Tamiki Banks’ life was turned upside down when her husband was arrested, leaving her the sole breadwinner and caregiver to their twins. More than two years later, she’s still struggling, and he’s still in custody, even though he hasn’t been convicted of any crime. From Atlanta, Pamela Kirkland reports on the heavy burden women of color like Tamiki bear when a loved one is jailed.
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- Pamela Kirkland, Reporter for 70 million podcast
- Tamiki Jackson Banks, Mom of 6 and wife of Erric Banks
- Eusebio Phelps, Bishop of New Faith
- Jonathan Rapping, Co-founder of Gideon’s Promise
- Judge Craig Schwall, Fulton County Superior Court
- Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta Mayor
- Mary Hooks SONG, Co-Director Southerners on New Ground
- Latandia Lowe, Mama helped by SONG
- Marilynn Winn, Executive director of Women on the Rise
- Western Skies Motel – Settlers – Whelm
- Ryan Nicole- Um Ums
- Little Glass Men – Modulation of the Spirit
Salima Hamirani: I’m Salima Hamirani and this week on Making Contact, we’re taking you to Atlanta with the podcast 70 million to talk about how bail shackles women of color. Here’s their host Mitzi Miller.
Mitzi Miller: One in four women in the U.S. have a family member behind bars. That figure jumps to nearly one in two when talking about black women. And, while supporting someone behind bars has obvious financial costs, it also comes with a less visible price.
A recent study published by the Essie Justice Group shows that more than half of women are unable to afford the money bail set for an incarcerated loved one. It separates families, drains financial resources, and in some cases, causes families to lose income. That same study goes on to say these women struggle not only financially but also emotionally and physically when a loved one is incarcerated. And because poor men of color are jailed at a higher rate than any other demographic, it’s women of color who are shouldering a majority of this burden.
Today, we’re going to Atlanta, Georgia, to look at reforms that are trying to lessen that burden.
In 2018, the city passed a law eliminating bail for low-level, non-violent offenders. And, a new state law now requires judges to take a defendant’s ability to pay into account before setting money bail.
Activists say the recent changes are progress toward making the criminal justice system less dependant on cash bail. But, has it lessened the burden being shouldered by women of color? Reporter Pamela Kirkland has the story.
Pamela Kirkland: 10 A.M. service has just begun at New Faith Christian Church in the northwest end of the city.
A small congregation is gathered in neat rows before an altar with a large gold cross. The smell of incense fills the room as the brother at the front calls the congregation to prayer.
Sitting to my right is 50-year-old Tamiki Jackson Banks. She’s got a plain red t-shirt on, and she wears her hair straight and long with flicks of auburn and gold streaking through. She smiles at me and takes my hand in hers, inviting me to pray.
If you ask Tamiki to describe herself, the first thing she’ll tell you is that she’s a mother, she has six kids. Even though this is our first time meeting, her presence is immediately warm and welcoming. And, she seems to know most of the other congregants in the church, greeting them as they enter with a smile and a wave.
Tamiki loves New Faith’s tight-knit worship community — especially her Bishop, Eusebio Phelps.
Bishop Phelps is known for delivering prophecies to his congregants.
Members told me that he’s delivered visions of people getting new jobs, getting out of debt, and generally setting themselves on a better path. I’m told he hasn’t been wrong yet.
Tamiki is here today praying that Bishop Phelps can help guide a miracle to her husband.
Tamiki Jackson Banks: I’m so tired and mentally stressed, and wanting to hop from situation is unbelievable, but I have to keep my faith and trust that God is going to see him through this.
Kirkland: Tamiki’s husband, Erric Banks, has been in the Fulton County Jail for over two years. But, he’s not serving a sentence; he’s awaiting trial.
Jackson Banks: He’s been just sitting for two years, just sitting.
Kirkland: After the service, I sit down with Tamiki in the church’s multi-purpose room, and she tells me how a few years ago, Erric was involved in a highway accident.
According to police reports, he had tried to pass a car by driving onto the shoulder of the road and hit a vehicle that was stopped there with a flat tire. The impact ignited a fire. There were two people in the car he hit, and one of them, a 19 year-old girl, died at the scene.
He’s been charged with “homicide by vehicle” and his bail was set at $80,000. Tamiki says that’s just too much for her to pay.
Jackson Banks: It’s a struggle trying to pay my bills. I have rent, I have a car note, I have car insurance, you know I have… I don’t get food stamps. You know, my kids have to eat, and then, trying to take care of my husband is killing me. It is killing me.
