AMP: Grassroots²

Dolores Canales with The Bail Project

What do you do? I’m the Director of Talent Development for The Bail Project and I just started in January. We are setting up sites across the nation to get people bailed out. We’re able to create so much connection through the work. It’s been incredible to see so many people coming together and all the different movement happening around bail. So far, we have established sites in St. Louis, MO, Louisville, KY, and Tulsa, OK; we’ll open in Detroit in two weeks. We’re expanding in St. Louis, both in the city and county, to have more bail disruptors there. It’s been phenomenal for me to be doing this work—absolutely amazing.

What is your why? Why do you do what you do? My dad passed away a year ago, May 20th of last year. I thought back to when he bailed me out. I was being held in custody, unable to afford bail, and facing the possibility of life in prison. When my dad bailed me out, he gave me an opportunity.

My bail amount was set at $25,000 but it could have been $250,000. These are amounts of money most people can never hope to pay, so they are forced to stay in jail. For many people facing arrest and bail, for things as minor as an unpaid parking ticket becoming a felony, they do not expect to find themselves in jail, and are unable to afford the thousands of dollars they must pay to get out.

When The Bail Project came to LA and they were hiring, I had already been active with Essie Justice Group. My friend said it was as if the universe put this dream job in my lap. The first day in the office, I felt my dad’s presence. What an amazing gift he gave me. Freedom. Had I not been able to make that bail, things would have turned out so different in my life.

We’re not just bailing people out, not just looking to meet numbers. We’re building a community network and resources. It’s not just about the arrest, we provide a support network that considers what will happen to people’s kids, their jobs, etc.

What moment or experience motivated you to become an organizer/fighter of justice? Before coming to The Bail Project, I had spent over 20 years of my life in prison. In 2002, I was serving out my last sentence, under California’s three strikes law. I began looking around and saw young girls with 300-year sentences because they were at the wrong place with their boyfriends at the wrong time, because of how California sentences people. I thought about all these people who could not afford bail who ended up in prison. I wondered, what are we doing housing people in cement for the rest of their life?

When I got out, I got paroled and got a job. I stayed in touch with the women I’d met who were still in prison. It’s very important that we stay in touch with people inside—otherwise, who are we advocating for?

On July 1, 2011, my son helped launch a prison hunger strike at Pelican Bay in California to bring attention to the deplorable conditions in solitary confinement. I got involved to support him, and even though I still had my corporate office job, my heart was 110 percent in the movement. Later when I was featured in Ava DuVernay’s 13th, I saw it all laid out so clearly. We can change conditions, confinement – but then what? We live happily ever after in prison? The system is designed to keep creating mass incarceration. That’s why we have to start at the forefront – at the time of arrest.

How has your work been different over the last year? Obama had made all the commutations of sentences and was the first sitting president to visit a prison. There was hope stirring because of the federal reforms. Then came Sessions and Trump wanting to undo all that work. Fortunately, at the state level in California, Governor Brown is doing a great job on commutations. So it is important to organize the hell out of state-level elected officials. Let’s keep the power in our states, keeping moving on the state level and not feel discouraged. If anything, Trump is bringing people more together – we have a voice, we must vote and if we don’t do it, nobody will but us. He’s created controversy, but also sparked a movement in the hearts of people who may not have gotten involved and showing importance of why you need to get involved.

The ask: We are raising money to set up 40 sites across the nation over a 5-year period, we have hired local bail disruptors who are often formerly incarcerated themselves. We also have a revolving fund to bail people out, and once they are bailed out, appear in court and are hopefully found not guilty, that money gets released back into the fund. The bail is returned even if the person loses their case. In some jurisdictions a fee is deducted, but all that matters is that you show up to court and the bail is returned. We want to disrupt bail and restore the presumption of innocence.