‘Ransoming’ Black youth and adults from the clutches of cash bail: The Antwan Project

Prairielands Freedom Fund in Iowa, part of the National Bail Fund Network, works to free Black youth and adults who can’t afford bail while awaiting trial.

Editor's Note: In this story, Black Iowa News intentionally left the criminal charge against Antwan Brewster Jr. out since the case was dismissed. Thanks for reading Black Iowa News. Become a subscriber today.

Leslie Brown remembers everything a 124-day stint in jail cost her son, Antwan Brewster Jr. His relationship. His job. Thanksgiving and Christmas memories with his family. Celebrating his 21st birthday.

Brewster, like many Blacks across the nation who become ensnared in the cash bail system, couldn’t afford the $25,000 cash-only bond needed to gain his freedom until the case against him was resolved.

Brown, 40, a single mom and certified nursing assistant living in Keokuk, Iowa, didn’t have the money either. On the days when her son, a father of three young children, called crying from jail, she too felt distressed. When his anxiety spiked from sleepless nights, she told him to hang in there — that Mom would figure it out.

Antwan Brewster Jr. Photo courtesy of Brown.

Brown called an influential friend who told her about the Prairielands Freedom Fund. Based in Iowa City, Prairielands pays bail for Iowans who are jailed for protesting, in criminal pretrial release and need immigration bonds.

“They were telling me about the program and how they could help my son,” Brown said. “And I had never heard anything like this before. It was so amazing.”

A volunteer with Prairielands traveled to the Lee County Jail in Montrose, Iowa, where Brewster was detained and paid $25,000 to bail him out on Feb. 16, 2021, according to court documents. Even so, Brown said authorities still tried to convince Brewster to take a plea deal. His case was soon dismissed on March 21, 2021, according to court documents.

“’He said: ‘I’m not pleading anything because I’m innocent,’” Brown said.

Cash bail snatches days and dollars from Black and Brown Americans who can least afford it. Jobs? Gone. Opportunities? Gone. Lives? Interrupted. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 80 percent of people in local jails in the U.S. have not been convicted, are awaiting trial and are presumed innocent — results driven by bail practices. Cash bail can decimate lives like Brewster’s and Brown’s and reverberate throughout communities, with tragic results. Like Sandra Bland who struggled to pay $500 of a $5,000 bond and died in jail. Or 16-year-old Kalief Browder who spent three years in the notorious Rikers Island because his family couldn’t afford bail. After his release, he took his own life.

Pilar Weiss, director of the National Bail Fund Network, a directory of more than 90 community bail and bond funds across the country including Prairielands, said the focus is on ending detention, both in the pretrial and immigration systems. She said ending or modifying money bail alone does not ensure freedom and often creates new forms of incarceration.

“The money bail system was not supposed to be about punishment but has in fact become a de facto system of punishment and criminalization,” Weiss said via email. “Money bail is openly used by the criminal legal and immigration detention systems to punish people while they are awaiting a pending trial or resolving their immigration paperwork.”

124 Days: Antwan Brewster Jr.

  • Cash-only bond: $25,000
  • Arrested/Booked: 3:47 a.m. 10/15/2020, Lee County Jail, Montrose, Iowa
  • Plea: Not Guilty, Nov. 6, 2020
  • Released: 11:56 a.m. Feb. 16, 2021
  • Case dismissed: March 21, 2021

Julia Zalenski, an attorney, and Elizabeth Rook Panicucci, immigration advocate, are co-directors of Prairielands. They want to raise awareness about the problems with cash bail. The organization will post bail for even more Black Iowans in particular this year through the Antwan Project. The co-directors said cash bail disproportionately impacts the lives of Black youth and adults.

“We always want to make sure that when we’re out here paying bail and bond, we’re not just contributing to the system that already exists, which we obviously think is really unjust and exploitative and harmful,” said Zalenski.

Elizabeth Rook Panicucci and Julia Zalenski, co-directors of Prairielands Freedom Fund. Photo courtesy of Prairielands.

President Joe Biden, flanked by the attorney general, local officials and police chiefs, during May 13 remarks about the American Rescue Plan and public safety, discussed bail reform.

I think bail reform and the negative side of bail reform is vastly overrated,” Biden said. “The idea that if you have no ability to make bail because you’re poor, it should relate to the severity of the crime and what you — what the problem is related that you’re accused of.”

After the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, while in Minneapolis police custody, at least 13 of Biden’s campaign staff members donated money to the Minnesota Freedom Fund to free protesters, according to Reuters.

"Community bail funds definitely went through a growth moment during the 2020 uprising as many funds were set up to meet the needs created by police repression of people protesting for racial justice," Weiss said. "Many of these protest bail funds have gone on to free people from the daily injustices of the criminal legal system and the immigration detention system."

A new law passed by the Iowa legislature this session lengthens the time Iowans have — from 10 days to 30 days — to explain why a judgement shouldn’t be entered and they shouldn’t forfeit bail if they miss their designated court date.