Kirkland: When Erric was arrested, he was working as a forklift driver for a concrete company. He was the main breadwinner, and Tamiki would work the occasional odd job to help support their then-14-year old twins. Two and a half years later, Tamiki’s working full-time, and doing everything she can to make ends meet for her family.
Jackson Banks:We’re at a point either you are going to sentence him or you’re going to let him go. What are you going to do? Because, this is ridiculous.
Kirkland: If it’s not monthly bills and bail she’s worried about, it’s other things, like the cost of a video visitation session.
Jackson Banks: Every time you want to visit them like that, that’s $5 for 30 minutes.
Kirkland: Or, she’s worried about adding money to his inmate account, so he can make commissary purchases — it’s called “putting money on his books.” If you’re using cash, you can add as little as a dollar. But, Tamiki often uses a debit card.
Jackson Banks: At the bare minimum, when you go in there to put money on their book, the bare minimum is $25. They even have a set amount. I might want to go in and put $10 is all I have today.
Kirkland: Plus the fees she has to pay to even do that.
Jackson Banks: If you pay online, putting money on the book, they take $5 from it. If you go in there and use the kiosk, they take $4. Why are you taking money from the money that I’m putting on his book?
Kirkland: Most of all, she’s worried about the impact on her kids.
Jackson Banks: That makes a difference when you’re used to having your mom and your dad and one of those parents, when somebody is missing from that, that’s a lot for kids.
When he first got it locked, I didn’t even want them in that environment, you know, especially my son, because so many of our black men go there. I didn’t want him to feel like, “Oh, well I’m getting used to it. This is where I’m going to be.” I didn’t want him in that environment, because this is not where you have to be.
Kirkland: Since he’s been in jail, Tamiki says Erric’s missed a lot happening with his family. His twins graduated from high school. His mother died, and he missed her memorial service. But the total impact of his absence is about more than missing life milestones. After Erric went to jail, Tamiki and her kids lost their home, because she couldn’t afford the payments.
Jackson Banks: We end up losing our house, our house that we were renting. I had stayed with his sister for a little while. Then, I stayed with my daughter, and I was with her until we got this place, my apartment here. And, we’ve been there for about a year now.
It was a lot of drama. It was a lot of stress.
That was stressful for my kids, you know, because they used to having a house, you know, or just a home, and now we’re all over the place. We’re staying here. All of us. Like, when we were staying with his sister, all of us that are confined to one bedroom, four people in one room.
Jonathan Rapping: A common feature of the American criminal justice system is women trying to hold families together, women doing their best to raise their children. Women who have been the backbones of their families and their communities are often the ones who are bearing the brunt of our system of mass incarceration.
Kirkland: That’s Jonathan Rapping.
He’s the co-founder of Gideon’s Promise, a group he founded with his wife, working to transform the criminal justice system through public defender offices around the country.
I met him on a rainy afternoon at his office directly across the street from the State Bar of Georgia in downtown Atlanta. It makes sense, since the group works with newly minted attorneys working as public defenders and looking to make a difference in underserved communities.
Rapping: Nearly a half a million people in any given time are sitting in jails. The vast majority of them not convicted of any crime. They’ve been accused, and rather than being presumed innocent as our constitution demands, um, they are presumed guilty and detained solely because they’re poor.
Kirkland: Erric Banks is one of those half a million sitting in jail. In his case, there have been delays on both sides: he’s changed lawyers, the state of Georgia has reassigned the District Attorney handling his case. But, his ability to await trial at home instead of behind bars is dependant on whether or not his family can pay to get him out, and as much as Tamiki wants her husband back home with her, she just can’t afford it.
Rapping: These money bonds disproportionately fall on women harder than on men. And, oftentimes, you know, even if it’s not trying to come up with, with bond, um, it’s women who are struggling to hold the households together when their husband, their partner, um, you know, some other member of the family is now locked up and not able to continue working in helping provide support for the household.
Kirkland: People like Tamiki have 3 options: pay the bond to Fulton County (that money gets refunded at a later date), go through a bail bondsman and pay a non-refundable fee (up to $12,000 in this case), or let Erric stay in jail while he waits for his trial.
Jackson Banks: That is just like a million dollars to me, being a single parent.
Kirkland: Tamiki says dealing with Erric being in jail feels like having the weight of the world on her shoulders. She tears up in our interview when she talks about the financial impact, but it’s the emotional and physical loss that drag her down every single day.
Jackson Banks: My nerves are shot. All that has kind of shifted my health to this pre-diabetic. I’m trying to get back on it, but this diabetes and this high blood pressure, it’s been a big factor for me. I’ve been sick, ankle swelling up, major headaches.
