Ben Watford still marvels at the scene he came across four years ago near the gates that lead into Fairfield Harbour, a short distance from his home. There stood a man, a white man, holding a Black Lives Matter sign.
“I couldn’t believe it, I thought there was something wrong with him,” Watford recalls, shaking his head and smiling.
The man with the sign turned out to be a neighbor, Craig Rosindale. After Watford invited him back to his house, the two men discussed Watford’s efforts to improve the lives of those jailed for what he considered minor misdemeanor offenses. Though Watford was mainly focused on extending visiting hours at the Craven County Jail, Rosindale came up with a plan that surprised Watford even more than the sign he had been carrying earlier.
“He said ‘Ben, why don’t we bail them out?’” Watford recalled. “I told him we didn’t have the money to do that, but he said if I’d put in $2,000 then he’d put in $2,000. I said, ‘Well, I can’t take it with me so why not.’”
With that initial money the men bailed out four people and formed the Craven County Community Bail Fund, a nonprofit which to date has helped secure the release of approximately 100 local residents, according to Watford.
Though Rosindale has since left the area, Watford was able to hire Marine Corps veteran Talina Massey in March to serve as co-director and help carry the CCCBF’s work forward. Watford also hired another local military veteran, who he said wishes to remain anonymous, to help with the organization’s work as well.
Massey explained that CCCBF uses three criteria to identify jailed individuals they can help: they have to be a Craven County resident incarcerated in Craven County Jail; they must be charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor; and their bail must be no higher than $5,000.
“We can do more than that, but we have to go through so much red tape to do it. I haven’t done anyone over $9,000,” Massey said.
Watford stressed that those helped by the bail fund are all nonviolent offenders. And CCCBF only bails out someone once, there are no repeats.
“We don’t bail out sexual offenders, we don’t bail out capital offenders, and we don’t bail out spousal abusers,” he explained.
Massey said she checks Craven County’s active jail roster twice a day to identify those that CCCBF may be able to help. The organization also puts up posters in the jail with its contact information and relies on referrals from defendants’ friends and family members.
“It’s word of mouth, pretty much just the community and the public defender’s office. If they know of someone who has gotten arrested who meets the qualifications of what we do they may let them know about us,” Massey explained.
In North Carolina, defendants who can afford bail can pay the full amount or can use a bail bond agent to post it for them. This is typically done for a fee of 10% of the bond amount.
Unlike licensed bail bondsmen, CCCBF pays the total bail.
“I would never be a bail bondsman because that would mean I’m part of a system that I oppose,” Watford commented.
Lingering in jail for lack of funds
Nationally, Watford said, about 93% of those who are bailed out of jail show up for their court date, a statistic he said has held true during CCCBF’s work. When CCCBF gets the bail money back from one case it recycles those funds to bail out someone else. When clients fail to show up for court, however, that money is lost.
“We’re going to lose about 7%, that’s a given,” Watford said.
Watford, who is 91 years old, explained that his motivation for carrying on with the work is simple.
“We saw a wrong in society and we wanted to change it,” he stated.
Both Watford and Massey said they believe the cash bond system places an undue burden on those at the lower end of the economic scale.
“The poor people who go to jail linger there, they stay there until their case is adjudicated, sometimes as much as six months to a year,” Watford said. “It’s wrong and someone has to do something about it.”
Watford recalled that one of the first people CCCBF bailed out was “a guy who was begging on the streets” who was in jail eight days before they located him. He remembered another early defendant was a man with one leg who lived in his van and had been incarcerated for a month.
“They put him in jail April 9 and he’d been there a month when we bailed him out,” Watford remembered. “His trial did not come up until September 16, so he would have been in jail all that time.”
Massey said she goes into the jail several times a week to interview nonviolent offenders and has grown increasingly concerned about overcrowded conditions.
“The jail was built for 168 beds, but we typically see every day at least 270-310 residents there,” Massey said. “There’s no gym, there’s no other things for them to actually have something to do other than sit in a room for 47 hours and then they get one hour out.”
Massey and Watford both stressed that they have no issue with local law enforcement and maintain good relationships with both Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes and New Bern Police Chief Patrick Gallagher.
“They allow us to come into the jail and utilize the attorney rooms to be able to interview people,” Massey noted. “The officers there are very cooperative in trying to organize times for us to do the interviews. It’s a really incredible partnership that we have. But with that being said it does not change the conditions of the jail.”
Watford said the ultimate goal is to convince Craven County law enforcement officials to lower the rate of arrests for nonviolent offenders.
“We’re trying to get them to tell the police officers to give the people citations, don’t put them in jail. No matter what you do, you go to jail, and it doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Funding hope into the future
Massey said CCCBF currently has a generous sponsor that gives assistance with bail capital. Through other partnerships the organization has also been able to fund a Lyft account to provide rides to defendants when they are bailed out if a family member is not available. Massey said that service is especially important given the remote location of the Craven County Jail in Clarks.
“We’ve heard multiple stories of people being let out of jail walking down the highway to get back to New Bern,” she said.
Massey said they have been asked to bring the bail fund’s services to Jones and Pamlico counties but simply do not have the resources.
“They absolutely need help, but it would have to come from someone like (Watford) starting it with their own money and then finding grants or funding to do it,” she said.
Watford, who is a recipient of the state Order of the Long Leaf Pine as well as the Jefferson Award for Public Service, said he soon plans to step down from his director position and concentrate on grant writing and other services for the organization.
“I’ve been working like this all my life, trying to make a difference in the world, but I’m getting too old,” he commented.
Massey, who serves on the Craven County NAACP executive board and helped found New Bern’s Juneteenth celebration, said she plans to continue reaching out to local partner organizations, particularly area churches, to help extend CCCBF’s work.
“It’s absolutely needed here in Craven County. People need to know that their neighbors give a damn, because they do,” she said. “We’re showing that someone cares, we’re giving them a little bit of hope for when they get out.”
To find out more about the Craven County Community Bail Fund, visit bailfund.org.