Andréa “Muffin” Hudson arrived at the Durham County jail holding a large, beige purse weighed down with $100,000 in crisp $20 bills.
While some marked Juneteenth protesting in the street, watching online programs, or attending other events, Hudson and her colleagues celebrated the end of slavery by freeing nearly 30 men from jail to spend Father’s Day with their family.
“Today is Juneteenth, “ Hudson said. “We are buying back people’s freedom.”
Early Friday morning Hudson, director of the NC Community Bail Fund of Durham, went to the bank to withdraw the cash.
Wearing all black and a Juneteenth T-shirt, she then walked up to the front desk of the jail with a deputy, who asked her how many people she was going to bail out.
“I am going to try to get out 27,” she said. “We have to get them free.”
Hudson was just getting men out this time but asked how many women were in the jail.
Twelve, the deputy said.
“Lord, I have to figure out how much their bond is,” she said, saying she would get them out next.
The bail fund started in December 2017, initially lobbying for bonds to be unsecured. It has since helped get $2 million in bonds unsecured, meaning people don’t have to pay anything to be released, just sign a promise to appear in court.
With the help of more established social-justice groups, the fund started bailing out people in July 2018. It has paid bail for at least 100 people, including 22 since March, Hudson said.
Since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, donations to the fund have jumped.
The $100,000 that built up in the bank allowed the organization to increase its standard bail out from up to $2,000 to $5,000.
And instead of monthly, Hudson is now bailing out people weekly.
“A lot of people know things need to change,” Hudson said. “They don’t have the ability to go out to front lines … I guess this is their way of saying I can help in some way, and I feel like I can do something to end mass incarceration and pretrial detention.”
Groups have lobbied for years for reform or end cash bail, but the coronavirus and killings by police have given an urgency to reforming systems that disproportionately affect people of color. In April, eight detention officers at the Durham County jail tested positive for the virus and one died. No inmates have tested positive, according to an N.C. Department of Health and Human Services report.
North Carolina law says judges and magistrates must confine people before their trials only if they pose a danger, threaten to flee or might destroy evidence.
Yet statewide, two-thirds of people arrested for misdemeanors in 2017 got a secured bond from a judge or magistrate — meaning they had to pay, put up collateral or hire a bail bondsman to go free before trial, The News & Observer reported.
Advocates for bail reform say the system penalizes the poor and people of color and can cost people their jobs, houses and children. Supporters of bail say the system helps keep the community safe.
If people are incarcerated after they are found guilty, that is one situation, Hudson said. But until that time, their freedom should not depend on their ability to pay for it.
“I can’t imagine someone having to be in that cell all day every day because they can’t afford their ransom,” she said.
‘And on Juneteenth’
At 10:25 a.m., Hudson walked into the small magistrate’s room and piled stacks of $20 bills on the metal table before the magistrate’s window.
“You brought all that for me?” asked E. Evans, the county’s chief magistrate.
“I sure did,” Hudson said.
Evans asked how much.
“A hundred” Hudson said.
“Dollars?” Evans asked.
“A hundred thousand,” Hudson said.
“What in the world, “ Evans said.
Hudson explained she wanted to pay the bail of nearly 30 men she had on her list.
In her 30 plus years, Evans had never taken this much cash and called the moment historic. Hudson noted how she and Evans, two Black women, were counting thousands of dollars to pay for men’s freedom.
“And on Juneteenth,” Evans said.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 — 2 1/2 years after after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — when Union troops occupied Galveston, Texas, and told the enslaved people there that they were free.
Evans said a little prayer that she didn’t mess up the money counting.
Hudson counted out piles of $1,000 and slid the money through a metal box. Evans counted it again.
Evans spent most of the day counting money, carefully sliding new bills that had a tendency to stick.
‘I will plead guilty to anything’
Hudson knows the toll that time in jail can take on a life.
In 2013, she spent two months in jail on charges she said she was innocent of but had pleaded guilty to to get back to her two children, then 17 and 7.
“I told my attorney ‘I will plead guilty to anything if it means I can go home to my children,’” Hudson said.
Hudson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, but a handful of other dismissed charges remained part of her public record. She lost her housing voucher and home, her ability to get work, her self-esteem and her dignity, she said.
She and her children were homeless for nearly two years, staying with friends and relatives.
The family found a home after after Hudson’s older daughter got a job and was able to secure an apartment.
At a clinic that provided free legal services to remove criminal charges, Hudson met social justice advocates who helped her fight for change.
“It made me start to tell my story and my truth, my lived experience of how I overcame this system, and now how I am trying to dismantle this system,” she said.
Durham County officials have been taking steps to reduce the jail population by reducing bonds and increasing pre-trial release options.
From 2007 to 2018, the average annual jail population at the Durham County Detention Center fell from 629 to 498.
District Attorney Satana Deberry and her staff have been working since she took office in January 2019 to further reduce the population by releasing people accused of nonviolent crimes. Those efforts were stepped among the pandemic.
From February to mid-June, the average daily jail population dropped from 393 to 262. On Friday, it was down to 248.
Around 6 p.m. Friday the magistrate’s office ran out of required receipts, so Hudson was only able to bail out 16 men, spending about $60,000 on bail amounts as high as $10,000.
She planned to take the leftover cash to Charlotte, where another Father’s Day bail out was scheduled Saturday with the bail fund and Emancipate NC. On Friday, former Panthers player Thomas Davis pledged $100,000 to the Charlotte effort.
Then Hudson planned to come back to Durham and bail a few more people out, if needed, she said. The list she started with ended up shorter than expected because some of the 27 people on it were already gone.
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Walking out the jail
The men started to walk outside the jail around 3:30 p.m., carrying their belongings in clear plastic bags.
Volunteers greeted them with gift bags filled with masks, toiletries and $25 gift cards and wished them a Happy Father’s Day.
Under a tent, Kendrick “Chief” Mangum, filled to-go boxes with a hamburger, collard greens and macaroni and cheese.
Russell McGill, 45, said he was sitting in his cell when a guard told him to pack up his stuff, that he had been bailed out.
“I said “Stop, this ain’t for real,” said McGill, a father of three who had been in jail 10 days.
Tariq Sanyika, 41, of Durham, had been in jail since Jan. 7.
The father of four, ages 13 to 24, said he had reached out to Hudson but didn’t know he would be bailed out Friday.
As a correction officer hurried Sanyika out, he had to stop to say a short prayer of thanks and then said goodbye to everyone in his pod.
He was eager to see his family. His oldest son’s birthday is Saturday. His sister just had a baby he hasn’t seen. And he knows his mother, who doesn’t know he was released, will have a Father’s Day dinner.
”I am going to the house because she is working from home,” he said. “She is going to be shocked.”
Randy Melvin, 44, walked out with an orthopedic-type boot on his right leg.
He hobbled on a single, aluminum crutch. He was hit by a car 28 days ago, he said.
He isn’t a father, and he is homeless.
“I’ll go anywhere. I’ll sleep anywhere,” when asked where he would go.
Melvin said his bail was below $1,000.
“If it would have been $50, I still wouldn’t been able to pick it up,” he said.
Melvin said he would like to try to get into a halfway house.
“My wife divorced me five years ago. I have been drinking ever since then. My mama and grandma died on the same day. So I have been dealing with a lot of tragedies lately,” he said. “But I am still here.”
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