A dollar doesn’t buy you much in New York City—but it can sometimes be the price of your freedom. Across the five boroughs, hundreds of people have been held in jail for a bail priced at just one dollar. The challenge posed by dollar bail is not generally affordability but the bail system itself—once someone is in jail, the process of bailing them out is extremely difficult, involving time-consuming travel, capricious security checks, and complicated paperwork. Even embarking on this process depends in the first place on detained people’s being made aware of the amount of their bail, which doesn’t always happen. Nonprofit community bail funds, like the Bronx Freedom Fund, have taken up the task, but referrals for dollar-bail clients come in at nearly the same rate as those for clients on $500 or $1,000 bails—the demand is simply too high for the organization’s capacity.
In this dilemma, New York University student Amanda Lawson saw an opportunity. You don’t have to be affiliated with a charitable organization to bail people out; anyone who can physically appear in jail can do it. And college students, with their relatively flexible schedules and pockets of free time, make a perfect volunteer force to provide a physical presence. That, and one dollar, is all that’s needed to bail out many New Yorkers held in jail with dollar bails.
And the people they could help often, unbeknownst to students, are held in the same neighborhoods where the students live. The Manhattan Detention Complex, commonly known as “The Tombs,” is one of the most notorious jails in the country, which, according to its website, detains about 13,500 people a day. It is also a six-minute walk from my dormitory building. That the detention complex is in the neighborhood is not something that’s advertised on the NYU website, nor is it widely known by students who live nearby—it even remains a mystery to longtime residents of the area. That’s the nature of socially stratified and gentrified cities like New York—you can at once live next to some of the wealthiest members of society and also blocks from thousands of legally innocent people who might not have the resources or personal network to make bail, trapping them in a 6- by 8-foot cell.
Judges typically set dollar bails when the accused has two or more cases open against them. The dollar bail goes to the minor case, such as theft of services (for example, jumping the subway turnstile) or marijuana possession, while a higher bail is set for the more serious case. According to a study by the Center for Court Innovation, while the practice is meant to ensure the defendant comes to court for the minor case, it also carries a “potential perverse result” where, unaware of the dollar bail, “defendants or their families or friends pay the larger bail…and defendants continue to be held on what is essentially an administratively-driven bail amount.”
This “potential perverse result” happens more frequently than you’d think, and many held solely on a dollar bail have already had the additional, more serious charges against them cleared. The only thing that keeps them imprisoned is the smaller amount, of which they are sometimes not even made aware—as in a case last year, where a two-dollar bail kept a Queens man in jail for almost five months.
“The hours and the minutes are extremely important,” said Ezra Ritchin, director of the Bronx Freedom Fund. “It’s difficult to fully understand how traumatizing a jail stay can be.” For the low-income communities of color who are most affected by this, it could mean risking your job, your home, and even your health. Many clients have had chemotherapy treatments interrupted by pretrial incarceration. In one case, a client being held on a one-dollar bail missed her child’s funeral. Risks such as these, Ritchin said, are often great enough to extract guilty pleas from innocent people.
Last year, 712 people were released from the New York City Department of Corrections custody on one dollar bails. This means that at least 712 people, at some point in their stay, were in jail for just a dollar. “We get referrals every week,” Ritchin said in a City Council hearing.
In December 2016, one month after the presidential election, Lawson introduced the problem to fellow residents in our dorm, screening Ava DuVernay’s documentary on mass incarceration, 13th, and inviting Ritchin to lead a discussion after. That night, 85 NYU students were outraged. All 85 students, myself included, signed up to be a part of the “Dollar Bail Brigade.”
Since the initial event at Lawson’s dorm, the Dollar Bail Brigade has freed 78 people and grown into a network of more than 600 volunteers. The movement has even expanded to include non-NYU students, artists, retirees, and others with the time and energy to spend an afternoon bailing a legally innocent person out of jail. Stephanie Wykstra, a freelance researcher and writer who has also volunteered at the Rikers Debate Project, a group of volunteers who teach competitive debate to students on Rikers Island, said she was shocked to learn that people are held in jail for just a dollar. “They shouldn’t be there at all on bail, but they really shouldn’t be in there on one-dollar bail.”
Volunteers sign up online with their availability for the month. The Dollar Bail Brigade receives referrals from the Bronx Freedom Fund and NYC public-defender groups such as the Legal Aid Society. When lawyers find out their clients are only being held on one dollar, they reach out to the Freedom Fund or directly to the brigade to find someone who can bail the client out. Lawson acts as the go-between, creating an e-mail thread with an available member of the brigade, the client’s lawyer, and someone from the Bronx Freedom Fund. This is all meant to pass along crucial information that will help prevent confusion down the line. And yet, despite their attention to detail and clear lines of communication, the process of posting bail in New York City is so convoluted on its own that volunteers still encounter the kind of intractable problems those having to navigate the carceral system must face regularly. On paper, all that stands between a bail candidate and her freedom is one dollar. But if you take a step into the bail room of any New York City jail, it’s clear that the cost of bail is only one part of the issue.
