Not to be confused with his less-fashionable counterpart starring in the Netflix original hit series F.R.I.E.N.D.S., Matthew F. Perry, 22, is back in Richmond to continue his work with the Richmond Community Bail Fund.
In the spring of 2019, he graduated from New York University summa cum laude with a degree in Social and Cultural Analysis. But his prouder accomplishment is co-founding the Richmond Community Bail Fund with Ashley Diaz Mejias in 2016. Like the other sixty-nine bail funds licensed in the United States, the RCBF is a 501c3 certified non-profit dedicated to liberating persons who have been detained without trial and cannot afford to post bail. The organization has three active members— Perry, Mejias, and Luca Suede— and since June 2017, the group has posted bail for twenty-five people.
BSW caught up with Perry to discuss the Bail Fund, the concept of prison abolition, and the system’s roots in American slavery.
DHR: What are the functions of the RCBF?
MFP: The most direct function is that we bail people out of jail who can’t afford to do so themselves.
On the level of direct service, we also give all the people we bail out support in meeting their pre-trial release obligations. Anything that the court says they have to do before their trial, we help them get that done. Often, that means driving them to and from court.
We have a few reasons to be interested in that: first, obviously, we don’t want to see these people get ensnared by the system we tried to free them from in the first place. On top of that, if they violate the terms of their release, we may not get the bail money back.
If they miss one of these appointments, then they’re in trouble. Our first client had a pre-trial obligation to go to a downtown office every week, but he was homeless and lived in Mechanicsville, so we had to give him a ride. If he had missed the appointments, there would have been a warrant out for his arrest, then he would have been charged and held without bond.
The direct service work is inextricable from our ultimate goal: to create a society in which we aren’t needed. The fact that a bail fund has to exist is pretty upsetting. There are so many legally innocent people who are in jail because they couldn’t come up with a thousand dollars that over seventy non-profit organizations are dedicated to bailing out some small fraction of that population. The fact that that is true is a pretty unflinching indictment of society.
People shouldn’t be held in a cage before they receive their verdict, and especially not because they can’t afford to free themselves.
DHR: The function of cash bail is profit, yes?
MFP: There’s a conversation to be had about what incentives the systems actors are following that made it this way. Profit is absolutely one. Anti-black racism is obviously another one. Then there’s something to be said about the inertia of proceduralism. There’s a lot of people just doing their jobs every day who don’t view themselves as contributing to a project of racist mass incarceration.
DHR: What is your current position in the bail fund?
MFP: We don’t have hard roles, but the term I use is co-director. The most accurate way to sum up my current involvement is that I am one of three people who collectively run the day-to-day operations of the bail fund.
DHR: How did you get involved in anti-prison-industrial-complex activism?
MFP: At the very start of my first semester at NYU— I think mid-September— I was friends with Sam Ulmschneider on Facebook, and he posted a link to a New York Times article called the Bail Trap.
It’s an article about the injustices of the cash bail system, using specific examples from New York City. The article name-dropped an organization called the Bronx Freedom Fund, which was the first formal bail fund to be incorporated into a 501c3.
I only use that qualifying language because people have been organizing bail funds for as long as there has been bail. But this was the first real formal, institutional, licensed non-profit.
I had just had a meeting with the people in my dorm building at the time. I was in a dorm that was supposed to be focused on community service— I initially applied because it was right off of Washington Square Park. (Laughs). But I ended up in some big meeting with one of the dorm administrators, and he was saying, “We do a lot of event programming; we like to do stuff that’s enriching. If you have any ideas for an event, you’re always welcome to come and talk to me.”
I was an eager young college kid, and I wanted to get college started on the right foot, do something cool, you know. So I shot at email to the email@example.com account, saying, “Hey, I’m a freshman at NYU, I’m in a dorm that has this many kids, was wondering if you wanted to talk sometime about doing an event here sometime.” At this time, the Bronx Freedom Fund was one person, Ezra Ritchin. He responded back, and we had a phone call where I said the same thing. I kind of oversold it— “Oh, we have hundreds of students, we could leverage them for blah blah blah”— but anyway, we organized a panel event where he and the executive director of the bail fund came down to NYU and spoke to a professor who was one of the faculty-in-residence for the dorm.
