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Criminal Justice Reform Series [Part I]: An Interview with Cameron Pipe

Black man wearing a plaid button-down shirt, grey pants, glasses.

In this installment of our criminal justice reform series, we meet Cameron Pipe, Operations Manager at the Bail Project. The Bail Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to combating racial and socioeconomic disparities in the pretrial detention system through a revolving bail fund. To date, the Bail Project has provided bail assistance to over 16,000 people. 

Before joining the Bail Project, first as a bail disruptor, Pipe was a Gates Millenium Scholar at the University of Oklahoma. Pipe is passionate about investigating the intersectionality between race, socioeconomic status, and the criminal justice system. Pipe is from Checotah, Oklahoma. 

Alexandra Vitkin: What was your path to the Bail Project? Did you always intend on doing advocacy work? 

Cameron Pipe: For me, it was definitely Bail Project or bust. 

I went to the University of Oklahoma as an undergraduate student in 2014, around the time when there had been much unrest in Ferguson, and I was really mindful of the criminal justice reform movement. I also come from an impoverished community in rural Oklahoma, so I got to university and found myself exploring what I wanted to do within the social justice realm. After the first couple of years, I got to the point where I said to myself, “It’s time to be serious about what I want the trajectory of my professional career to be.” So, I created my own major centered on criminal and civil law studies with a focus on the intersection between civil rights and the criminal legal system. 

When I finished school, I was at a crossroads. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue on and get my PhD or if I wanted to go to law school. Instead, I decided to work for a few years to figure out what I actually wanted to do. I was aware of the work the Bail Project was doing because there was a site operating in Tulsa, and I grew up about an hour from there. I put all of my eggs into one basket and I said, “Let’s see what happens with the Bail Project.” I ended up getting an interview, and a few interviews later I found out that I was being offered the position.

AV: You said you put “all of your eggs into one basket” with the Bail Project. What aspect of the Bail Project’s mission speaks to you the most? 

CP: There are a few contributing factors. The first is that growing up in Oklahoma, you constantly hear people talk  about the incarceration rate in the state. Historically, Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate in the nation. Lately, we’ve been in the top two with Louisiana. 

Incarceration is a very common theme in the state, and it leads to questions about the administration of criminal justice. As a result, a lot of really great reform efforts have begun over the past five to ten years. But what really stuck out to me about the Bail Project is that the model is simple—freedom should be free. 

The Bail Project is not just a charitable bail organization. We’re a charitable bail organization with a plan, and that plan is to abolish cash bail and replace it with something else that’s not harmful. Additionally, a large component of our work is data driven. I really appreciate the reliance on data because we have created an amazing space for organizers, allies, and activism, but we have to be able to support our claims with data. 

AV: I understand that you were a bail disruptor. Can you tell me more about that position? 

CP: Bail disrupting as a whole and bail disruptors at the organization are considered cogs in the wheel. We do amazing work in all of our departments, but the first task the Bail Project does is provide immediate bail assistance. Bail disruptors are the people who orchestrate that assistance. Bail disruptors go into jails on a daily basis, not only to pay bail, but to work with clients to determine what their supportive release plans will look like. They also support clients in the process of returning to court for their court dates and concluding their cases. As a whole, bail disruptors keep the Project afloat and make the wheels go round. I’m an operations manager now, but I think I’ll always be a bail disruptor at heart because that’s how I entered the organization. We label our site staff and the people who free our clients as bail disruptors, but I’d argue that everyone at the Bail Project is a bail disruptor because we’re all trying to interrupt this incredibly oppressive system. 

AV: What was your most rewarding experience as a bail disruptor? 

CP:  I think it’s really hard to say that there’s anything more rewarding than the actual transaction of paying bail. I will never forget every time I got cash and walked into a jail to give it to a clerk knowing that the cash in my hand was going to get a person out of a cage. 

Aside from that action, the experience of working directly with clients to help meet their needs, whether it’s mental health counseling or finding a place to sleep, is incredibly fulfilling. The final piece is having the resources to be able to support your client through the legal proceedings. The legal system is a mountain, and there are many different paths to the conclusion of a case, but knowing that you’re able to support your client, get your client to court, and explain the process is so important. 

AV: I know you touched on this a bit, but after posting bail, do you connect your clients with other organizations to help address their needs? 

CP: Yes, we do. I’ll provide a bit more context about community release with support here. As I said, it’s the model the Bail Project uses, but it can really be adopted by any jurisdiction. Essentially, the idea is that instead of incarcerating legally innocent people pretrial, we should reconnect them to their communities by identifying community-based resources that can solve their needs. The only services the Bail Project provides are bail assistance, transportation, and court reminders. We direct our clients towards community based organizations to fulfill any other needs whether it’s clothing, food, shelter, mental health counseling, or substance use treatment. These resources form the basis of our clients’ supportive release plans. 

The Bail Project is relatively new to many jurisdictions, and beyond that, it’s a relatively new institution as a whole. We know that we don’t want to be in these jurisdictions forever. Our goal is to put ourselves out of business, so we choose not to create new services when we enter jurisdictions that would leave a void in the community the day we close our doors. Ultimately, that’s why we emphasize working directly with community organizations that are already in the jurisdictions we enter; they have been doing the work before us, and they will continue to do the work after us. 

AV: How do you select bail disruption sites? 

CP: Primarily, we’re in jurisdictions where the need is the greatest or there’s an appetite for reform. Beyond that, there’s an opportunity to enter jurisdictions where we believe our model will be influential in determining what may replace cash bail. For example, Illinois recently passed statewide bail reform, and we’re operating out of the state at our Chicago site; from there we can try to influence what system will replace cash bail. We don’t want risk assessments or algorithmic based determinations of release to replace cash bail. It’s better to be in a state before these alternatives are implemented. We try to expand into jurisdictions in a robust way to ensure that an alternative to cash bail that is just as oppressive is not instituted. 

