The modern American justice system has proved itself to be exactly that — more of a system than a benevolent entity of justice. It’s driven by for-profit businesses that care little for those reentering society, all in the hopes that they’ll become return customers. In the state of California, the average parolee released from prison walks out with $200 in state funds, mountains of time-consuming paperwork, and the clothing they walked in with. For those without a safety net like family and friends to rely on, that can feel like little more than a return ticket back behind bars.
According to a 2005 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice (this sort of study is always on a time delay, as they span years), 67.8% of the 404,638 state prisoners released across 30 states were arrested within three years of release and over 75% within five years. Early indications are that those numbers will only get worse — due to the rise of homelessness across the country and growing economic inequality. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the rate of homelessness is especially high amongst people who have been recently released from prison, as well as those who have been incarcerated more than once, hitting people of color and women the hardest.
Without a strong support system, the challenge of successfully reentering society is immense. But Alia Kruz — actress, producer, activist, and founder of the Bail Bag Foundation — is doing her part to change that. Her work hopes to fill in the gaps, in a very practical sense, when the justice system fails those awaiting trial or parolees.
Bail Bag Foundation is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that helps formerly incarcerated people transition back into society successfully by supplying each parolee with a duffle bag packed with living essentials.
“Imagine this scenario,” Kruz says, “you’re released on a hot summer day into the outfit you were wearing when you were arrested four years ago. Then you have to take a two-hour bus across town to get a phone that requires no credit check. The cost of that trip plus the phone is about $110, followed by a sandwich next door for $8. On top of that, a motel at $60 for the night. Now you‘ve got $22 to last you until you find a job, work it for two weeks then wait to receive a check .. all while returning to work in that same four-year-old fit. And this is assuming you got a job in the first week you were out!”
Each bag consists of a full tracksuit, a pair of sneakers, dress shoes, a casual pair of dress pants, a collared shirt, undershirts, underpants, socks, hygiene essentials, and a journal at the cost of around $300. By offering these essentials, Kruz hopes Bail Bag can help get people back on their feet quicker and avoid recidivism.
“I personally shop for each one of these people and I’m telling you the look on their faces when they see that someone has specifically thought of them is so worth it,” says Kruz. “I get it, a lot of these people committed crimes. No one‘s trying to make them the victims. But releasing people into conditions like this is beneath their dignity and likely to create similar conditions to the ones that lead them there to begin with.” She pauses, adding. “Therefore, it’s counterproductive to society at large.”
Kruz hopes that those who have been recently released from prison can use the gear supplied for future job interviews or to return to school. And though it’s a small-scale program, so far it’s proven a success — Bail Bag has provided over 100 bags to recipients in Southern California and has become a powerful resource across six major counties in the Southland, with a steadily growing demand.
Kruz already sees ways in which the program can scale up to meet the moment.
“In-kind sponsorships are huge!” she says. “Partnerships with corporations that are willing to donate items it is key. Sketchers [shoe company] has been so generous with us I don’t even have the words. As we expand, we would also like to do private label to lower the cost of the bags themselves.”
While Kruz’s key goal is to supplement both the items and the empathy that the current prison system lacks, she also wants to educate the public on the challenges that parolees face.
“We see a lot of inmates released without their IDs,” she says. “This seems like a solvable problem, seeing that when citizens are incarcerated all of their information is right in front of them. There should be a two-part system that releases citizens with IDs from the get-go.”
Responding to a system that often seems counter-intuitive is a constant challenge. But Kruz is optimistic that we can strengthen our respective communities by acting as a community. And she’s not shy about asking her own community for support while educating people about the challenges parolees face.
“Just be cognizant of our own social stigmas toward the formerly incarcerated,” she says. “And if you want to support our initiative, spread the word, share a link, tell someone about it, pass it along to someone else who might be interested in supporting or has a similar cause to ours. As of now, we are self-supported so every dollar you gift goes directly to the cause.”