DHR: And this is just you, early freshman year, trying to have a good time.
MFP: Yeah, pretty much, but it went well, and since I was looking for something to do the next summer, I ended up asking if I could intern with the Bronx Freedom Fund, and I became one of their first two formal interns. It was a tiny organization with a ton of work to do, so I was basically just an unpaid employee.
I got to work with Ezra, who had graduated recently, and was already running this complex non-profit. He was very articulate about his passions. I got to know him very well that summer, and I got to see what a successful bail fund looked like up close.
That summer, my dad drove me home from school, and we have the type of relationship where we can talk about big-picture philosophical political things at length. So we ended up talking about bail quite a bit, because the outrage for me was still fresh. I’ll talk about bail now, but I could really talk about it then. Like, “Can you believe that they do this to people?”
So, my dad, who was on the board for the Blue Sky Fund at the time, asked me if I wanted to be put in touch with some of the board members who he thought might be interested in a bail fund. After lots of long-distance phone calls, we assembled a working team of adults in Richmond who were actually capable of doing the leg-work required to start a non-profit.
So, basically, it was explicitly collaborative before it even got off the ground. Ashley Mejias was one of those people who was in right away, along with her husband Alex, who actually is the chair of our fiscal sponsor, the Business Coaliton for Justice. Certainly without them, there would be no bail fund.
Spring of 2017 was when we began work, and we bailed out our first person that June, and we’ve been rolling ever since.
DHR: I have to go back to a point that you made earlier. You said, “Obviously, people should not be detained in prison before they get their verdict.”
I don’t think that’s necessarily obvious to many people.
What would your response be to someone saying, “Look, this guy robbed me, or raped me, and there’s no amount of money you can pay to get him out.”
MHP: This is a question that people who take an abolitionist approach— as I do, and which the bail fund does— often get: “What about the people who are true public safety threats? What do we do with murderers and rapists?”
My answer is that there are ways to ensure public safety in those scenarios that don’t rely on cash bail and don’t rely on an indiscriminate systemic presumption against pre-trial release for every defendant, which is what we have now.
DHR: When you say abolitionist, what I understand is that you are in favor of abolishing all prisons.
Abolitionism isn’t concerned so much with the destruction of the existing system but with the creation of what would replace it. In a world without cash bail, if there were someone arrested on clear evidence of having murdered somebody, we would still be able to sequester them from the rest of society.
If a person poses a clear and present danger to other people, we should detain them— but in conditions that are more humane. Like, we don’t need to lock them in a cage and deny them access to sunlight and adequate nutrition. How does having only one tiny window in a prison cell make the rest of society safer?
There are so many other ways to ensure and implement public safety, and the way that we are currently doing this is killing thousands of people, irreversibly exploding the lives of millions more, and inflicting massive amounts of psychological damage. The crux of the issue is that the way that we are doing it now is unacceptable and intolerable.
DHR: What do you suggest are the other ways to ensure and implement public safety?
MFP: A lot of people across the U.S. are experimenting with restorative and transformative justice systems. There is no silver bullet at this point, but those programs have done a lot of really inspiring and instructive work.
Restorative and transformative justice systems operate a little differently, but the bedrock principle for both is that community members make the crucial decisions— they aren’t run by some unaccountable arm of the state.
It looks for victim support, not punishing the perpetrator. The lens it adopts is, “What do we need to make sure that appropriate reparations are made for the harm that has been done?”— that’s the first question— and the second is, “How do we make sure that this never happens again?”
