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I Spent 14 Months in Jail Because I Couldn’t Pay My Way Out

A 20-second bond hearing changed the lives of Lavette Mayes and her children because she couldn’t afford bail.

Lavette Mayes speaks outside Cook County Jail at a rally for incarcerated mothers on May 13, 2017. (Photo: CCBF)

Part of the Series

This story is the eighth piece in the Truthout series, Severed Ties: The Human Toll of Prisons. This series dives deeply into the impact of incarceration on families, loved ones and communities, demonstrating how the United States’ incarceration of more than 2 million people also harms many millions more — including 2.7 million children.

On any given day, more than 7,000 people are incarcerated at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Stretching over 11 city blocks, Cook County Jail is the largest single-site jail in the United States. Ninety-five percent of the people locked up in Cook County Jail have not been convicted of a crime. They are incarcerated pretrial — and 62 percent of them are there only because they cannot afford to pay a monetary bond.

In Cook County, bond court hearings last a mere 37 seconds on average. In that time, a judge makes bail decisions that reshape the entire course of people’s cases, and often, their lives. For many people, the judge’s decision includes setting a money bond they must pay before they can be released from jail. The amount of that bond — and whether their family or friends can pay it — then determines whether they await their trial in freedom or in a cage.

Felony cases in Cook County commonly take more than a year to resolve, and some take several years. Right now, more than 4,000 people are being incarcerated in Cook County because they cannot pay bonds that were set using less than a minute’s worth of information.

After 24 hours of detention, people’s risks of rearrest and failure to appear for court increase. Just a few days of pretrial detention often severely alter people’s lives. These few days can mean the difference between working or being fired, paying rent or being evicted. After 30 days of pretrial incarceration, people lose access to benefits, such as social security, disability, Medicaid and more. Once a person is released, it can take months for these benefits to be reinstated, leading to a disruption in essential services and further instability.

The impacts of pretrial detention are not limited to the incarcerated individual: they ripple out and affect entire communities. The loss of a financial provider, caretaker or parent has devastating impacts on families and larger communities. Incarcerating people pretrial also increases the likelihood that they will be convicted by a jury or plead guilty. People incarcerated pretrial also receive longer sentences. Since ability to pay a monetary bond is a major cause of pretrial detention, our current system is punishing people simply for being poor.

The number of women incarcerated in local jails in the United States has increased 14-fold since 1970. Across all genders, 99 percent of the increased local jail population in the last 15 years is the result of pretrial incarceration. Nearly 80 percent of these women in jail are mothers, and most are single parents. In addition, Black women and women of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than white women, making up two-thirds of all women in local jails. In 2011, 81 percent of the women who entered Cook County Jail were women of color, and 68 percent were Black women.

Money bond, like all incarceration, is a racialized system of control that disproportionately impacts people of color and particularly Black people. Despite the fact that Black people comprise only 25 percent of Cook County’s population, they make up 73 percent of the people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. Nationally, Black people accused of a crime are the least likely to receive a nonfinancial release and the least likely to be able to post a money bond if given one. The continued use of monetary bond guarantees that racism and disparate treatment remain central parts of our criminal legal system.

Lavette Mayes is a Black single mother of two from the South Side of Chicago. On March 12, 2015, Mayes was arrested for the first time in her life at the age of 45. Initially, her bail was set at $250,000, requiring her to post $25,000 to leave jail. (There is no private, for-profit bail bonds industry in Illinois. Instead, most monetary bonds require payment of 10 percent of the full bond amount directly to the clerk of each Circuit Court. The terms “bail” and “bond” are used interchangeably here.) Nearly a year and a half and two bond reductions later, Mayes’ bond was finally posted by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a nonprofit revolving bail fund that is working to abolish money bond and end pretrial detention. Mayes’ struggle for freedom exemplifies the difficulties faced by the 60,000 people who experience incarceration in Cook County Jail every year. Here is her story.

My name is Lavette Mayes, and I spent 14 months in Cook County Jail, from March of 2015 to May of 2016. My bond was $250,000, requiring $25,000 to walk. I didn’t have a criminal record: This was my first time being arrested. Before this, I was just a person that was happy to be alive. I have two kids, a son that’s seven and a daughter that’s 16. Until I was arrested, we had lived together for their entire lives. They never had to deal with me going anywhere before this.

I didn’t have a strenuous life; I went to school and had some years of college. I volunteered in my community and even sat on the board at my Lutheran Church. My kids went to private school. I wasn’t rich or anything, but I had just started a business which I was excited about. It was doing extremely well in its first year, and I had close to $10,000 in the bank.

