Last Friday morning, volunteers arrived at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, prepared to hand over cashier’s checks to post bail for 16 low-income prisoners.
They have done this every Friday in August, lending a hand to inmates accused of minor offenses who can't afford cash bail or bondsmen's fees.
This time something went wrong, and it nearly cost someone’s life.
Faith in Texas is one organization that aims to expedite the process so someone doesn’t have to needlessly spend a night or more in jail. The Community Bail Fund of North Texas is another.
“People get arrested for something like felony trespassing, which is literally a charge people get when others don’t want them around," says Brittany White, Live Free organizer for Faith in Texas. “It’s getting them into a system they can’t afford to get out of.”
People of color are disproportionately affected by this system, she says, and if someone is homeless or one missed paycheck away from it, posting bail is out of reach.
Getting them out doesn’t have to be time-consuming. This time it was.
Volunteers arrived at Lew Sterrett around 10 a.m. with cashier’s checks — the same kind they have used to successfully release people the last few weeks — but the staff behind the window counter refused to take them.
“We were told, ‘We’re not going to accept these checks,’ without clarification,” White says. “She said, ‘I’m not talking to you anymore, please step away.’”
If they would wait until 2 p.m., they were told, a supervisor would arrive and provide an explanation.
While the volunteers took turns waiting on pew-like benches, Friday afternoon crept toward evening.
Beth Wise, a volunteer with Faith in Texas, had been there since the day began.
“If we don’t get them money in time, 16 more people are going to spend another weekend in jail,” she said Friday, sitting on the bench with bags of items at her feet meant for the people they thought would be released.
White used her connections in local government, eventually reaching Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. The groups decided not to wait for the supervisor and sent Community Bail Fund volunteers to the bank to get cash.
Faith in Texas has a partnership with the bail fund, an effort led by SMU student Greg Guggenmos with the similar aim to keep low-income people accused of minor crimes from needlessly staying in jail. The Robert F. Kennedy Foundation awarded the fund $20,000 toward the effort.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of RFK, who worked to reform bail legislation, among other human rights issues.
The needs of the inmates waiting for release shouldn’t be ignored, White says.
“The lack of transparency, delay in justice … the process, it’s the system as a whole we’re trying to correct,” she says.
Raul Reyna, public information officer for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, spoke with White, clearly trying to figure out what he had been thrown into.
“It was a third-party check, is that correct?” he asked her.
“No, they were cashier’s checks from a bank,” she told him.
Reyna apologized, saying, “It shouldn’t be this way.”
Around 3 p.m., Guggenmos arrived with Christian Watkins, another volunteer with both the Community Bail Fund and Faith in Texas, along with a law professor from SMU who came in case her expertise was needed.
Guggenmos walked in confidently, carrying a backpack with an envelope holding the $21,000 in cash they planned to use to bail out the 16 people.
Reyna returned around this time to tell White that he was working to expedite the process.
“They can release people at their leisure,” White says.
Finally, sometime early Saturday morning, the inmates had their release — without an explanation for what took so long.
And it didn’t happen without incident. As the last person was waiting for release, she collapsed and began seizing.
Edwin Robinson, executive director of Faith in Texas, shared the story in a 4:38 a.m. Saturday morning Facebook post:
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“I immediately rushed to help while Jason [Redick] alerted the officer on duty. As the lady began seizing more violently and biting her tongue Jason and I began demanding help. The officer casually walked over and casually walked away to possibly call for help. I screamed louder “Hurry GET HELP NOW HURRY!” As I’m on the ground with this woman trying to keep her from biting her tongue in half and choking on her own blood and spit that is pouring from her mouth. Another officer came over seeing what’s happening and takes off to get help with a brisk walk. I yell “RUN HURRY NOW!” He then begins running. Finally 2 nurses and a few more officers showed up and the nurses began providing aid.
“The gross lack of concern and care that was shown for this lady is indicative of the same wanton disregard a great deal of the Dallas County corrections officers and the administrative staff showed for all of us today. If we weren’t there at 3:15 a.m. that woman may have very well drowned in her own fluids.”
White spent five years in prison in Alabama. Between that and spending the last few years working with Faith in Texas, something like this is frustrating, but not all that surprising.
“We didn’t want to make a circus or production, but now it has had to escalate because of Dallas County’s maliciousness,” she says. “Standing and listening to someone abuse their authority is very reminiscent for me.
“If they treat our organization like this, how do they treat individuals? … Dallas County is going to have to answer for this.”