Oftentimes, the answer to the first question involves working with the victim to see what they want out of the situation, which the current system does not do in any capacity. Just the other day, I was down at the city jail, and a young woman about 21 walked in and told the magistrate, “My boyfriend was locked up last night for hitting me. The judge asked him where he was going to stay if he got out, and he said he was coming to my house, the house that we share. The judge said that was unsafe. I’m here now, I’m saying that it’s safe. Can you please let him out? I want my boyfriend to return home, and I don’t need him to be locked in a cage.”
Obviously, it’s a complex situation, and there are a lot of intricacies in domestic violence that aren’t accounted for in that interaction, but it’s clear that what the pre-trial justice system was doing to her boyfriend was not what she wanted to be done. In order to doubt that conclusion, you’d have to completely disregard what she was saying.
DHR: Somebody might say that the law is keeping her safe.
MFP: What if she’s not saying that?
DHR: Somebody might say that most people can’t think for themselves. I’m not saying that, but somebody might.
MFP: That whole justified paternalism argument— “We can make decisions for other people because we’re wiser than them”— I just think that’s bullshit. I’ll stake that claim and I’ll stand by that.
But we’re kind of digressing a bit. The main point is that transformative and restorative justice systems center the outcomes that the current system pretends to center. Fairness, equity, justice.
DHR: But I think the main question is, if prisons are abolished and replaced by transformative and restorative justice systems…where are the criminals kept? Are people still housed in prisons?
MFP: You would build some sort of building where people are detained, but it would be open air, prisoners would be allowed outside, they would have access to health care, they could interact with each other. They would be treated like humans, who, for public safety reasons, can’t be brought into broader society, but are still living recognizably human lives.
So at that point, do you still call that building a prison? It serves only one similar function, which is to keep people sequestered from the rest of society. The amount of change that would have to happen to get from our system to that system would be so vast that you would have to give it a new name. The change would be fundamental.
DHR: Do you think crime would increase in a society in which prisons don’t serve a punitive function?
MFP: No, because it would still perform the function of incapacitating people.
If life inside of a prison is comparable to life in broader society, that is a problem with broader society. What kind of argument is that? You’re going to look at the fact that people are committing crimes to get into prisons and say we need to make prisons worse? No, you need to make life better.
DHR: Is there any kind of legislative support whatsoever for prison abolition?
There is support for “reformist reforms.” A reformist reform doesn’t limit the scope and power of the system— it just lessens suffering in some way. A non-reformist reform, on the other hand, would reduce harm while disempowering the system itself.
At the Richmond City Jail, if you want to call the same inmate twice in 24 hours, you have to pay an enormous amount of money. A reformist reform would be using legislative energy and resources to reduce fees for prison phone calls, instead of saying, “We shouldn’t have a system in which people are required to pay any money to speak to incarcerated family members.” Or really— why is there a need for a phone call at all? Why can’t it be an in-person visit?
For most of the legislative history of mass incarceration, we’ve really only ever seen reformist-reforms. Another example would be reduction of mandatory minimums instead of abolition of mandatory minimums.
But I do think that’s starting to shift now. I’ve looked at some of the criminal-justice plans that some of the presidential candidates are putting out, and there are lots of things that would be true reforms.
DHR: What’s an example?
MFP: One of the things that Elizabeth Warren did at the start of her plan was to reframe the idea of public safety. Basically, she said that our current system does not make us safer, and we cannot justify it on the basis of public safety. Public safety looks like giving under-resourced neighborhoods resources. Public safety looks like affordable housing and living wages. Public safety does not look like the heavy club of the criminal justice system.
That kind of language would have been hard to imagine in 2016, and certainly wasn’t around in 2012 or 2008.
DHR: How does the modern American system trace its roots to slavery?
MFP: The popular narrative, propagated in the New Jim Crow and Slavery by Another Name, is that it started with chattel slavery, a system designed to totally subjugate black people and extract maximum profit from their labor. An inextricable part of that was dehumanizing black people and constituting them as a racial other, permanently affixed below white people in a racial hierarchy.
