Right now, there are about 3,000 people incarcerated at the same Cook County Jail where I was held because they cannot afford to pay their money bails. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there nearly 500,000 people currently incarcerated throughout the US while they await trial—many of whom are there simply because they can’t afford to post bail. These are people who are losing their livelihoods, their families, and who knows what else, all because they cannot buy their freedom.
That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to trying to make sure other people don’t have to go through what I went through. I want people to know how money bail and electronic monitoring affect not just the individual who is surveilled, but the whole family and community. Our current money bail system treats poor people as guilty until they can come up with money to pay for freedom. I’m proud of the work we’re doing with the Chicago Community Bond Fund to push for local and state reforms that end this system that discriminates against the poor and destroys lives.
There are groups like Chicago Community Bond Fund doing that same important work in communities across the country that you can find and support through the National Bail Fund Network. We can only win this fight against money bail by organizing in our communities, raising our voices about this injustice, and demanding changes from politicians.