The journey to “The Boat” — a prison barge floating in the East River of New York City — is long. The Bx6 bus winds through the most industrial parts of Hunts Point. I get off at the head of a road flanked on either side by a wastewater treatment facility and the fish market. This is the road I traverse on foot to the jail. It literally stinks.
I’m here to post bail for a client. Every day, thousands of New Yorkers are incarcerated in pre-trial detention for no reason other than that they cannot afford to pay bail. This is a shonda — a shame on the community. Standing at the bail window in the belly of “The Boat,” I wonder to myself if there’s a blessing for setting someone free. In Jewish practice, there are blessings for just about everything: for waking up, for going to the bathroom, for new experiences, for healing. But what kind of blessing can a Jew like me make, rocking back and forth in the East River, as I pay bail for someone I’ve never met who is sitting in jail just because they are poor?
“The Boat,” known officially as the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Facility, is an 800-bed floating jail barge in the East River built in New Orleans for $161 million. The NYC Dept. of Corrections floated it up to The Bronx in 1992 to deal with overcrowding in the Rikers Island jail system. The barge offered a lower cost alternative to building a new facility on solid ground. Designed to house medium to maximum-security prisoners in one hundred cells and sixteen dorms, “The Boat” has served various functions through the years, including an overflow center for people incarcerated at Rikers and a Juvenile Detention Center. It is currently mainly a holding and temporary processing center for individuals awaiting trial or transfer. In 2014, “The Boat” was named the world’s largest prison barge by the Guinness Book of World Records. It is a nightmare.
Over the past year, I have boarded “The Boat” many times while working for The Bronx Freedom Fund — a revolving bail fund dedicated to disrupting the bail system, keeping people in their communities and ending mass incarceration. We do this by bailing people out, chipping away one person at a time at the number of people held in pre-trial detention, legally innocent (89% of NYC jail population), unable to pay bail.
Every time I board, I feel the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel deep in my bones. I am “praying with my feet.” I am praying for an end to cash bail. I am praying for the return of the presumption of innocence in the US. I am praying for an end to mass incarceration, Matir Asurim, the freeing of captives. I am praying for racial justice.
My job is to bail out people who are accused of misdemeanors and awaiting trial in jails all over NYC. This is a tedious process that requires going to the jail, submitting forms and waiting hours until the wheels of bureaucracy have turned so that I can finally pay.
I do not have any personal skin in the game. I am not waiting for a loved one. I have not emptied my personal bank account and that of everyone I know to make this happen. I did not have to miss work and childcare obligations to sit in this windowless room. I get paid to do this.
Yet, I feel angry every single time. I feel angry that I have to wait. I feel angry that the system is not automated. I feel angry when the Corrections Officers purposefully ignore me. I feel angry that there is no bathroom, food or water. I feel angry that in the entire year that I have been doing this, every single person that I have bailed out with just two exceptions is a person of color. Most of all, I feel angry that cash bail even exists.
We must acknowledge it for what it is: economic incarceration.
We have a two-tiered bail system, one for the rich and one for the poor. The effects of it on poor people of color are obscene. If you have the means to pay bail, you go home. If you are poor, the consequences are irrevocable. Black folks make up less than 15% of the population of New York State and almost 50% of our prison population.
But it gets worse. 92% of people who are incarcerated until disposition plead guilty, whether they are innocent or not. They do this in order to hold on to jobs, care for loved ones and avoid all manners of collateral consequences of remaining incarcerated.
And it affects their outcome, too. When someone walks into court from jail, as opposed to from home, they are four times more likely to be sentenced to time in jail. This is due to a mess of sociological and practical challenges, such as the implicit bias a jury feels when seeing someone walk into court in a prison uniform, as well as the difficulties that detainees experience in preparing for their cases properly from inside jail. One woman I met at a jail told me that she did not have money to pay bail for her son, and so resorted to hiring a bail bondsman. The bondsman required collateral in the form of some kind of property. She had none, so her son had to remain at Rikers. She was there to put some money in the commissary for him. It was all that she could do. All of this and New York State spends $42 million per year to jail misdemeanor defendants on $1000 bail or less.
What does it mean to hold these truths, as an Ashkenazi white Jewish woman?
On Yom Kippur, we fast. We spend hours in synagogue pounding our chests in atonement for our sins. We chant a prayer of trepidation asking who will be saved this year? Who will die by Famine? By Flood? By Fire? We hope we have done enough good in this world to ensure that our lives are inscribed in the Book of Life.
But these prayers do not account for systemic injustice. They do not ask, “Who by mass incarceration? Who by systemic racism? Who by the denial of bail?”
Death is not always immediate. It can be a long road, like the one to “The Boat”.
This is on us.
There is no single blessing for setting a person free, just as there is no single fix to end systemic racism and structural injustice in the U.S. This Yom Kippur, I call upon our community to join the struggle to end cash bail in New York. I ask my people to work to end mass incarceration.
Rachel Davidson is a human rights lawyer and experiential educator living in New York City. For more information or to contribute to The Bronx Freedom Fund go to http://www.thebronxfreedomfund.org.