In some cases, volunteers recount being misled by correction officers. According to Lawson, when attempting to pay his client’s bail, one NYU student was told by a CO, “You’re lucky that I’m feeling nice today and that it’s only a dollar.” Lawson said such language promulgates false myths about the the process. Paying someone’s bail as a volunteer is completely legal, and it is within the full rights of the client to be released from custody if their bail has been paid. “For people working in the system, it becomes just a job, and people’s lives become more paperwork for you,” Lawson said. “The priority is not to help people, or make their process easy.… it’s just to file them through because there’s so many arrests to process, because we’re arresting so many black and brown people.”
Wykstra, who has bailed out five people on one-dollar bails, said she has had similar experiences. After waiting six hours for her client’s paperwork to be processed, she returned to the Brooklyn Detention Center expecting to complete the last step in paying bail. She said the correctional officer told her to “come back later.” Wykstra went outside to wait, only for the CO to change her mind and tell her to come back in.
“I imagine what a family has to go through—maybe they’ve come from some distance, maybe they really had to go through a lot to get that bail together,” she said. “I’ve seen mothers and fathers there who cannot afford to go and sit in some nice place while they wait, so they have to sit in this little room with no bathroom.” It is not so much about the personal inconvenience this creates for volunteers, she said. For her, the problem is that all this effort can too easily depend on the whim of one person—the corrections officer.
To successfully bail someone out of jail, you need more than just money. You also need ample free time, a knowledge of the system, an understanding of the English language, and an awareness of your rights. At the Brooklyn Detention Center, Wykstra ran into a mother trying to bail out her son who was in jail on a dollar bail. “It had been 36 hours and [he] still wasn’t out, and she had to go back and forth, back and forth to Staten Island, and was just sitting in this little room, and was really worried about her son,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to talk to someone in that position.” Other volunteers have had to face the kind of organizational problems that generally plague bail offices. After submitting the initial paperwork, NYU senior Morgan Sperry had to wait 26 hours before she could finish posting one-dollar bail for her client. In Sperry’s experience, first reported by the NYU student publication GeNYU, she was mistakenly told to fill out the same form twice. Her client, a disabled man, was in jail for a full day longer than necessary because two COs failed to check a fax machine, where her original paperwork had been all along. Sperry was able to go home to wait, but her client was not. “I felt awful going to bed,” she told me.
A month later, Sperry’s case was brought before City Council at a hearing of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services. Members of the Bronx Freedom Fund, including Ritchin himself, discussed her case in their testimony. At one point, Chairperson Elizabeth Crowley remarked that she “didn’t realize that actually happens”—a testament to the prevailing lack of awareness that enshrouds dollar bails. Soon after, a local law was passed requiring the NYC Department of Corrections to “accept bail payments immediately and continuously after an inmate is admitted to their custody, and generally require the release of inmates within a specified time period, with limited exceptions.”
But Sperry was not discouraged. Ultimately, she said, she found it motivating. “The more I got into it, the more I became invested in it and realized how easy it is for people to make a difference, especially for students,” she told me. For Lawson, maintaining that energy is crucial—people can get desensitized to the frequent runarounds—because the Dollar Bail Brigade is just one step in the fight against mass incarceration. “The reforms we’re doing are compromises,” she said. “And while they’re good, there’s still a larger goal in mind.”
Ritchin and Lawson both pointed out that one of the most important tools for change is exposing reality. “If you keep it from people’s eyes, then it’s not as immediate,” Lawson said. There is no exposure quite like standing at the bail window of a jail and waiting to be acknowledged. When I got my receipt confirming that my client’s bail had been posted, and that she would soon be released, I felt relieved. But that the relief could be so short-lived was impactful. Seeing the criminal-justice system “up close” and going through its inner mechanisms had cemented its brokenness for me.
A few blocks away from The Tombs stands the New York State Supreme Court Building. If you look hard enough, you’ll find an inscription—misquoting George Washington—at the top of the building: “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.” That a legally innocent person’s freedom can depend on any amount of money, but especially the kind of administrative affront as one dollar, is not justice. Putting an end to the practice and cash bail in general would be a step towards a truer “administration of justice.” In fact, earlier this month, The New York Times revealed Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to get rid of cash bail altogether in New York State.
Having an active role in the Dollar Bail Brigade means you must put yourself through the reality of the system and work within its confines to enact change. In doing so, you expose yourself to all of its faults, and that can be frustrating. But it is also motivating. A few months ago, some time between my morning ethics class and an office-hours appointment with my professor, I bailed a stranger out of jail. The process was simple; all it took was one dollar and a few hours, and my “client” was released. Rather than remain confined to The Tombs of Lower Manhattan, she was able to return to her job, her family, and her life.
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at firstname.lastname@example.org.