At the time of slavery “abolition,” most of the country was still invested in that hierarchy, especially in the South, but in the North, too. And so, the popular narrative is that once slavery was abolished, there was a brief moments of victory in the fight for multiracial liberal democracy. There were Reconstruction governments that popped up in the South that governed in a way that treated black people as humans deserving of equal rights.
Those governments were defeated by organized white supremacist terrorist movements in the South, aided and abetted by Northern and federal indifference. The people with the investments in white supremacy thereby regained control.
The ruling powers then began to pass convict leasing laws and vagrancy laws. All forms of black social behavior were criminalized. “Loitering on a corner” was suddenly grounds for arrest.
Once you were in the prison system, you would be “leased” to your local capitalist— probably a former plantation owner at this point in history— and you would work for them, once again, for free. So the prison system was used as a means to continue slavery. That went on until the early 20th century, when they began to be sold to state government agencies.
What Douglas Blackman uncovered in Slavery by Another Name is that we see a decline in convict leasing, which means that fewer and fewer incarcerated people were sent to private farms to do work. But instead, they were getting sent to work on public projects. These prisoners were almost exclusively African-American.
The next inflection point in that narrative is the transition from Jim Crow to mass incarceration. Once again, we have one means of racial subjugation that is outlawed— legally enforceable segregation, by the 1964 Civil Rights Act— but then mass incarceration flowers right after, because again, we didn’t change our fundamental societal bedrock investment in white supremacy. At this point, the inherent assumption of criminality has also been extended to Latino people, and queer people, and transgender people, and anyone whose identity marks them as a threat to the social order.
That’s a neat little narrative, and no historical narratives are that causal or straightforward, but I do think that the general spirit of it is true.
This is a society in many ways animated by anti-blackness, and a society with a general illness that inclines us towards punishment as a solution. As a country, we have a fundamental belief in the righteousness of violent punishment, and that undergirds the prison system. It is an addiction to punishment that is kind of unprecedented.
DHR: The Roman Empire used to crucify people.
MFP: Well, yes, but I’m talking about the scale of the phenomenon. The scale of the American prison system is unprecedented, and the outrageous numbers are relatively recent. The go-to statistic is that we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. There are more people in pre-trial detention today than there were total incarcerated persons in 1970.
I think the meanest way of saying this is that White America has never properly reckoned with the ways in which we still are racist on subconscious levels, ways in which we automatically conflate skin pigmentation with certain characteristics.
DHR: I would guess that there is probably something in the subconscious mind that recognizes another skin color as “the Other,” tracing its roots back to the tree shrew days, when fear of the Other was necessary for survival. There is a worldwide phenomenon in which perceived, often slight physical differences between ethnic groups cause humans to behave strangely.
MFP: One of the books that helped me understand this the best was Racecraft. The authors argue that racism predates race as a concept; pigmentation was proxy for some kind of perceived fundamental difference, and the name that they gave to that difference was “race.” But why does that form of social difference seem so ingrained into our social orders in the way that other social differences aren’t?
I would say that it’s because we decided to actually use pigmentation as a basis for economic exploitation and the construction of a global economic order. And that’s what the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was.
Once you use it as a basis for economic exploitation, you suddenly have a plutocratic class that is invested in maintaining that social difference. That difference is now more durable, because the most powerful people in society are actively working to keep it alive, by propagating the myths of racial superiority and controlling people through fear.
A lot of people in my field make the point that you can’t understand race and capitalism as being separate from each other. They are intertwined. It’s hard to say that racism is entirely an invention of rich people trying to turn a profit, but it is also impossible to give any fair reading of history and say that racism exists separately from the incentives that people in power have for maintaining it.
DHR: Does capitalism exist without racism?
MFP: I don’t believe that it does, because capitalism always has to rationalize the inequalities that it produces. It has to bridge the gap between what it promises and what it delivers.
DHR: Define capitalism.
