On Thursday morning, Elisabeth Epps walked into the Douglas County Justice Center with cash on hand and began to bail women out of jail. After a few hours of waiting, the first emerged. Tisihia Morris, who was released on a $1,000 bail, stepped happily out of the elevator with a plastic bag full of her belongings.
“Guess what?” she said, calling her mother. “I’m out!”
This time last year, a handful of community activists raised $6,000 on a Saturday, on a whim, in hopes of bailing out women of color with nonviolent charges. Their goal: make a small impact on the disproportionate number those women inside jails in Denver and across the country.
This Mother’s Day, a new coalition between Black Lives Matter 5280 and the Denver Justice Project has taken the reigns. Led by Epps, an activist and former public defender, they’ve taken the effort to a new level. The coalition has already raised twice as much with time to spare before the holiday.
The bailout effort in Denver is one of at least 25 actions taking place this week as part of the Black Love Bail Out.
“I’m black, I’m a mother, I’ve been caged in three of the Denver area jails,” Epps told Denverite. For her, this is personal.
In 2015 she was arrested for interfering with an investigation after she tried to help a young man who was suffering a mental breakdown. She was booked and spent a few days in jail and is still appealing that conviction.
Even with resources, she said, getting out and putting her life back on track was extremely difficult.
“When I think about how heavy it was for me, having friends, being able to be out, and the way it still impacted me,” she said, “it makes it easy for me to want to change that circumstance for someone else.”
It’s apparently also an easy call for the 250-or-so supporters who quickly rallied after Epps launched the campaign. Soon after it went public, an anonymous donor (who Epps said is “famous”) gave $1,000.
“The responses and the comments from the people that donated were so loving and so warm,” she said. “People are seeming to get it, so it feels like the time is really right.”
“Our goal really is to end cash and money bail in Denver and Colorado.”
Epps said this campaign is as much an immediate relief for incarcerated women as it is a chance to bring attention to larger issues.
According to the NAACP, black Americans are incarcerated at five times the proportion of whites and black women are jailed twice as often as white women, though the Pew Research center said these disparities are generally shrinking.
And beyond race, Epps said, “The biggest problem poor people have is not having enough money,” though issues of race and poverty are deeply intertwined.
What the coalition ultimately hopes for is an abolition of a cash bail system that, Epps said, makes one’s financial status an extra litmus test for getting out of jail. Moving past the initial arrest in a timely manner, unlimited by the amount of cash in one’s pocket, means a person won’t risk losing a job or leaving kids unattended.
While taking on racial injustice as a whole has been a multigenerational struggle, eliminating cash bail could be a quicker step in the right direction. But even pursuing that goal, Epps said, won’t be fast. So, in the meantime, a fundraiser to cover individual bails is a fitting, immediate solution.
But Epps is careful to say this isn’t exactly a short-term fix. For the women that she and the coalition help, the action could have lasting impact.
“A lot of people will say that it’s a revolving door and some of these women will be back in. Well sure, some of them will. And some won’t. And some — Sandra Bland was in jail for a weekend. Michael Marshall was in jail for a day, Marvin Booker was in jail for a day.”
For some, she said, release from jail, even a day early, could be a matter of life and death.
Update: As of Saturday at 12:45 a.m., the campaign had reached its $20,000 goal. This story, published in the morning on May 11, was originally titled “Activists have raised more than $13,000 to bail out women in jail in time for Mother’s Day.”