Antwan Brewster Jr. Prairielands Freedom Fund's new Antwan Project seeks to post bail for Black youth and adults in Iowa. Photo courtesy of Brown.

Cash bail inequities

The terms bond and bail are often used interchangeably in the criminal pretrial and immigration systems, Zalenski said

“The pretrial detention system and the immigration detention system are just two sides of the same coin,” Zalenski said. “It became really important to be working in both spaces and not treat them as independent or separate.”

Once people are arrested and held in jail, if they’re unable to pay the bail set by the court, they must remain in jail until they take a plea, or until their case goes to trial or is dismissed. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the median bail amount for felonies is $10,000, which is about eight months’ income for a typical person being detained.

“It’s no surprise that people of color — who face much greater rates of poverty — are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for Black Americans, who make up 38% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 12% of U.S. residents,” according to the prison initiative, which is non-profit, is non-partisan and works to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society.

The co-directors of Prairielands also noticed inequities. During the summer of 2020 when Prairielands bailed out protesters after Floyd’s death, Zalenski remembers seeing inequities show up in the amount of bail white protesters were assessed, compared to Black protesters facing the same charges.

“The Black person’s bail was set at $11,000 and the white person’s was set at $7,000 or $8,000,” Zalenski said. “The cases came in within days of each other.”

Prairielands doesn’t make a distinction between charges or have a “tight cap” on the amount it will spend to bail someone out. If they would have capped out at $8,000 when they noticed the inequities, they would “inadvertently have been replicating the harm by bailing out the person whose bail was lower,” Zalenski said.

After Prairielands uses the money it receives from donors and funders for bail, “100%” of the money is returned to the organization and used on the next person, they said.

“We're able to use it again and again and again,” Panicucci said. “And we're not really spending a lot of it on non-bail and bond purposes. So it allows us to keep utilizing that money for freedom.”

Zalenski said most people are familiar with the bail bonds model where a bondsman is paid 10% of the amount, and then that 10% is just gone. She said 10% is a lot for most people.

“But when we post the full amount of the bail in cash basically, the full amount comes back to us when the case is closed,” Zalenski said. “So, there’s no loss at all.”

According to Prairielands, it freed 42 people and posted a total of $578,500 both in pretrial and immigration bonds in 2021, which outpaced the last three years combined, according to its website.

Antwan Brewster Jr. as a young child. Photo courtesy of Brown.

‘Rejecting the assumption that imprisoning people is necessary’

Formerly known as the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project, Prairielands began in 2016 after the election of Donald Trump — in preparation for the administration to be “adversarial toward the immigrant community.” They wanted to have money ready for immigration raids, the co-directors said. At the time, there were no other exclusively immigration-focused community bond funds in the nation, Panicucci said.

Since then, the organization led by volunteers has pivoted to criminal pretrial bail after its early focus on immigration bond and protest bail. Prairielands’ core mission is centered around three basic ideas about what bail does and why it’s a useful thing to do, Zalenski said.

“Rejecting the assumption that imprisoning people is necessary or somehow an inevitable part of community safety, which we don’t believe is true, and by ransoming people out, we can sort of provide tangible support for that — for the rejection of that assumption,” Zalenski said.

Bailing people out also affirms their dignity and agency because incarceration is “incredibly coercive,” she said. "Freeing people minimizes the harm that imprisonment has on families and communities," she explained.

“If parents are incarcerated pretrial, that hurts their children. If children are incarcerated that hurts their parents,” Zalenski said. “Like all of these things really radiate outward and cause a lot of damage to the family and community that’s affected.”

Zalenski said sometimes people have strong reactions to bail funds because people make assumptions about the person’s guilt. She hopes the Antwan Project helps challenge those reactions. She described Antwan as a “wonderful person” and said he and his mother are loved by the organization and a key part of their work.

Bail funds have faced backlash about releasing individuals who commit certain crimes like domestic violence. Prairielands’ co-directors said they’ve been faced with difficult decisions about what to do if the individual they’re bailing out has a no-contact order against them, for example, to see if their decision aligns with the organization’s values.

“And we have concluded in all cases that it is. Just because, again, we are focusing on the person who’s being subjected to the state violence and incarceration,” Zalenski said.

‘Ransoming’ Black youth and adults

Prairielands is focusing on Black youth and adults and is taking referrals from their partners across the state. When they receive an application for help, the organization’s advisory board reviews each application. Iowans needing bail assistance can apply online. But they’re “not looking for people to check any particular boxes to qualify for assistance,” Zalenski said. They don’t classify people like the state does.

“We don‘t have any strict ineligibility criteria,” Zalenski said.

Assessments seeking to determine who is violent or dangerous are “frequently weaponized particularly against people of color and we see them enacted in really inequitable ways,” Zalenski said.

Prairielands is staffed with volunteers and has no regular full-time staff. Volunteers are trained to pay bail and may only work a few hours a year.

“But it’s a really important function because we actually need people with feet on the ground who are willing to go down to the clerk’s office and make payments,” Zalenski said.

