I recently read the heartbreaking story of Pedro Hernandez ― a Bronx teen jailed at Rikers Island for a year, although witnesses and the victim claim he is innocent. Fortunately for Pedro, the public rallied behind his story and enough money was eventually raised for his release. When I first heard about Pedro making bail, it was hard for me to rejoice. Despite hearing stories of how he remained strong and persevered academically behind bars, the 17-year-old still had an entire year of his life snatched away at one of the most notorious prisons in the United States. The psychological trauma he endured is unimaginable. Take Kalief Browder for example, another Bronx teen who was arrested at 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder’s family was unable to pay the $3,000 for his initial bond and he was imprisoned at Rikers Island for three years without trial, spending most of that time in solitary confinement. Two years after his release, on June 1st, 2015, Browder took his own life.
The American prison industrial system is a money machine. Money bail is one of its most profitable engines which irreparably harms the lives of the wrongfully detained, especially the lives of Black and Latinx people. In 2012, I witnessed this injustice first hand when my younger brother was arrested for a felony crime he did not commit. Our family grieved and pleaded for answers as he awaited trial for over a year behind bars. Like Hernandez and Browder, my brother was desperate to come home. Unlike the two Bronx teens, my brother took a plea deal and was released on lesser charges. In the end, the system still won.
When I was contacted by Brave New Films to write poetry for their project on money bail, what caught my attention the most was the purpose of the project. I immediately thought of my brother. I thought of Pedro and Kalief. I thought of the family and friends who I did not mention. And I thought about the students who I worked with at the time ― the mostly Black and Brown faces who may be incarcerated for an additional 6 months for something like using a cell phone when their probation prohibited it. Black and Latinx people are 25 percent more likely to be assigned money bail, and the dollar amount set for bail is 35 percent higher for Black people than White people.
Bail is often set so high that one cannot afford it. For those who are fortunate enough to come up with the money to bail out, it is often by the skin of their teeth. But the bail bondsmen make a profit either way. If you are proven innocent, your bond deposit is never paid back. Neither is the time spent in jail or the dire effects that it can have on one’s life.
In How Much is Your Freedom Worth? we portrayed a fictional story of a small, low-income family whose life is drastically changed after the dad (played by Ty Bayliss) is arrested during a traffic stop. His bail is set for $22,000, a price the family cannot afford. The mom (played by me) has to now put on multiple hats - communicating with her partner’s job, calling the bail bondsmen, calling friends and family for financial assistance and caring for their two young children. I hope you’ll take a look.
This story is an all too familiar one across this country. Which is why, although a spoken word project, my goal was more about delivering a compelling message than it was trying to be an impressive poet. I contributed the remaining half of an already in-progress poem. My job was to somehow match Ty’s writing style, fill in the pieces of the story and still be creative, with a deadline quickly approaching. I was hesitant for a minute because the voices of artists are often exploited under the guise of “art” and “justice.” However, I really trusted and believed in the staff at BNF once we sat down to speak in person. And, before I knew it, Ty and I were in front of a camera recording our lines and acting out scenes.
My hope for this project is that people will be encouraged to take steps in doing something about this faulty system. The Kalief Browder story lit the nation on fire and encouraged celebrities, organizations, and individuals to step up and fight the injustices within our prison industrial complex. How Much is Your Freedom Worth? is one of four short films that BNF have made on the topic of money bail. A great way to get involved in this movement is to set up your own local screening of these films.
Across the country, people are fighting back against the unfairness of money bail. In my current home of California, our legislature is considering a bill that would greatly reduce the number of people who face money bail. Predictably, the bail bond industry, which is financially backed by large insurance companies, wants to protect their cash cow. They’ve lobbied and fought these reforms in every state, spending money they’ve made on the backs of poor people sitting in jail who haven’t had their day in court. It’s up to all of us to fight back – with our voices, with our letters, with our art, with everything we’ve got. I hope you’ll join me.
Alyesha Wise is a Poet, Teaching Artist & TEDx Speaker from Camden, N.J. Alyesha currently resides in Los Angeles, Ca and is the Los Angeles Youth Slam Team Co-coach and Hollywood Adult Slam Team Head Coach. You can find out more about her on her website, and follow her work on Instagram and Facebook.