MFP: The academic theory that I would use is: any economic system that involves generalized and continuous productivity growth and in which there is market dependence. Market dependence.
Societies throughout history have used markets, but you did not have to sell your shit on the market to survive.
In order to maintain access to the means of production, you have to turn a profit. If you can’t sell your shit— goods or services— you can’t even get yourself food.
DHR: Basically, in pre-capitalist European societies, everybody had access to food and shelter, because the lords depended on the peasants to grow their food, right? Starving all the peasants would not have made your farm collective efficient.
MFP: I’ll give a more contemporary example: British colonists in India had a harder time making Indian serfs productive than American slavemasters did making slaves productive. The reason for this is that families in India were not going to use 100 percent of their land to grow crops for market. They weren’t going to grow monoculture cotton from sea to shining sea and sell it. They were going to use some of their land for sustenance and keep it for themselves.
DHR: Is market dependence inherently racist?
DHR: Can capitalism exist without racism?
MFP: I don’t believe that it can.
DHR: Please clarify.
MFP: In order for market dependence to become an accepted organizing principle of society— in order that the people who live in the society are not so angry about it that they revolt— the broader population has to view the people who suffer from market dependence as deserving of that suffering, because they are fundamentally inferior.
Racism is a very efficient way to do that.
DHR: So in theory, there could be a market-dependent society which does not involve racism, but would always necessarily involve some form of social transgression.
That brings us back to the prison system as a reinforcing factor for slavery and racism.
DHR: Understood. Okay, we have to get back to some of these questions.
Say that you bail somebody out of jail who was arrested on suspicion of having committed a violent crime. Immediately after being bailed out, the perpetrator commits another crime, this time discharging a firearm and taking a life.
Do you feel any sense of hypothetical responsibility, and does the situation give you any pause?
MFP: The answer to the first question is of course. That would fuck me up. But that’s not going to change how I act.
This is probably the question that I think about the most, actually: is there a person that I wouldn’t bail out? And the answer every time is no.
First of all, we should flag this at the beginning: murder and armed robbery are never going to get a bail posting. Sexual assault is also extremely unlikely to get a bail posting.
We had this conversation at a National Bail Fund Network conference last year. The way that I justified it was this: Let’s say that there’s someone about to post bail for, and I hear from their attorney that the charge is domestic violence.
The only way that I would not post bail is if I personally knew that they were going to harm someone specific if they were set free.
You can never be 100 percent sure what somebody will do when they are set free, but you do have a 100 percent probability of what is going to happen to them in jail.
You sit in a cage for days at a time. You, more than likely, lose access to any employment you have. You could lose access to housing. You could lose access to childcare.
Consigning somebody to that fate is an act of violence, and it has to be weighed as such.
When I weigh those factors, the only one that I could ever foresee outweighing the act of violence of keeping someone in jail would be the act of violence of letting someone out. That’s the only time that calculus comes out in favor of keeping someone in jail, and I just don’t ever see that happening.
DHR: A nihilist might respond to your work with the RCBF and say, “You, Matthew Perry, are the only experience that you can possibly know. Focus on you. Make money, enjoy yourself, and leave other people alone. Prison reform is not your business.”
MFP: I am focusing on me by doing this work. This is what gives me pleasure. This is my calling. I don’t think I’m a rare breed in that sense.
But I don’t want to excuse all the people who just say fuck everything and do what makes them happy.
DHR: Okay, so what is the responsibility of everyday citizens, who more than likely want to go happily about their business?
MFP: I’m wary of any universal claims, but I do think that the everyday citizen— people in general— have a responsibility, or a moral obligation, to lessen the suffering of people they come into contact with.
There is a lot of suffering in the world. There are things we can do to lessen it. I think it is an ethical imperative that we do so.
I can almost see how you can arrive to that point through a nihilist worldview— like, “Well, none of this matters anyway, so whether I’m on a yacht for twenty years or teaching classes in prison, I’m going to be dead and I’m not going to remember it.” So why would you not want to lessen the suffering of others in the limited amount of time that you have? If nothing matters, at least that’s real.
