We are all affected.
When one person is arrested and put in jail, an entire community is impacted - parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, children, friends, employers, the list goes on and on. The effects ripple out – how will rent get paid, who will provide childcare, or worse, will children get taken away from their families, will elder relatives lose their care? Everyone stresses out and relationships are pressured. At the same time, these same social networks are also lifelines - providing care to the incarcerated, picking up the phone, writing letters, putting money on the books, calling lawyers, or calling Believers Bail Out.
A group of Muslim scholars and community volunteers started Believers Bail Out last Ramadan. We bail out Muslims in pretrial incarceration and immigrant detention as a form of zakat. These Muslims are arrested and jailed because they cannot afford to pay a bond that would enable them to fight their cases from a position of “freedom,” on the outside. By using zakat to free these believers, we are fulfilling our Islamic duties of zakat to help the poor (fuqara), needy (masakin), and for the freeing of slaves or captives (al-riqab). We also restore the presumption of innocence, a founding tenet of the American criminal justice system. Our network of volunteers are located all over the United States and during Ramadan 2018, we received funds from Muslims and non-Muslims globally. We raised over $150,000 to bail out Believers!!
We continue to be surprised and heartened by the outpouring of support from our Muslim kin, while we also recognize that we have a long way to go towards educating our communities about the real crimes and violence of anti-Muslim racism, antiblackness, and the prison industrial complex. Our communities continue to hold prejudiced views about who is an authentic Muslim and thus welcome in our spaces, and also who is actually being affected by the prison industrial complex, which includes the police, the courts, and the jails and prisons, but also schools, which are often the first place where children get marked as criminals. The naive assumption that arrest only happens to other people or “bad” people actually contributes to our communities’ unpreparedness and unwillingness to learn about and deal with these issues that are actually impacting all Muslims - white, Black, Arab, South Asian, European, etc. We know because we’ve been contacted by Believers from all these communities.
Our challenges and future steps
Moving from the idea to free Muslims with zakat to actually making it happen was full of challenges. One of our first challenges was getting the word out to Muslims in Chicago’s Cook County Jail that BBO even existed! (We still await a reply from Cook County Jail to provide us with lists of self-identifying Muslims). Then once they heard about us, could they actually reach out to BBO? Could they afford the cost of a stamp and envelope, a phone card in the jail? (We started putting $10 on people’s books so that they could communicate with us). Yet because our resources are limited, we cannot help everyone.
This has been one of the most challenging aspects of our work. We can’t free everybody. And even when we can, the system is designed to keep people in its clutches, snatching them for unbearable lengths of time for crimes, even after being released on bond. For example, a number of the believers we’ve “freed” are still being electronically monitored (EM). This means that they can’t leave their homes without a judge’s approval. And in some cases we’ve had to find people homes because of the restrictions of their release. If someone has been jailed for months, they lose their jobs, and it is nearly impossible to find a new job if one can’t leave one’s house. Additionally, Believers have to call the court and get approval for travel, even to their own court dates! Believers consistently report how difficult it is to be on EM, how it puts a strain on their families, employers, and themselves, and how the courts and the for-profit companies they work with make it doubly difficult because they don’t pick up the phone, don’t communicate clearly, don’t follow through, and make mistakes. The system is structured towards capture, betting on Believers to misstep with impossible requirements, fees, and hurdles.
Another key challenge is providing adequate post-bond support. Material and spiritual support assists Believers and their loves ones in rebuilding and maintaining their lives, giving them the best possible chances in fighting their cases. Thus far, through the work of our volunteers and networks, we have provided transportation to and companionship at court, jobs, and zakat to Believers, in addition to providing them with Qur’ans, prayer mats, prayer beads, other educational materials, and even tutoring in Arabic and prayer. But we need help! We need more transitional housing for Believers. We need employers and landlords willing to take on employees and tenants with records or EM requirements. We need welcome committees and prison support groups at every masjid. We need drug and alcohol support groups, domestic violence counseling and prevention programs, and legal and medical clinics. We must let go of the stigmatization around things that Muslims supposedly don’t do (like drugs and alcohol) so that our community spaces can be refuges for healing and places where forms of restorative justice can take root. We should call upon each other, rather than calling the police and for forms of punitive (in)justice.
We are working with a couple of dedicated lawyers, but we need many more to provide legal advice and defense to our Believers. Most Believers only have access to public defenders who are over-worked and under-resourced, and as a result, often push for plea deals, regardless of guilt or innocence. We’ve sat in the courts with our Believers and are consistently stunned by how quickly lives are overturned, how cases are prolonged, and the disparities of treatment different individuals receive when they appear before a judge. We also see the agony of families and friends as they await to see their imprisoned loved ones and their confusion about court processes. To protect the status of their cases we are unable to share detailed accounts of their lives, but what we can share here is that we have also witnessed the anxiety of our Believers themselves, especially when we are the only ones who show up for them at court.
Please support our work and consider ways to extend our work into your own communities. Paying bonds is one small thing we can do, because not being in a cage is always better than being in one, but our ultimate goal must be prison abolition and the building of community infrastructures that respond to the call of our Lord - for the righteous believers “to feed for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive” (Qur’an 76:8).