Dawn Oliver, co-founder of the bail-out nonprofit group Operation Liberation, says she still receives check-in phone calls every couple of weeks from a young man she helped bail out of jail about a year ago, near the beginning of the group’s work.
“I’ve never laid eyes on the brother,” Oliver said, “but he considers Operation Liberation his family and we continue to maintain those relationships well after we help them.”
In their first year, Operation Liberation has helped 30 other individuals bail out of the Jackson County Detention Center, helped nearly 10 others with legal support and fees, and expended between $75,000 and $85,000 in donations to get people out of pretrial detention.
Although the Black community is just more than a quarter of Kansas City’s population, Black people are 58% of those incarcerated at the Jackson County Detention Center. According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, Black felony defendants in urban areas are over 25% more likely than White defendants to be held in pretrial detention and Black and Brown defendants receive bail amounts that are twice as high as bail set for White defendants.
The local racial disparity, as well as mass incarceration nationally, inspired Operation Liberation to specifically target releasing Black people.
“There’s a phrase that says, those closest to the harm are closest to the solutions,” said Nicole Smith, the other co-founder of Operation Liberation, who is in charge of the organization’s communications and public outreach for the completely Black-led organization.
Both Smith and Oliver created Operation Liberation after seeing the frustration of some of their own family members being criminalized by what they call the criminal (in)justice system.
“I’ve always been deeply-rooted in Black liberation work and community organizing and just seeing this void and the need for our community is kind of what helped push us in this direction,” Oliver said.
ABOLISHING THE PRISON SYSTEM
Operation Liberation firmly believes that incarceration is never the answer. They support completely ending cash bail and prison systems. In fact, Smith says she is #FreeThemAll.
“We are strict abolitionists,” Oliver said. “Prisons and jails are just modern-day plantations and our oppressors have found ways to monetize our bodies and to hold us hostage for profit since the abolition of legal slavery.”
The duo notes that most of the crimes Operation Liberation frees people for are actually crimes of survival, such as a speeding ticket someone can’t afford to pay, that leads to a warrant and an arrest, and other nonviolent, low-level offenses.
This is no anomaly. According to a study by the MacArthur Foundation, 75% of those held in pretrial detention nationally are there for nonviolent traffic, property, drug or public order offenses who are forced to pay – bail — their way out. If they can’t afford to make bail, they stay in jail until their trial, leaving behind their job, children and families, and creating more issues that can potentially further criminalize them.
The national pretrial detention system costs $13.6 billion per year, says a report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
“If instead we divested from this cash bail system and prisons and jails, we could then invest in those communal community resources that would keep people free anyways,” Smith said. “We can invest in education, we can invest in housing, we can invest in the jobs that actually pay you a livable wage.”
THE OPERATION LIBERATION BAIL OUT PROCESS
Many of the people Operation Liberation bails out reach them through their bail-out hotline: (816) 533-5970. The group also has a close relationship with a Blackowned bail bondsman and the Missouri State Public Defenders Office. Both refer individuals to them who are unable to come up with the funds for bail.
The group then posts bail, but their work does not end there. A big part of Operation Liberation’s work is continuing support post-release. While the support provided each individual is different, they work closely with family members and attorneys to offer as much help as possible.
“One of our biggest concerns and challenges is making sure that once someone is released, that we are not putting them in a situation where they are closer to harm,” Oliver said.
So, the group works to secure resources for them. Sometimes they’ve had to put people in hotels for short periods of time, or they’ll pay their rent if the person is on house arrest and can’t go to work. Sometimes the individuals need clothes, a ride to court or someone to testify on their behalf. The group also has a social worker who helps connect clients with additional resources.
“Some folks just really need to know that somebody cares,” Oliver said. “That has been I think the most shocking part of what I’ve learned in doing this work was the fact that they know that somebody is out there that will possibly show up for them. It means everything to them.”
While it’s a huge win for members of Operation Liberation to reunite people with their families, community work is also a huge part of their mission. Most recently, the group held a Mutual Aid Drive in partnership with Helping Others Notice Kings (HONK). They were able to provide about 75 people struggling with houselessness access donated resources like diapers, baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, food, clothing and PPE.
“Folks we never met before were walking away from the drive saying, we love y’all and we were saying it back. It just was so uplifting and affirming and confirms that we have all we need,” Oliver said. “And the more we show up for one another, the better off we all are.”
Operation Liberation is accepting donations to cover bail, wrap-around services and mutual aid. Donate to their Cash App: $OperationLiberation or their PayPal: paypal.me/OperationLiberation1