I can die knowing I made other people happy. If I spent twenty years on a yacht, it’d be like, “Okay, well that’s over with now. I had some fun, but what did I do?” But if I’m active in my community, then that work is passed onto the future, and that’s a way that you can outlive death, in a sense.
If what you did on this Earth reacts with other people on this Earth after you’re gone, they carry a piece of you with them. I’m more than just my body.
DHR: How would you respond to accusations that your work is a manifestation of a white savior complex?
MFP: That’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
The first part of it is that there are always ways to go about the work without behaving like a savior. The way to do that is to always look to work collaboratively, and to take cues from people who have been directly impacted by the system you’re trying to change.
If I was doing this in a vacuum, totally insulated from the impact of organizers, then my work would be a lot different. It would be a lot more “High School Kid Founds Non-Profit.” I’d be a lot more focused on the development of the non-profit than on the services we offer, because I would think I was the key ingredient.
Where I kind of cut my teeth organizing was the Incarceration to Education Coalition at NYU, which was founded by Cory Green, a formerly-incarcerated man, who has given me some of the most valuable organizing lessons I have ever had. And it’s not enough to learn from a couple of directly-impacted folks at the beginning; it’s a perspective that suffuses your work.
If you do good work, listen to the people who tell you when you slip up, correct your behavior accordingly, and don’t work in a way that is ostentatious, then you’re going to be fine. It’s not that hard.
There’s a lot of discourse around the idea that it’s hard to be a white activist because you have to walk on eggshells or check yourself all the time. Yes, there’s definitely an element of heightened self-awareness. But if you have to actively police yourself that much, that’s probably a problem. If you just interact with humans as humans, more likely than not you’re going to be fine. If you have a good head on your shoulders and common sense, you probably won’t offend the people you’re trying to serve.
You hear people say, “The left wants you to think about your whiteness all the time.” My answer is that if you’re a thoughtful person, it’s not that hard. If you consider all the things that you have to consider to move through this work responsibly as a very privileged person— which I am— and be attentive to all the ways that that has given me blind spots in certain areas, then that is work, yes, but it’s not hard to the point that I would complain. It’s just necessary for what I do. And if I’m thoughtful about it, I can do it. It’s pretty simple.
DHR: In the everyday life of an average white man, is it necessary for him to think about the fact that he is a white man in order to be a responsible citizen?
MFP: I would say probably yes. Thinking about that politicizes you. If you have an awareness that society treats you differently because you are white, then you have to consider that before acting. And I do think we all have a responsibility to eliminate racial inequality.
DHR: Essentially, you’re saying that human beings have a responsibility and calling to more than themselves.
MFP: If you think that you don’t owe other people shit, you do not realize how much they’ve given you.
At this point, it boggles my mind to think about conceiving of myself as an individual unit. That’s fundamentally not what I am. I am irreversibly part of a society. You cannot exist outside of it, and you have an obligation to society for that reason. Keep up the shit in your own house.
To bring it to right here and right now: if you’re not acting right now, there’s not going to be a world for much longer. A lot of the shit that’s been brewing is reaching crisis level.
DHR: Okay, last question: how can ordinary citizens get involved in the Bail Fund?
MFP: With the Bail Fund, the best way is to put out word about us to whatever communities you’re in. The more people that know about us, the more likely it is that when someone is arrested and given a bail that they can’t afford, they’ll have a friend or family member who’s heard of us, and will get into contact with us.
You can follow us on social media. We have a Facebook page and a Twitter, @rvabailfund. And this is certainly not an obligation, but donations are always appreciated. 100 percent of donations go to posting bail at this point.
That’s just how to help the bail fund. In terms of how to help the world: look around, and look for what people are already doing, and ask yourself how to support it. That’s also a way to avoid the savior complex: don’t assume when you do something that it’s the first time someone’s done it.