I started getting the calls from Riker’s Island over Memorial Day Weekend. I was by a lake with my family in the middle of nowhere, and had left my phone charging in our cabin as a nod to boundaries, so I kept missing them. There was never a voicemail and calling back didn’t work. I Googled the number, finally, and the Internet told me it was an inmate calling.
As a teenager doing a zine, I was told to get a PO Box to accommodate the letters I’d soon start receiving from prison residents, but I didn’t think any incarcerated fans had my phone number. I could only imagine it was some kind of mistake, or scam. I started carrying my phone with me.
I joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program 8 or 9 years ago — I knew I wanted to be a foster parent someday, and it was what I could do at the time. I’ve always had a thing about at-risk kids. I want to get in there and buffer them from the long road of potential traumatic experiences, probably because of my own less-than-ideal childhood. And if I’m being honest, back then, I thought maybe volunteering to mentor a child would help me be better, help me stop drinking too much, give me a reason to get to bed at a decent hour.
I met my little sister when she was 11 — she was my second match, and I loved her immediately. To decide on a match, you meet up with your potential little, her parent/s, and the caseworker for a group discussion. Then, if all goes well, you and the kid have a mini match date — you walk around the block or get a donut while you feel each other out. Afterward, everyone has veto power. Nobody used it.
She was precocious, sassy, funny. Now, seven years later, she was calling me from jail.
She didn’t ask me to bail her out. She’d been in a month already; her family had gotten the money together to bail her out but they needed paystubs for the bail bondsman and nobody had that kind of job. She didn’t complain. She tried to hide it when her voice cracked.
She was in for assault; the way she described it sounded fishy, like she was skipping steps. In her version, she hadn’t done anything too bad at all, but I knew she was charged with a felony and a girl was in the hospital. The bail was set at $10,000. I wouldn’t find out until I called a bail bondsman that the charge was gang-related.
Her brother called me. Could I “just sign” for my little sister’s bail, they wanted to know? They had the money, he explained again, but they needed the signature of a working person. My first instinct was yes, of course I would, yes. After a month, whatever lesson she had to learn from RIker’s Island had surely been learned. She was still in high school and she had a baby son. At the time, I’d thought her turning up pregnant was the biggest possible drama that could come up. I forced myself to slow down and do some research.
I got the number of the bail bondsman my sister’s mother had been using and called myself. I felt my privilege cutting across the phone like a particularly efficient knife. Three signatures were required, then two, then none, “at my salary.” I called other bail bond places, something I’m not sure my sister’s Spanish-speaking mother knew was an option. “This rate is for you,” one guy told me. “You sound like a responsible person.” I wondered how much you could tell about a person’s responsibility from their voice on the phone. I wondered if responsible meant “white.”
“Certain kinds of people,” another told me, “they receive assistance, and I can’t go after their money.” I was assured by everyone that if I were to post bail — the percentage of the total that a bail bondsman requires — they would go after my money if need be. The bail total was equal to almost my entire savings. If my little sister skipped town or didn’t make her court dates, I’d have to hand it all over to one of these guys. “Can you trust her?” the guy I liked the best asked. We were no longer officially matched, and we hadn’t spoken much over the past couple of years. I wasn’t sure.
I can’t do it, I decided. I just can’t be liable for that much money. After all, I had my own kid and my own life to worry about. Even my mother said I shouldn’t do it, and she’d taken in every stray child she’d ever met and tried to help. I felt I just didn’t have the option right now.
My little sister kept calling. “I’d be responsible for that money,” I told her. “It’s money I don’t have.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you,” she said.
I found myself negotiating. “You’d have to check in with me, we’d work out a schedule. I’d have to go with you to your court dates.”
“Anything you want.” She sounded sincere, and scared.
I sighed. “Tell your mom to call me. She has to call me back so we can figure out when to meet up. I can’t do anything until she calls me.”
She called me. We met at the three-signatures place and she handed me an envelope of cash that would turn out to be about 500 dollars short. The rules had changed overnight since I’d called — now they needed the signatures of two working people again. I raised my voice. “It’s our policy,” she told me. “We don’t believe one person could pay that money.”
“I can,” I said.
“I’m not going to stand here and fight with you all day,” the woman told me. My privilege was no good here, from the other side of the bullet-proof glass.
I took the envelope of cash and took a cab to another bail bond place, the “responsible” guy. He didn’t require any other signatures, just a check and my signature on a bunch of forms. He kept asking if I was sure, which made me sure.
It took a day and a half to process everything — she got out on a Saturday afternoon. She called me fresh from a shower and wearing her own clothes. We made a date to go to the bail bondsman on Tuesday — she needed to check in and get her picture taken.
I showed up on time. She was over an hour late.
“We’re not off to a good start,” I told her.
But it was so good to see her, to hug her. “I’m going to come over with my toothbrush and scrub your house, your body and your baby,” she said. I laughed, hard.
We left, I went to work. I got a text from her a few hours later — “Thank you emily for everything.”
I don’t know if I made the right choice, but I made the one I had to make.