Sometimes, logistics can be a barrier, she said. They will pay bail anywhere in Iowa, and “they’re good” covering Eastern Iowa, the Corridor, which includes Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. They also cover Waterloo, Des Moines and Polk County and western counties, and are open to applicants anywhere in Iowa.

When applicants request support, Prairielands’ advisory board, which consists of four to five members, reviews the case. Brown, who became very involved after her son’s experience, is the board’s “heart and soul,” Zalenski said.

The Antwan Project

Antwan Brewster Jr., Leslie Brown and Destiny Brewster. Photo courtesy of Brown.

In February of 2021, Brewster became the first person Prairielands bailed out when they began focusing on criminal pretrial bail unrelated to protests.

“To honor Antwan’s life and to honor Leslie’s contribution to our work and who we are as an organization, this year we launched the Antwan Project on Feb. 16, which is the anniversary of when he was bailed out,” said Panicucci.

Its goal: provide bail for 22 individuals to mark the anniversary of when the organization posted Brewster's bail.

“That’s a big stretch for us, but we’re inspired by Leslie and Antwan’s story, and we know the impact that makes for individuals,” Panicucci said.

Zalenski agreed.

“We want more referrals,” she said. “We really want to be able to help as many people as possible with this project and provide as much support for folks.”

Brown, who had Brewster when she was 17 years-old, is proud to serve on the advisory board.

“The program is named after my son,” Brown said. “We bail people out of jail that’s been in there — discriminated against — just sitting in there because they don’t have the money to get out.”

Brown doesn’t want other mothers to suffer, or people who are jailed to feel helpless.

“It lets them know that you have people out here that love you, that can help you,” she said. “That people understand what you’re going through."

Antwan’s Story

Happier times: Antwan Brewster Jr, Destiny Brewster and Leslie Brown. Photo courtesy of Brown.

Brown remembers following her aunt from Chicago, Illinois, to Burlington, Iowa in 2012. Brown then moved her family, Brewster and his younger sister, Destiny, 19, to Keokuk, Iowa.

“When you’re a city girl from Chicago, you just want to see something different,” said Brown who has worked in hospitals for 27 years.

On a frigid winter morning, Zalenski and a Prairielands’ volunteer posted Brewster’s bail. He had entered jail in the fall wearing a T-shirt and left jail in what felt like a “polar vortex blast,” Zalenski said.

“We had a chance to talk to him about what his experience had been like and what he was looking forward to being out,” Zalenski said.

After Brewster left jail, he went on to receive a welding license and forklift certification and found new employment, Brown said. He hadn’t planned to move before his jail stay, Brown said, but months after his release, he found an apartment in nearby Fort Madison, was working and had entered a new relationship.

Prairielands volunteer Grace, Leslie Brown and Antwan Brewster on the day Prairielands posted his bail. Photo courtesy of Prairielands.

Then Brown got the call she never imagined she’d receive. A stranger had stabbed Brewster in an upstairs hallway at his apartment complex on Oct. 19, 2021.

“They told me, get there now,” Brown said. “My baby was fighting to stay, but his left lung collapsed. They had to do CPR on him twice.”

Brown, a self-described woman of God, prayed as hospital personnel worked to save her son, a good basketball player who earned medals in high school, whose favorite color was royal blue. The son who often called her on the phone and always said: “What’s up, Mama.”

“I ran in there, and they were working on my baby,” Brown said. “I told him, Antwan, Mama is right here.”

Brewster had lost 124 days in jail. Eight months later, amid starting a new life, he was murdered by someone Brown said he didn’t know. He left behind two sons, Jalyn Brown, 7, and Kingston Rein, 2. He never got to meet his daughter, Selina Brewster, born on Feb. 4 — four months after his murder. His funeral was held in Chicago.

“He had such a beautiful heart, a forgiving heart,” Brown said.

Fort Madison Police Chief Mark Rohloff said the investigation into Brewster’s death is still open and “very much being worked on.” He said the Iowa Department of Public Safety is leading the investigation. Authorities have a person of interest, and a “certain amount” of forensic evidence has been sent away for analysis, he said.

“We hope to get some sort of developments on that, but these things do take time,” he said.

Time that Brown has spent mourning — she also lost the grandmother who raised her a few months after Brewster was killed. She still doesn’t sleep well. She wonders about her son’s killer and wants detectives to make an arrest “ASAP.”

“You can lock my son up for four to five months for something he didn’t do, but you let this man walk around that took my son’s life?” she said.

Brown looked inside Brewster’s wallet, now in her care. She saw the rent receipt dated July 19, 2021, for the apartment he was so excited about — at the complex where his life came to a tragic end.

What-ifs hang in the air. What if Brewster had remained in Keokuk after his 124-day jail stay and never moved to Fort Madison? Did going to jail for a crime he didn’t commit derail his life?

Brown doesn’t have an answer.

Top Banner: Photos courtesy of Prairielands and Brown.

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