University of Denver law student Tiera Brown is the organizer behind the 2019 CO Black Mama's Bailout Day, which is raising money to bail out as many jailed African-American women as possible by week's end so they can spend Mother's Day with their family. The mission begins in earnest today, with advocates planning to bring two to three mothers currently behind bars back into the arms of loved ones even as they continue to solicit funds to widen the effort.
While Brown doesn't equate her personal situation to the individuals she's trying to help, she can definitely relate. She is currently serving a fifteen-day home-confinement sentence for a 2018 DUI that led to her being incarcerated through the majority of Labor Day weekend.
"My son was with my grandmother at the time, but I was still worried about him," Brown says. "I was only in on the weekend, so I can only imagine what it's like for mothers who have to be in much longer — how they feel being separated from their children and how that affects them mentally."
Brown also feels a close connection with Elisabeth Epps, an activist for the Denver Justice Project who oversaw bailouts for Mother's Day as well as Father's Day/Juneteenth last year. In January, Epps spent sixteen days in jail after being convicted of interfering with a police officer in Aurora three years earlier — and upon her release, she was among the most prominent advocates for House Bill 19-1225, a measure co-sponsored by Representative Leslie Herod that called for ending cash bail on many low-level offenses, including traffic infractions.
Herod and Epps maintained that when it came to impoverished defendants, bail for such matters routinely resulted in disproportionate jail time for minor crimes simply because they were unable to pay. This argument eventually won the day: HB 19-1225 passed both houses of the Colorado legislature and was signed by Governor Jared Polis on April 25.
Although Brown cheers this accomplishment, which, by one estimate, impacted as many as 16,000 people jailed in Colorado, she recognizes that it didn't solve the problem for all black women cut off from their kids because the cost of bail imposed upon them was simply too high. "There are people who have higher misdemeanors or felonies who are still going to be held on bail," she points out. "So this is still needed."
It's also the focus of NationalBailout.org, a website that coordinates similar fundraising efforts from coast to coast.
As someone interested in prison reform, Brown sparked to a mention of the Mother's Day bailout concept on Twitter and was eager to launch a Denver version. Upon learning that Epps had done just that in 2018, she reached out to her via social media: "I wrote this long message on Instagram saying, 'I think we have a lot in common in terms of our life's path and the things we care about.'"
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Because of an extremely full plate, Epps happily handed over the responsibility for the 2019 CO Black Mama's Bailout Day to Brown, whose own brush with the authorities came after "I went to a bar to celebrate my first week of law school. I went in on a Friday, but I wasn't able to get out until early the next week because I didn't have anyone's phone number memorized. Everyone uses their smartphones now, so I didn't know the number for anyone I could call to come and get me out."
This experience only increased her empathy for women held in prolonged custody even as other accused individuals with more resources are able to gain their freedom. Hence the fundraiser, which has collected nearly $8,000 toward a goal of $20,000 at this writing.
Even though she's at the front end of her sentence, Brown will be pushing hard to raise that number, and she sees more efforts of this type in her future. "I came into law school wanting to be a district attorney — to effect change from the inside. I thought it would be helpful if there was a little more diversity on that side, and I haven't ruled it out. But after crossing paths with Elisabeth, I'm thinking a little more intentionally about where I choose to go post-law school."