Courthouse Blockade: A Bold Step for Bail Reform in Rhode Island

Six people blocked a prison bus from leaving the 6th District Courthouse on Dorrance Street on Thursday night in support of BAIL ON 32, legislation that would mandate the courts levy reasonable bail on accused probation violators. No arrests were made.

Rhode Island News: Courthouse Blockade: A Bold Step for Bail Reform in Rhode Island

May 19, 2023, 4:11 pm

By Uprise RI Staff

A rally for bail reform outside the 6th District Courthouse on Dorrance Street in Providence escalated into an action where six people blocked the exits at the rear of the courthouse, preventing sheriffs from returning their bus, and potentially people denied bail, to the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in Cranston. Two pairs of protesters, connected via PVC piping to make it harder for police to arrest them, blocked the two courthouse gates on Friendship Street at around 3:45pm.

Before that, at around 3pm, well over 100 people were rallying on the courthouse steps on Dorrance Street. Advocates representing dozens of social justice and criminal justice reform organizations had been tabling and handing out literature to passersby since 9am.

The rally and tabling were organized by Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) – in cooperation with Weber Renew, Reclaim RI, AMOR RI, PrYSM, Sisters of Mercy, George Wiley Center, and Black Lives Matter – in an effort to pass BAIL ON 32, legislation presently before the Rhode Island General Assembly that requires the court to set reasonable bail for all those individuals who appear before it as probation violators. Currently, those accused of violating their probation, what is called a 32F violation, can be held without a hearing for an unlimited amount of time. The BAIL ON 32 bill, says supporters, “would require the courts to grant bail or personal recognizance to those accused of violations, so that they can fight new charges and violations from within their communities instead of behind bars.”

DARE writes:

Last year, judges denied bail to 85% of people accused of a probation violation under 32F. Under the current RI law, people like Ms. Pona who are accused of a probation violation (whether for technical violation of their terms, a new charge, or “failure to keep the peace”) may be held without bail for up to 10 business days while they await a violation hearing. In practice, this period of incarceration often stretches on for months before the person has the chance to defend themselves in court. Ms.Pona’s death highlights what the protesters say is the cruel impact of denying due process to people on probation.

Indeed, Rhode Island has the 2nd highest rate of people on probation in the country, and the 3rd longest probation sentences. This system’s impacts fall hardest on Rhode Island’s Black communities, with Black men representing 1 in 20 of the state’s population but 1 in 6 of those on probation. 

“Once you’re on probation, you become an easy target. Any racial profiling or false accusation can land you in prison for months and you’re treated as guilty until proven innocent. It’s an endless trap.” Raamar Logan, DARE organizer. 

BAIL ON 32 would require that judges assign bail to people accused of probation violation. This would allow people in situations like Ms. Pona’s the chance to go back home until they can defend themselves in court. It would protect a judge’s discretion to set bail as they see fit and would not restrict their ability to hold someone without bail on any new charge.  

“For decades Rhode Island’s probation system has violated our rights and destroyed our communities,” said DARE organizer Joe Benton. “BAIL ON 32  is a straight-forward step toward a more just system. It will save families and it will save lives.”

Bail on 32 Protest

The rally was also to honor Carol Pona, who passed away in ACI custody after being held three months without a hearing on an alleged 32F probation violation. At the rally, a memorial was built in Carol Pona’s honor.

An altar for Carol stood in front of the tables throughout the day, decorated with flowers, candles, family photos, and pennants bearing the names of petition signatories for the BAIL ON 32 campaign.

The speaking portion of the rally outside the courthouse was interrupted about 45 minutes in by the announcement that organizers, “had just received a notice from a group of community members that have blocked the side road over here on Friendship Street in solidarity with our action and our campaign… We support these folks and we’re going to march down the sidewalk at a safe distance to support and keep eyes on them and keep them safe… For our collective safety do not escalate. We have people here on parole, probation, with records, undocumented folks – if you get heated or fight with the cops or with bystanders or otherwise lose control of yourself, you’ll be putting everybody in danger.”

Minutes later, the rally transformed into a march and arrived at the site of the action to block the ACI transport bus. Over 100 people chanted, sang, and bore witness to those participating in the action.

Bail on 32 Action

Officers from the Providence Police Department arrived about nine minutes later, spoke to the people blocking the exits and to police liaisons speaking on their behalf. Rhode Island State Police officers arrived about nine minutes after that. At one point officers put hands on two of the people blocking the exit, and attempted an arrest, but the tube they had locked their arms into made that arrest difficult. After a few minutes, members of the police department stopped trying to arrest people.

City and state police officers continued to arrive, more than 20 in all. Meanwhile the 100 people from the rally witnessed the events, chanting and singing. The rally and the action were entirely peaceful. Two hours later all but a small number of police officers had left the scene. No arrests had been made. The bus to the ACI remained in the parking lot. The gates never opened.

Those risking arrest wore white, and the PVC tubes they used were decorated with flowers

Uprise RI received the following statement:

Yesterday at 3:45 PM, we took peaceful action to block the sheriff’s bus that transports people from 6th District Courthouse probation hearings to prison. None of us are on probation, or we would be at the ACI right now, waiting weeks or months for a 32F violation hearing for ‘failure to keep the peace.’ 

State and Providence Police came out with the K-9 unit to make arrests. They began to cuff us but were unable to take us into custody due to the equipment we were using and the protection of the community around us. Safety from police abuse was afforded us because of the presence of white people in our group and a crowd and media that kept eyes on us. 

The sheriff’s bus was trapped inside the gate for 1.5 hours, and was still there when we all left at 7 PM, after those in custody were escorted out another exit and taken to the ACI. 

We are grateful to our community member Diamond, who joined us in solidarity with her incarcerated friends. 

This courthouse, and this bus, will not stop disappearing our Black, brown, and low-income community members behind closed doors, windowless buses, and prison walls. Every business day at 2 PM, judges deny bail to 85% of alleged probation violators. Every business day between 2-4 PM, these individuals are taken away to prison.

Our hope is that this action forces RI legislators to see and halt this cycle of state violence. We took action in solidarity with DARE’s BAIL ON 32 campaign, and we uplift their call to attend the State House hearing when it is scheduled. Please text ‘BAILON32’ to 24365 for updates on the hearing and future actions.

We are thankful to DARE for their daily work, the full day of court support tabling they organized, and the space they created for public mourning and testimony. We are moved by the strength and vision of Carol’s family to advocate for others even as they grieve. Their love for our community is direct resistance to a system that isolates and divides us.

From the rally, before the action:

Organizations in support of BAIL ON 32 include:

  • Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE)
  • Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance (AMOR)
  • Amos House
  • Black and Pink Providence
  • Center for Health and Justice Transformation
  • Economic Progress Institute
  • FANG Collective
  • George Wiley Center
  • Groundwork RI
  • Latino Policy Institute
  • Michael A. DiLauro, Esq.,
  • The Just Criminal Justice Group
  • New Urban Arts
  • OpenDoors RI
  • Project Weber/RENEW
  • Reentry Campus Program
  • RI Association for Addiction Professionals
  • RI Center for Justice
  • RI Coalition to End Homelessness
  • RI Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty
  • RI Poor People’s Campaign
  • RI State Council of Churches
  • RI Womxn’s Action Initiative
  • RI Working Families Party
  • Showing Up For Racial Justice RI
  • Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team
  • Stop Torture RI Coalition
  • Substance Use Policy Education and
  • Recovery PAC
  • United Way of RI
  • White Coats For Black Lives, Alpert Medical School Chapter