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Cryptocurrency Against Incarceration  

News & Features | February 5, 2018

Every night, in every part of the United States, adults who have never been formally tried in court fall asleep between prison walls. They are in prison because they could not afford to pay bail. Cash bail, originally designed as a down payment to ensure that a person shows up to their court date, functions to keep low-income individuals in jail while awaiting trial. In response to this injustice, The New Inquiry, a media non-profit, founded Bail Bloc, a desktop application that uses the technology of cryptocurrency to turn the processing power of personal computers into bail money for low-income incarcerated folks.

The Bail Bloc application raises money for the Bronx Freedom Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting low-income individuals with bail. Bail Bloc works by turning an individual’s computer processing power into cryptocurrency, converting cryptocurrency into dollars, and donating those dollars to the Bronx Freedom Fund, which then uses that money to keep people out of jail while they await trial.

When people download Bail Bloc, their computer takes on the function of “mining” for the cryptocurrency Monero. Monero, like its more famous counterparts Bitcoin and Etherium, protects and validates online transactions through a kind of digital ledger called a blockchain. Blockchain technology is effectively a ledger of every digital transaction that ever happened. The blockchain is maintained by a network of computers simultaneously running computations that validate groups or “blocks” of transactions. Individuals who participate in this network of digital ledger keepers validating the Blockchain are compensated through cryptocurrency. This process of acquiring cryptocurrency though validating blocks of digital transactions is called “mining.”

Maya Binyam, editor of The New Inquiry, explains why mining cryptocurrency is particularly appropriate response to the bail system. Binyam notes, “[Bail is] a way of mining low-income and marginalized communities for resources.” She is referring to the fact that even when an individual pays bail, not all of their money gets returned. Legal systems, even in blue states like Mass-achusetts, charge a bail commissioner fee for every bail posted—in MA that fee is a flat $40. Atara Rich-Shea, Director of Operations at the Mass Bail Fund, discussed at length how this fee, and bail in general, add up to “a system that not only steals great amounts of capital from our communities for a significant amount of time, but also keeps a significant amount of it.” She added, “This is money that could’ve been going to food and rent and raising kids,” and she spoke about the burden on families and communities that coming up with this money can take.

Courts often ask for an amount of bail that far exceeds an individual’s ability to pay, targeting low-income people, specifically people of color. Whether someone awaits trial in jail or at home is completely arbitrary in relation to the issues of guilt and innocence—it has everything to do with class and access to funds. This is the place where discussions of prison bail and cryptocurrency intersect. One of Bail Bloc’s creators, Grayson Earle, noted that the application “does have an internal rhetorical argument inside of it.” He pointed out that the Bail Bloc application effectively argues, “Money isn’t real…if we can generate value out of thin air.”

While the value of the US dollar is constructed, the system of prison bail creates devastating and very real implications for those without access to wealth. This issue is systemic; according to the Bronx Freedom Fund, only one in 10 people in NYC are able to pay the bail requested of them. This results in the other nine out of 10 awaiting their trails in jail. According to CityLab, 62 percent of people incarcerated have not been convicted. In short, bail practices are one of the largest contributors to mass incarceration.

This is where Bail Funds, like the Massachusetts Bail Fund, come in. These organizations meet the immediate need of paying bail for people who cannot; when that person attends their trial, the bail is returned to the fund. For this reason, Rich-Shea calls organizations like hers “the ultimate renewable resource.” The Mass Bail Fund in particular, is staffed entirely by volunteers with legal or other relevant expertise, meaning that every donation goes directly to helping individuals and their communities.

Until recently, bail funds have largely been reliant on monetary donations from individuals and organizations. Rich-Shea characterized Mass Bail Fund’s funding as coming mostly from community members donating $500 – $1000 or less, including many online donations ranging between $25 – $100. They also receive a few unsolicited larger grants a year, totaling around $25,000. The Fund also puts on occasional fundraising events, including a recent Holiday Bail Out with Black Lives Matter Cambridge. Rich-Shea emphasized the importance of monthly donations as money the Fund can count on every month.

The first collaboration Rich-Shea noticed between tech and bail funding was on Twitter, where activists have begun speaking about the bail issue and pointing followers to bail funds. Rich-Shea recalled that when Mass Bail Fund was in danger of shutting down in August, activist Mariame Kaba called her followers to action and raised $50,000 in one week. Rich-Shea added that through Twitter, around a quarter million dollars were raised for bail funds in the month of December.

Another tech innovation to increase bail funding is Appolition, a phone app which automatically donates your spare change to National Bail Out. Together, these initiatives represent an opportunity to weaken the prison-industrial complex, taking more and more people out of prisons, and therefore requiring prisons to lower their capacity or risk losing shareholder value.

In about a month, Bail Bloc raised around $3,000—a meaningful contribution to challenging bail. A few thousand dollars will not end incarceration in the United States, and technically speaking, direct donations to the Bronx Freedom Fund are more effective than just downloading the Bail Bloc application. However, Bail Bloc is not just a means of raising funds, it functions as a rhetorical software, a computer program that makes an argument.

Bail Bloc reminds us that we do not need to approach the architecture of technology with passivity—we can choose how to use the hardware, software, and computing power in the laptops we carry to class every day. And at Tufts, where computer science is the most popular major, Bail Bloc is a particularly pertinent reminder that software engineering, like creating buildings or newspaper articles or economic policies, is not a neutral tool. Grayson commented, “all the people at Tufts studying computer science…they have to be creative¾not just good programmers, but critical thinkers.”

Bail Bloc challenges us to expand our imagination of what we can do with the hardware, software, and computing power of laptops, to educate ourselves on the injustice of the bail systems, and to think creatively about what tools we have available to take on the web of political, economic, and social issues that produce the present reality of mass incarceration.