In March of 2015, I was in a domestic dispute. After the incident, I was taken away in an ambulance. I was hurt and I remember hugging my children and telling them everything would be fine. When I got to the hospital, the police were there, and they told me that no one could see me. “Why?” I asked. “These are my kids, and that’s my sister.” They told me I couldn’t see anyone until after I talked to the detectives.

On March 12, I was taken to police lockup at 111th street [on the South Side of Chicago]. After being processed, I spoke to my sister on the phone. I tried to speak to my daughter, who couldn’t stop crying and saying, “Mommy, mommy, they’re saying they won’t let you out of jail, what are we gonna do?” My son begged that they would let me go. I remember telling them, “I’m going to come home, I just have to go to court,” not knowing I was about to spend 14 months in jail away from them. That was the last time I spoke to my kids.

Detectives took me to bond court on March 15, which took a whole day. I was woken up at six o’clock that morning and didn’t see a judge until one o’clock that afternoon. When I came in, there were maybe 115 women standing in line, waiting to go in front of the judge. After being processed, they sent us in three at a time. They told us to come in with our hands behind our backs and to not say anything. They said, “The prosecutor and the defense will speak and then they will assess your bond.”

The person in front of me went up before the judge, and everything was said real fast. I couldn’t even understand the words they were saying. Between the three of us, we were standing there maybe 60 seconds. Then I went up. I remember them passing the judge a sheet of paper. The prosecutor said a few words, then the defense said a few words, and then the judge said “bail set at $250,000 with EM [electronic monitoring].” As I was getting processed, I was thinking that I was going home on electronic monitoring, and that I wouldn’t have to post a bond since I was going to be on electronic monitoring. Two days later, my attorney informed me that I had to pay $25,000 just to get home on electronic monitoring. All the time that I’d worked, my 45 years of life, everything was wiped out in 20 seconds. Over 45 years on Earth and not even a second to account for every year of my life. I quickly found that you are guilty until you are proven innocent.

Judges in Cook County make use of electronic monitoring in a variety of ways. In some cases, judges will release people on electronic monitoring with no ability to get off, but some people can escape the monitoring by posting a monetary bond. Lavette’s case exemplified a third use of electronic monitoring: She would be held in Cook County Jail until she was able to post bond, at which time she’d be released on electronic monitoring with no way to get off of it until her case concluded.

I couldn’t understand how the bond was assessed so high. I had no background, and I was in an altercation. No one could give me an answer. I didn’t know anything about bond or jail until I was put in this situation. I thought people were assessed with reasonable bonds, paid them, and then walked out.

Two months later, my attorney tried to explain to the judge that I was a single mom going through a divorce, and that I could not afford to make bond. It took over two months for bail to be reduced. It was brought down to $15,000. Here I was, still sitting in jail because I could not afford my bail.

I didn’t end up getting another bail reduction until maybe six or seven months further down the line. All that time, going back and forth to court, we were trying to get the judge to reduce the bail more. One year and a major surgery later, my bail was finally reduced to $95,000 — $9,500 to walk with electronic monitoring.

By this point, things were becoming a big strain on my family. I had money when I first went to jail, but between the attorney and the cost of being in jail, I went through most of the money in my savings. Working with different attorneys trying to get my bail reduced cost my family more money, which hurt their ability to pay my bond. My family had to put down $3,500 to get an attorney who was asking for $7,000 in total. In addition, my family was paying for phone calls, paying my bills at home to try and keep my apartment, my car bill, my kids’ private school tuition, and my necessities while in jail. With all that, the money just ran out. By the time I could see a little light with a lower bail, we had no money left.

At the time of my arrest, I was going through a divorce. My kids stayed with my sister for three weeks, but my ex took custody of them after that. While going back and forth to court in my criminal case, I was also going to court for my divorce. My attorney was trying to get me visitation with my kids, but their father was making it impossible. Even once I had a court order for visitation, he still wasn’t bringing the kids to see me. I didn’t know what to do, since my case could have lasted years. It seemed like I was going to lose my children and then, whenever I got free, I was going to have to fight to get them back. When you’re an incarcerated parent, you lose all of your rights to your children.

It was at that time that I reached out to Cabrini Green Legal Aid [CGLA], a group of attorneys working to help incarcerated moms. They worked for months to get me visitation with my kids. By the time it was finally arranged, visitation days at the jail changed. This meant we had to get another court order so that it lined up with the jail’s visitation days. But once I got the court order and dates to see the kids, I was already in the process of being bonded out.

In March of 2016, I found out about a new organization called the Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF). I didn’t know if they would help me, but I knew they were paying people’s bonds. I mailed their information out to my sister and she called. After going through their process, my sister called me back saying that they’d pay my bond. My family was ecstatic. My family put up $2,000 and CCBF posted the remaining $7,500.

