On a Sunday afternoon at Waller County Jail, you see something you do not see much of during the rest of the week: children.
On weekends, the focus of activity shifts from trying to get people out of Jail, to visiting those who are stuck inside. Energy shifts from negotiations with bail bondsmen to consolations between loved ones. As visitation days, Saturday and Sunday experience a rhythm that does not happen all throughout the week. The labor at the Jail shifts on Sundays to focus on security because there are so many additional people present that are not usually there. The weekday rhythm of transporting prisoners, engaging with bail bondsmen, and holding meetings slows and the space is filled instead with faces that are not present on a typical work day.
The rhythm actually feels pretty similar to the summer I spent working in the Chaplain’s Office at a hospital. I remember that patients always knew that if they did not get discharged by Friday afternoon, they probably would not get discharged until Monday. In the tower of triage paperwork, as administrators prioritized patients based on severity of condition, if you could sit tight for a couple days, that is probably the situation in which you would find yourself.
This would be simply a quaint analogy with images of children running Matchbox cars over the tile floors of both hospitals and jails around the country if it were not for one important fact: Sandra Bland was arrested on a Friday afternoon.
From what I have observed over the past couple months, getting someone out of Jail on a regular business day is complicated enough. One day I sat beside a woman who was calling bail bondsmen all day long and not able to get one to answer. Another day, I watched as a bail bondsman spent the entire day sitting, trying to get someone out of Jail, only to be turned away at the end of the day and told that there were no staff available to process his paperwork.
I have to admit, watching all of this take place has made me highly aware of the privilege that has shielded me from ever having to understand how any of this works. That ignorance has made it take several weeks for me to understand how crucial these complications are to Sandra Bland’s situation.
Many people with similar levels of ignorance to my own of the bonding system have tweeted criticism that Sandra Bland’s family and friends could not just pull together the $500 and bail her out. Have you ever had someone you loved suffer and not been able to fix it? How would you feel if everyone and their brother then felt entitled to have an opinion about what you should have done? How would you feel if they tweeted those opinions in your moments of deepest grief?
It is true that Sandra Bland’s bail was set at $5,000, only $500 of which needed to be paid immediately, but where most people go wrong is that they think anyone could just walk down there, put $500 on the counter and say, “Hand over Sandra Bland.” It is not as simple as that. Especially not on a Friday.
Especially not on a Friday at 4:27 pm. Get admitted to the hospital ICU at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon, and you are in until at least Monday morning. Get booked at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon in a quiet Jail, on a side road, in a rural county, and you are going nowhere fast.
After spending seven Friday afternoons in the parking lot of the Waller County Jail, I can tell you that it has the feeling of a man loosening his belt after Thanksgiving dinner as the turkey does its trick and leaves you ready for a nap. After a week of meetings and administration, non-essential staff is headed out the door and everything is getting pretty quiet.
Even if you could get there during regular business hours, slam $500 down on the counter and say “Hand over Sandra Bland,” that is simply not how the bail system works. To start with, you are not even going to be giving the $500 to the Jail. You are going to be giving the $500 to the bail bondsman. He is then going to go to the Jail with his license as a bondsman, with which he can prove that he has the $5,000 collateral to commit in order to obtain Sandra Bland’s release. You see no one actually hands over $500. The bail bondsman has a license and a limited collateral that he can commit against the odds of someone jumping bail (not reporting for their court date). Once he has reached the limit of his collateral, he cannot bail anyone else out.
The only way I can understand the bond system is to think of needing to have my parents co-sign on my student loans in college. Those that gave me the loans did not know if I could pay them back, but they did know that my parents had collateral and if I failed to pay, they could come after my parents’ assets. That is what a bail bondsman does: he puts his collateral on the line. He gambles against the odds of someone jumping bail; and if they do, he can send someone after them.
So, even when you have the money (which Sandra’s family did), first, you have to find a bail bondsman. Yet, that is not always the easiest thing to do, even if you are close by, and especially if you are far away. Remember the woman sitting in the parking lot all day unable to get a bondsman? Even if you drive over from Waller, or Cypress, or Houston, or Chicago, that does not mean you will be able to get a bondsman to show up when you want them to come. They could choose not to answer because they have reached the limit on their collateral; or they could prefer to wait in order to do multiple bonds on one trip. Or they could simply be busy, uninterested, asleep, or at their daughter’s soccer game.
Because here is the thing, bondsmen are not civil servants, they are business men. They have no obligation to the people that call them. They do not have to answer the phone, they do not have to come, and they do not have to put up their collateral against the likelihood of whether a person’s loved one will jump bail. Without getting one to answer, and agree to come, your loved one is not getting out of jail. They are doing the people who call them a favor, with the hope of a financial reward, betting their collateral against the loved one’s good behavior.
Beyond that, even if a bondsman comes, that does not mean your loved one is getting out of jail. Remember the bondsman who sat all day and still could not get the loved one released? When I went into the lobby to use the bathroom, I observed him submitting his paperwork through the slot. Hours later, he finally came out and said that he had been informed that there was no staff person available to process his paperwork. So a family member had actually contracted with him to come and put up the bail; and he had sat there all day; and he still could not get the person released because no one was available to process his request.
So, to those of you who have been asking why someone’s family would not be able to get them out of jail immediately, ask yourself whether your family could if you were arrested on the other side of the country, in a quiet, rural town, at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon as everyone was going home for the weekend. The measure of how much you love a person is simply not a factor in the equation.
Sandra Bland’s death in the care, custody and control of the Waller County Jail is serving to bring light to what many families around the country suffer when their loved ones are arrested unexpectedly, whether they be far away or close by.