Kirkland: Tamiki has a degree in healthcare administration, and she works hard. She has goals and aspirations. But, she feels like her husband’s case has stifled her own personal growth.
Jackson Banks: I feel like I’m spiraling and can’t catch myself. And I’ve always seen myself as a confident person, but stuff like this, it just tears you down.
Kirkland: Tamiki managed to find work temporarily at Georgia Tech as a telecom specialist handling billing and invoices. But she told me she’s worried her job might be phased out because of restructuring. On top of that, she’s afraid that she’s been passed over for promotions because of the eviction on her credit after losing the house.
She feels like the money she’s spending on Erric’s case takes away from investments she could make in herself. And, when she thinks about the big picture, she knows a lot of women are in the same position.
Jackson Banks: The money that we use to pay bail and lawyer fees and bonds, that could be money we use to better yourself. We want businesses, and we want to be entrepreneurs, and you know, we want to be the best mothers we can be. But when we’re pouring our resources into this system that keeps us from aspiring to be who we want to be.
Kirkland: Tamiki says she doesn’t really have anyone to turn to for help. She started a GoFundMe campaign, hoping she could raise the money to pay Erric’s bail. So far, she’s only received a handful of donations. In the meantime, the financial burden falls to her.
Jackson Banks: When it’s come down to all that money, that lawyer, that was me. The bulk of his money that he gets on his book, that’s me.
Kirkland: That lawyer Tamiki’s referring to is a private attorney she hired to handle Erric’s case. It’s the second lawyer she’s hired to defend him, and the retainers are not cheap. Both lawyers helped Tamiki file petitions asking the judge to lower Erric’s bail. They argued that his inability to pay and this being his first criminal incident should be taken into account.
After two hearings, his bail remained at $80,000.
Kirkland: Just eight years ago, Georgia led the nation in criminal supervision. 1 out of every 13 Georgians was behind bars, on probation, or on parole.
Two significant reforms have recently been put into place to try to curb lengthy pre-trial detention for families like Tamiki’s. Unfortunately, those reforms were too late to make a difference in Erric’s case.
Before Georgia changed the law in 2018, judges had very little flexibility when it came to setting a defendant’s money bail; it was strictly based on the charges. Now, the law requires that a judge take into account a defendant’s ability to pay, before deciding on an amount.
In December of 2018, over 60% of inmates in Georgia’s county jails were awaiting trial. The hope is that the new law will put less people in jail because they can’t afford bail.
Craig Schwall: You’re asking that the bond be reduced?
Kirkland: That’s Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall, whose courtroom I visited recently. One of the cases on his calendar this morning is a bail reduction hearing.
Clip: I would ask that it be lowered in half. Mr. Jackson has been here since July 2018. He does work full time at McDonalds.
Kirkland: The defendant is being charged with several drug possession and weapons charges. His bail was set at $50,000. Because he couldn’t afford to pay, he’s been in the Fulton County jail for six months waiting for trial. His lawyer argues that her client has a steady job and four kids who depend on him. Taking his prior conviction history into account, Judge Schwall agrees to reduce the bond amount by half.
Schwall: Alright, I’ll set bond at $5,000 each count. Total $25,000.
Kirkland: The defendant’s girlfriend pays the bond four days later in full.
While the judge agreed to reduce the bond in this case, legal defense advocate Jonathan Rapping still worries the law won’t work to its full extent. He says that judges simply asking about a defendant’s assets and income doesn’t prove they can afford bail. And, for cases with a public defender, he says they’ve been overwhelmed with large caseloads throughout the state.
Rapping: You could walk into Atlanta municipal court, and you will see public defenders who are jumping from fire to fire. And so, you think about it, our ordinance has a requirement that if a money bond is set, there has to be a determination of ability to pay, right? That determination of ability to pay really can’t effectively be made without a lawyer who learned something about their client and their client’s circumstances and shares that with the court. So, really, the fact that public defenders are so overwhelmed makes it impossible to even live up to that aspect.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ first act after taking office was eliminating cash bail for low-level, non-violent cases. The law went into effect in February 2018.
Mayor Bottoms declined our interview request for this episode, but she spoke about the ordinance at a March town hall.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: We eliminated cash bail bonds in the city of Atlanta. And, what that means is that if you are stopped for a traffic violation, if you had $200, you would get out in a couple of hours. If you were poor, you might stay for 3 months. So, no longer do you stay in our jail because you’re poor.