My bond was paid, but my incarceration was prolonged. I was hospitalized due to my medical condition and had to have surgery. It baffled me that I couldn’t be released because I had a medical condition. I waited until I was cleared by the doctors, and then I was brought home on electronic monitoring.

The entire time I was at Cook County Jail, all I could think about was my kids. Two days after I got home, my attorney from CGLA got me an emergency hearing so I could see them. The judge gave me custody of my kids for two weeks. After not having seen them for 14 months, I was overwhelmed to be with them. My son just cried and held me, while my daughter was in shock and didn’t know what to do. Every time she saw me, she would ask if I was here to stay or if they were coming back to get me. It was heart-wrenching. Knowing I was on electronic monitoring, my kids lived in a constant state of fear and knew at any moment that I could be snatched away from them. It was hard for them to just let their guards down. They were always asking if they were going to come and get me again or when it was going to end. It was hard for me to answer because I didn’t know. I knew I was still fighting my case, and I didn’t know what would happen. I couldn’t give them answers. All I could say was, “I’m here now.”

My daughter was in high school, but I wasn’t able to see her in school plays, let alone take her to school. My son would ask me about my ankle bracelet, “Why are they doing this to you? Why did they put that on you? They put those on animals. They put that on dogs.” I remember telling him, “Boo, I’m not an animal. This is a part of the legal process,” and explained that it was meant to track me. I had to explain the monitor on my leg, the telephone in the house that he couldn’t touch, and that only I could pick up because it meant the sheriffs were calling. I was forced to explain to a five-year-old how the legal system works, including how I had to get permission to go back and forth to court. If he wanted to play outside, I couldn’t leave our steps in front of the house. It was hard because at the time, he was trying to learn how to ride a bike and skate. I had to get someone else to stand outside with him so he could learn to ride his bike and rollerblade or even just play with kids down the street. If he fell down in the street and hurt himself, I couldn’t run to him to tell him he’d be all right. He would ask me if he could come to court and tell the judge to take this thing off of me, to which I’d reply, “I wish, I wish.”

When you incarcerate a mom, you incarcerate the whole family. It’s not just you, it’s your kids, too. They’re in jail as well with being on electronic monitoring. When it was nice outside, I couldn’t go out with them or sit outside and watch the fireworks. I was unable to do normal things families do, like go to the park, barbecue, or visit my mother’s grave. Many of the things we’d normally do as a family just couldn’t be done anymore.

It felt like it was never going to be over. Every time I went to court, it was huge: lots of crying and both kids asking if I’d actually be coming back. When the sheriffs would show up to check on the EM box, the kids would get scared. How could I explain to a five-year-old that the sheriff is only coming to check on the box? My kids were constantly on edge. They’d have anxiety when they were at school because they were afraid to be away from me. It would tear me apart. As a parent, I was trying to be strong for them.

After all that, I decided I couldn’t keep fighting the case. If I could take a plea deal and make it all end, things would be better. I’d be at home and we could go on with our lives. As long as I was on house arrest, I couldn’t have full custody of my kids. So, I decided to plead out. Due to the deal, I had to spend one night in prison, but this time, it would be over afterward. They had to send me to a prison downstate to dress me in, take some pictures, and then put me back on a train to come home for good.

After 14 months in jail and five months on electronic monitoring, I was on my way home from Logan prison. On the train coming home, I asked a man if I could use his cell phone to call my kids and tell them I was on the way home. I was so grateful to tell them this was over. They were so traumatized. It had been nearly two years of my life taken away, two Mother’s Days, one Christmas, and so many moments in between. Now we could just be a family.

Today, my kids are adapting. I have permanent custody of my kids, and we finally got our own place. We are spending lots of family time together. I’m also working with two organizations: the Chicago Community Bond Fund, working to end money bond and pretrial detention, and Cabrini Green Legal Aid, working for the rights of incarcerated women and making sure they can see their kids. It’s been amazing working with both of these groups. I’ve already lost so many things, and this work is a great sacrifice, but if I can save one or two people and help people see that pretrial detention isn’t right, then it’s worth it to me.

The movement to end money bond and pretrial detention continues to grow and pick up steam in Illinois and around the country. Last week, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed a new piece of state legislation that attempts to curtail the use of monetary bond and grant bond reviews to people accused of certain crimes. However, the new legislation will have little to no impact on the population of Cook County Jail. Lavette Mayes would not have qualified for the special review of bond, which only applies to charges labeled “nonviolent.” Next month, a class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of incarcerating people solely because they cannot pay a monetary bond will have its first hearing in Cook County.

This moment has been made possible by Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements that have forced a re-examination of the prison-industrial complex. Tearing this racist and unjust system of incarceration and surveillance down must begin at its entry point: county jails.

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