Black and Brown women held without bail: The ongoing ordeal of ‘Ms. Mary’

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By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
syoes@afro.com

“Ms. Mary” is a 50-year old Black woman riddled with mental and physical infirmities, who resides on the streets of downtown Baltimore typically in the posh Harbor East community.

And although the AFRO is not using her full name to protect her identity, she is at once anonymous and, simultaneously, a spectacle shuffling along the streets of one of the wealthiest, Whitest neighborhoods in the city.

Ms. Mary’s closest living relative is her sister, who according to court records, lives in North Carolina. So, for the last 11 years or so perhaps the closest thing she has had for a physical address has been the notorious Central Booking and Intake Center, known by many simply as “the bookins’.”

Her most recent stint there began around May 5, and her bail was set at $10,000, which seems inexplicable to many given Ms. Mary’s convoluted court history. A $10,000 bond for a mentally ill woman, who has been experiencing homelessness for approximately the last decade is in effect no bond. And what seems clear is that she was destined to languish there indefinitely, had it not been for Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out For Justice (OFJ), the criminal justice advocacy group led by formerly incarcerated men and women.

“In Baltimore Black women are not getting any bond, they are being held without bond. We’ve had to think differently and creatively in how we free Black bodies,” Mundell told the AFRO, the same day she posted a $10,000 bond for Ms. Mary (it is unclear whether she has been officially released at press time). The work and the resources to get her out of Central Booking is part of the organized effort known as the “Free Black Mamas” bailout movement. Locally, the effort is driven by  #FreeBlackMamasDMV, a collective of organizations including OFJ, Life After Release, Harriet’s Wildest Dreams and others. Mundell and her colleagues point to the reality that most of the cases of Black women and other women of color with unreasonably high or no bail are settled without a trial, are typically dropped or nolle prosequi (unwilling to pursue), after months and sometimes years of detention. And the ramifications of unjust bail cause these women to often lose homes, jobs and families. Since 2017, the group has bailed out over 60 local Black mothers and supported them in various ways after release.

“So we have to figure out other mechanisms and different strategies and different ways in which we can engage with the courts to get our Mamas released,” Mundell said. According to Mundell, OFJ and others are working to craft stronger alliances with the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office as well as the Office of the Public Defender in order to free some of the 140 women, the majority Black and Brown, who are currently locked up with no or unreasonably high bail.

“We are currently in negotiations looking at the cases of Black women that are held without bond and trying to think creatively about how we re-imagine justice to find alternatives to incarceration,” Mundell said.

It seems abundantly clear that women like Ms. Mary are prime candidates for alternatives to incarceration. 

“She had a violation of probation, a second-degree assault. Let me be real clear…a second degree assault could be something as simple as, I knocked your purse out of your hand,” explained Mundell as she poured over Ms. Mary’s case file, which again, dates back to 2010. But, each of her encounters with the criminal justice system is almost invariably connected to the fact that she is chronically homeless and mentally ill. Her file is littered with probation violations and warrants for failure to appear because there is really no way to locate a person who has no fixed address. And she is particularly the type of woman OFJ and Mundell perhaps fight hardest for.

“We believe in the presumption of innocence and we don’t need a whole lot as a determinant factor to getting a Black woman free,” Mundell said.

“She (Ms. Mary) has not been found guilty of anything and all that matters to us is how can we make sure we support her…and make sure she has a successful release.”