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#FreeBlackMamas Movement Takes Off in D.C.

Throughout much of this week, a coalition of grassroots organizations posted bail for more than a dozen Black mothers confined to a Prince George’s County correctional facility.

Recipients of this financial assistance, many of whom have been charged with minor crimes, will get to spend Mother’s Day with their children.

For Qiana Johnson, a Prince George’s County resident and coordinator of these efforts, the struggles that incarcerated mothers experience hit home. Since returning from a two-and-a-half-year prison stint in 2017, she has organized on behalf of a population she says has been stigmatized by a system that ostracizes Black mothers on various fronts.

“Right now, this is just for Mother’s Day, but we would like to make it ongoing,” Johnson, mother of two young men and founder of Life after Release, said on May 4 during the inaugural Black Mothers Bailout event. “We have [at least] 15 intakes who have called in — that’s double than last year.”

For several minutes, Johnson told her story before an audience of more than 50 Black women, men and children who gathered at the Bundy Secret Garden, located behind Check-It Enterprises and We Act Radio in Southeast, and later reflected on the struggles that incarcerated Black women across the country endure.

Before her release, Johnson drew up a business plan with which she built coalitions in the reentry arena. She has since used her platform to highlight the trauma that plagues female returning citizens struggling to meet familial obligations.

“The percentage of women inmates is rising, but it’s more socially acceptable for men to go to prison,” she said. “The stigma hits differently when you have to combat that shame. This is part of my healing.”

Of the more than 220,000 women who’ve been locked up in jails across the country, 60 percent have been confined in pretrial limbo. A majority of this population is classified as Black. Additionally, four out of five of these women have children.

Mother’s Day bailout programs, part of the #FreeBlackMamas movement, have been in existence for several years to combat long stints of pre-trial detention, often perpetuated by mothers’ inability to pay exorbitant bail amounts. The Women Involved in Reentry Efforts (WIRE), the District chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement and other women-focused community groups coordinated the three-hour event that featured formerly incarcerated mothers, a modeling team, and a DJ.

The larger issue for WIRE co-founder Lashonia Thompson-El involves the lack of a cash bail system in the District, a circumstance that inspired her collaboration with her Prince George’s County partners.

While some proponents say the local abolishment of cash bail, in effect since the early 1990s, removes income level as a factor in someone’s release, others say that judges insert their biases in determining whether someone, a mother dealing with substance abuse, for instance, poses a safety threat while free.

“The District plays a lot of games,” Thompson-El said. “Holding women in jail for bail, or unfair assessments, is inhumane and harms families in ways [that] affect the entire community. You have minor children suffering from adverse experiences, and challenges in school.

“It also makes it more difficult for mothers to recover from substance abuse when they’re isolated,” she said. “Jail is not the place to handle these issues. Many of these women are not there for violent crimes, just mental health issues, drug violations and property crimes.”

Since its inception, WIRE has helped incarcerated mothers and their children reconcile differences and rise above situations exacerbated by the criminal justice system. WIRE’s executive board consists of women who have served stints in juvenile detention centers, jails and prisons or have had mothers with similar experiences.

On Saturday, other speakers, including ShaQuitta Sutton, said mothers play a significant part in quelling the violence that has engulfed communities in Wards 7 and 8. Through her “No Peace, No Play” movement, Sutton has been able to meet and unite mothers in the Ward 7 community against perpetrators and community members who don’t hold them accountable.

“We need protection, and this movement involves peace walk and rallies that bring our issues up front,” Sutton said. “We’re suffering from depression and don’t know what to do.”

Sutton started the “No Peace, No Play” movement upon her release from prison in February. Since then, she has attended a Ward 7 peace walk and expressed plans for future events.

“We’re bringing awareness to the situation and bringing our sisters to the table,” she said. “We’re going into communities to see, feel, and touch what’s happening. We need the men to realize the direct impact of violence. Two families lose because one person dies and the other goes to prison. I’ve been in situations where I couldn’t concentrate in school because of traumatic situations.”

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