Kirkland: For years, the city of Atlanta has struggled with what to do about its homeless population. Many of the city’s homeless people would end up in jail for “quality of life” violations, like urinating in public. The Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta non-profit, filed a petition in 2017 on behalf of a homeless man who was arrested for panhandling. He sat in the city jail for two and a half months, because he couldn’t afford bail. Today, a defendant with that charge can be released on a signature bond without paying anything.
In the first year of the law, about a third of offenders were eligible for release on a signature bond. The amount of cash bail paid to the city’s Department of Corrections dropped drastically, too.(Records from the City of Atlanta reviewed by 70 Million show that the amount of cash bail collected decreased 68% between 2017 and 2018, from $1.5 million in 2017 to just under $500,000 in 2018.)
While criminal justice activists thought the bail ordinance was a step in the right direction, some complained it didn’t go far enough, including Mary Hooks. She had been pushing for Mayor Bottoms to eliminate cash bail all together.
Mary Hooks: This bail issue is a huge problem, and it has many side effects. And so, we were concerned that, um, what she was trying to prove within her first 100 days would lead to a very small solution for a very big problem.
Kirkland: Mary is the co-director of SONG, Southerners on New Ground, which has been advocating for bail reform across the Southeastern United States.
She identifies as a queer, black woman and is one of the better known voices pushing for civil rights for LGBTQ women of color in Atlanta.
Hooks: For the folk that we ended up bailing out, real talk, about nine times out of 10, it’s the, uh, it’s their friends, its their sisters. It’s their mothers and grandmothers who are being called to support rather than, you know, signing for the bail bondsmen, rather that’s picking him up from jail, putting money on the books, you know, who’s holding down the children if mom is locked up?
Kirkland: And, it’s those mothers that are locked up themselves that Mary worries about most. One in four women are in jail because they can’t afford bail. Eighty percent of women in jail are mothers or caregivers for their families.
Tamiki Banks is shouldering the burden of bail and court related costs for her family, but when women of color are locked up themselves, they’re dealing with that same burden from inside a cell.
Hooks: We’ve bailed out folk and bailed out women who, you know, once they get out, they’re like, “I need to find where my kids are at. I been locked up for days and haven’t been able to reach anybody.” The abandonment that creates, especially when your kids see you get locked up or your kids see, you know what I mean? You didn’t come home, you didn’t come to the bus stop, nobody was there. Like, that’s a scary feeling.
Kirkland: For the past three years, SONG has been coordinating local bail out programs, paying bail for women who cannot afford it. The idea came to Mary in 2016 to create an event to bring jailed mothers home, called Bail Out Black Mamas. Now a nationwide Mother’s Day event, groups around the country raise money to bail out black women and other women of color to get them home.
They celebrate the bailouts with a Homecoming for the bailed out mothers and their families.
We are bailing out black mamas.
Kirkland: When I first met Mary, she said she hoped SONG’s new headquarters could function as a place to work and a place to celebrate. The Mother’s Day Homecoming has done just that. This year, SONG was able to bail out 10 mamas across the state. Latandia Lowe was one of them. She heard about SONG from another inmate while she was in jail in Union City, Georgia.
Latandia Lowe: I was away from my newborn baby. He’s now six months old and he’s just one of six kids that I was away from.
Kirkland: Latandia lost her job, she lost her home. And now, she’s in the process of rebuilding her life. With a $90,000 bail, she was away for three months. Thanks to SONG, she’s home with her children and her mom to celebrate Mother’s Day.
Lowe: This means the world to me. This is all I…this is all I wanted, this is all I need in my life. Like, I’m just so happy to be here, to be with my family, to be with my children. Um, you know, nothing else matters today.
Kirkland: If it were up to Mary Hooks, she would have bailed every black mother out of jail. To her, releasing black women from behind bars impacts the community beyond the individual level.
Hooks: When black women are, um, are carrying that bail burden, people always say this, that it is the mothers of our communities that carry culture, right? And, how culture gets expressed and how people are being raised up in community has grave effects on the trauma, the stress, um, uh, both the mental, emotional, physical that women are carrying.
Kirkland: Instead of bail, Mary advocates for a more holistic approach to criminal justice.
Hooks: A needs assessment process that judges, public defenders, prosecutors, et cetera, would have to engage to ask people, “What do you need to get back to court?” versus saying, you know, “How much bail you can afford?”
What side are you on my people? What side are you on? We’re on the freedom side…
Kirkland: But, they’re not stopping at money bail reform. Mary Hooks and groups around the region have recently set their sights on their next goal: shutting down the Atlanta City Detention Center.
