One of 10 limited edition posters created to raise money for the Black Mama's Day Bailout project Credit: Courtesy People's Paper Co-op

Candace McKinley thought by this point, Philadelphians would be tapped out. She’s the lead organizer of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which saw a huge influx of $3 million in donations after the summer of racial justice protests.

So when she set her fundraising goal for the fifth annual Black Mama’s Day Bailout, she lowballed it. McKinley hoped to bring in $90,000 — $10k less than last year’s target.

McKinley thought wrong.

For the 2021 campaign, she and her staff raised $202,204, enabling them to free at least 25 people in time for the holiday. It’s enough money to let them expand beyond mothers, and start bailing out other Black women, and trans and gender-nonconforming people.

“We’ve just been surprised and encouraged by people’s generosity,” McKinley told Billy Penn. “And also just moved to have higher goals and expectations for the amount of work we can do.”

Before a defendant is ever found guilty, they can be held in jail for an indeterminate amount of time if they can’t come up with enough cash to hand over to the courts. The system has been widely criticized as unjust, with advocates arguing it criminalizes being poor by imprisoning people who can’t afford to pay.

This year’s Mother’s Day bailout effort also came with a major public art campaign.

For the fourth time, the Community Bail Fund partnered with the People’s Paper Co-Op in North Philadelphia. The co-op, an arts program for women who were formerly incarcerated, paired women who had spent time behind bars with well-known artists to create new work, which was sold to raise money. The arts org kicked in an additional $40,000 and there’s another $125,000 expected from the National Bail Out.

“This is the highest it’s ever been,” McKinley said about the Mother’s Day pot of funds. “We might even be able to help some of the women that have higher bails that we aren’t usually able to help, just because people have been very generous this year.”

Formerly incarcerated women work with artists to create paper out of their shredded criminal records Credit: Courtesy People's Paper Co-op

Support for bailouts surges with pandemic push 

Now the lead fellow at the People’s Paper Co-Op, North Philly native Faith Bartley has been incarcerated multiple times. One that sticks out was the time she couldn’t make her $260 bail.

She waited in a cell at Philadelphia’s Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility for four months in 2005 before she was found not guilty. Bartley said she lost her job, her apartment, and valuable time she could’ve spent with her mother, who was dying of cancer.

“I sat in jail on a crime I didn’t do,” said Bartley, now 57. “That took me on a spiral to keep going back and keep going back.”

Now up for re-election, District Attorney Larry Krasner ran on a platform of abolishing cash bail. He hasn’t quite gotten there yet, but Krasner’s efforts to dial back the practice revealed that most defendants showed up for court anyway, and were not rearrested more frequently than other offenders.

In 2017, Bail Fund organizer McKinley and others started Philly’s first Black Mama’s Day Bailout to help people get out of jail and spend time with their kids. That first year, they raised $60,000 and were able to bail out 13 moms.

That project evolved into the year-round Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which serves people of all genders and races.

Last year was huge for the program: From March 2020 to May 2021, the fund raised more than $3 million, and was able to bail out 405 people. The usual Mama’s Day effort was folded into a major push to get people out of jail as COVID spread, which raised more than $320,000 in April and May. A full 80% of the people the organization bailed out were released in the last year alone.

The previously all-volunteer group now has a few salaried staff members, and provides wraparound services like transportation, housing support, and help finding a job.

Free Library acquires limited edition print on shredded criminal records 

This year, the Community Bail Fund has already released 10 moms pre-Mother’s Day — with at least 15 more in the pipeline. That’s thanks in part to the assist from the People’s Paper Co-Op.

Led by co-directors Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist out of the Village of Arts and Humanities, the re-entry program hosts a seasonal fellowship of 4 to 7 formerly incarcerated women. Each spring they’re paired with artists to produce posters, t-shirts, and prints focused on the criminal justice system.

The collection is for sale on the co-op’s website, with prices ranging from $50 to $300.

It includes 10 limited edition posters women printed on their own criminal records, which have been torn up and blended into new paper. These are billed at $3,000, intended for higher-end collectors and advocates of the cause. The Free Library also picked one up, according to Bowles.

“We’re over the moon that the Free Library purchased one,” Bowles said. “Now Philadephians can go to the Special Collections [department] and it’ll be housed there forever.”

The co-op teams also painted a few murals, including one on Spring Garden near 12th Street and another at 3rd and South. There’s a billboard on Delaware Avenue, and a second going up near the Rail Park. A connected interactive exhibit just opened at Eastern State Penitentiary.

It’s a transformative program, said Bartley, the North Philly native — a release valve for her and other women who’ve been traumatized by the criminal justice system.

“It’s very much therapeutic,” Bartley said. “I always thought my criminal record would hold me back from doing things I might have dreamed of in the past. Using my voice and my art to literally free women is awesome.”

One of 10 limited edition posters created to raise money for the Black Mama’s Day Bailout project Credit: Courtesy People's Paper Co-op

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...