AV: Based on what you said about algorithms and other alternatives to cash bail, what does the Bail Project do to advocate against those forms of pretrial oppression? 

CP: I appreciate you asking that question because people don’t always consider what the consequences of ending cash bail can be. We want cash bail to end, but we want it to end and be replaced with something that is going to serve the community and the people. 

Risk assessments, other algorithmic based determinations of release, and electronic monitoring are all alternatives to cash bail that we advocate against. We have a policy called After Cash Bail that outlines preferable alternatives to cash bail. It provides a framework for how to implement these alternatives in a given jurisdiction, emphasizing how we prevent those harmful systems of pretrial justice from taking hold. It is a battle because there are plenty of jurisdictions that utilize risk-assessment algorithms, electronic monitoring, and cash bail. In these jurisdictions, you don’t want to end up in a situation where you abolish cash bail, and instead there’s an uptick in pretrial supervision, which is essentially what electronic monitoring is. Pretrial supervision is incredibly oppressive to the client. For example, if your battery dies, and you can’t make it to the courthouse quickly enough, an arrest warrant for you goes live. That is an example of a technical violation. Furthermore, we know that risk assessments often have an incredible racial impact. They are based on neighborhoods, zip codes, and numbers spit out of computers. We want to see individual determinations. 

AV: Did the rhetoric coming out of former President Trump’s administration impact the Bail Project’s work? 

CP: The rhetoric the Trump administration created definitely influenced the Bail Project. It influences us because it influences our clients. Throughout the Trump administration, there was definitely a rhetoric around the idea of criminal justice reform that was not good, for lack of a better word. The rhetoric that came out of the Trump administration really criminalized people in the sense that it propagated this notion that everyone who goes to jail is guilty. 

On the contrary, what we know is that not every person who goes to jail is found guilty or has done something wrong. At our Tulsa site, for example, one in three of the individuals we’re able to pay bail for end up having their cases dismissed. Regardless of what the outcome of the case is, it’s crazy to think that every single time we pay bail for our clients, one out of three people in the room is innocent. To circle back to the idea of rhetoric, it’s important to be conscious of the messaging emanating from the federal government because it will influence how states approach reform. A narrative that is supportive of confinement and emphasizes the administration of punishment can have a large impact on the community of people that we serve. 

AV: What’s the future of the Bail Project? 

CP: We’re going to continue to pay bail; as long as there’s a need for bail assistance, I feel confident that the Bail Project is going to keep its doors open and will continue to do so. 

One of the largest areas of growth for us is continuing to think about how we expand our model to new jurisdictions to interrupt the system before it ends. I’d love to see the Bail Project continue to think about how we strategically enter jurisdictions where cash bail may be on the way out or where cash bail is still happening, but there’s a progressive prosecutor or presiding judge who would like to think about alternative forms of pretrial justice. 

Another exciting piece of news when thinking about the Bail Project’s growth is our new initiative, BAIL OUT the SOUTH. This initiative is a commitment by the organization to focus on the southern states that have had and continue to have particularly oppressive cash bail laws. They levy really large fines, fees, and court costs on the incarcerated people. The difficulty is that these costs are deducted from the cash bails that are paid. This reality could make it difficult for us to operate successfully because we rely on our revolving bail fund—everytime a dollar is spent, the dollar is returned to the fund as long as our clients make their court appearances.

Aside from this caveat, our commitment to expanding into the South lies on the precipice of a few things. As we know, cash bail is incredibly oppressive to black and brown communities. We also know that fifty percent of black people incarcerated in America are in jails located in the South. Moreover, seven out of the ten largest jails in America are in the South. These are unavoidable facts. By expanding into these jurisdictions and doing great work, we will prove that our model can work anywhere.  

AV: A lot of our readers are students who are really interested in advocacy work. Do you have a piece of advice for anyone who is hoping to get involved in advocacy, whether it is bail reform or criminal justice reform more generally? 

CP: Do it. If not you, then who? If not now, then when? To be clear, when approaching reform or bail work, it’s important to note that we’re not on the backside of a mountain sliding down. We’re climbing to the top. We’re progressing. This system is oppressive, and it’s been in place for a long time, but systems don’t go down without a fight.  

For bail specifically, it’s really important to have a large collective of individuals who are committed to the abolition of cash bail. There are many avenues for people to participate in the movement and to do great work whether it’s research, practicing law, or direct service. 

One of the most important facets of advocacy is education. Educate yourself and others about cash bail and how the bail bond industry operates. Understand why taking money from folks who don’t have money and charging them to buy their freedom is oppressive. Think about how you as an individual can play a role in the progressive movement towards ending cash bail. Like I said before, it has to be someone, so why not you? 

AV: Like you said, the system won’t go down without a fight, but that can be a scary prospect. How do you stay hopeful? 

CP: People give me hope. Our clients give me hope because they’re the ones we do this work for. Knowing the struggles they’ve been through to gain access to their freedom and watching them dive back into their communities, go back to work, and make amends with their families absolutely gives me hope. Whatever it may be, it’s important to think about our clients as the center of what we do to continue to operate as an organization with a vision. We have a vision for ending cash bail and for what pretrial justice should look like. We have to continue to think about what brings us the hope that will allow us to achieve that vision. For me, it’s not just the clients, it’s also the people whom I surround myself with at work every single day. My colleagues are amazing advocates and allies who have often been working on reform for so long. They have a wealth of wisdom and experiences that keep us all energized and thinking about how we approach work each day more productively than the day before. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.