What side are you on my people? What side are you on?
The detention center, often referred to as the ACDC, is where anyone who’s committed a misdemeanor — panhandling, DUI — is detained.
Standing in front of a gleaming City hall, SONG, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the NAACP of Georgia, and more call out City councilmembers to close the jail once and for all.(Almost 50 organizations came together for the campaign to close the ACDC. Learn more about the campaign here.)
The ACDC was built in the 90s just before Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympic Games. But the number of people in the jail has dwindled in the past couple of years. The 1,100 plus capacity building is only holding about 115 people on a given day. Local activists have demanded that the Mayor and City Council shutter the facility for good.
Marilynn Winn: Jailing people don’t solve the problem. I went to jail. I went to prison six times.
Kirkland: Marilynn Winn is the executive director of Women on the Rise, a group of formerly incarcerated women working to empower their community. She’s been leading the charge to close the ACDC. Like SONG, Women on the Rise was one of the organizations behind changes like bail reform. Marilyn says the same model for community input can work to decide the jail’s future. I met her outside a City Council meeting where she was advocating to close the jail.
Winn: We need alternatives to jail instead of jail. And the one-stop shop is… the Wellness and Freedom Center is a one-stop shop. My vision for it is that the whole first floor is a resource center.
Kirkland: Her vision is to repurpose the jail into a multi-level Freedom and Wellness Center with resources to support the community. She first went to jail when she was 17 years old. She believes her experience as a formerly incarcerated woman makes her uniquely qualified to recommend what to do with the jail.
Winn: I’m born and raised here in Atlanta. So, I’ve had not the privilege but the un-privilege of being arrested in that jail, which started my life into a spiral of crime basically. And I had always said, if I ever, ever got the opportunity to redeem myself and be able to get into, I guess, the space that I’m in today, that I would close that jail.
Kirkland: Marylinn Winn, Mary Hooks, and others got their wish in late May. The City Council passed legislation to close the jail, and Mayor Bottoms signed it into law the next week.
Welcome to the Superior Court of Fulton County.
Kirkland: I meet up again with Tamiki on a Wednesday at the Fulton County Superior Court.
All rise. Judge Thomas Cox Jr. is presiding in Courtroom 7F with a full calendar. Tamiki’s relieved that her husband’s case is finally going to trial, but things quickly don’t go as expected…
Clip: She’s on trial this week, this is her case, she’ll be ready when reached…
Kirkland:It’s hard to hear, but the District Attorney assigned to Erric’s case is on another trial this week. So, they’ve pushed back Erric’s date.
I catch up with Tamiki in the hallway outside the courtroom.
Jackson Banks: This is what we go through every time, is reschedule. Like, they don’t have any consideration that you have to work. I’m taking time off, I’m losing wages.
I could have been at work today.
Kirkland: How many times has this happened?
Jackson Banks: Every time we come. This is how many times? Three or four times.
Kirkland: She tells me she paid $20 to park her car downtown. It’s what she spends every time Erric has a court appearance. Today, she spent that for less than 60 seconds in court.
You can see the exhaustion and frustration on Tamiki’s face as she walks out. She’ll have another few months at least of supporting her family on her own again.
I check in with Tamiki a few weeks later. Her frustration has given way to aggravation. She and Erric have run into trouble with the lawyer they hired. He’s not returning any of their phone calls. Tamiki admits she owes him money, but without legal help, Erric’s case has stalled. His next trial date was moved to the end of October. By that time, he’ll have spent two years and 10 months waiting in a jail cell to go to trial.
Miller: Pamela Kirkland is a reporter based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Special thanks to John Kegler and LaRell Reynolds.
Since Pamela reported that piece, Erric Banks has been released from the Fulton County Jail. A recommendation from another inmate led Tamiki and her family to a bail bonds company that would take 5% of Erric’s bail money up front, enough of a break that they could afford. The other 5% will be paid in installments over the next year and a half. Tamiki will take care of the first payment, but Erric hopes to get his old job back and pay the remaining balance himself. After nearly two and a half years in jail, he says the first thing he wants to do is figure out a way to take care of his family.
His trial is set for later this year, but in the meantime, Erric Banks has come home.
Salima Hamirani: You’ve been listenting to the podcast 70 million: “How Bail Shackles Women of Color” on Making Contact. For a full list of credits, guests, and and an activism toolkit on this issue please visit our website, radioproject.org.
I’m Salima Hamirani thank you for listening to Making Contact.
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