It was spring 2016 and Devoureaux Wolf was on the rise. Also known as “King Detro, Chicago’s footwork king,” Wolf’s dancing career was taking off: he’d won numerous dance competitions, hosted a dance show on Wala Cam TV, and had just started his own program, Dance N Out, that aimed to steer youth on the West Side off the street and onto the dance floor. He never expected getting a ride home from a friend’s brother would radically alter his life’s course. But that’s exactly what happened.
The car was pulled over and Wolf was quickly dragged out by Chicago police officers, who then arrested him and charged him with assaulting them. Though the driver had the foresight to film the encounter to disprove the police’s account, simply being charged landed Wolf in Cook County Jail with a $3,000 bond that he could not afford.
Over the next three and a half months, Wolf would nearly lose his apartment, his hosting job, and his connection to his community. On top of that, Wolf’s uncle passed away while he was detained, so his grieving family had even fewer resources available to put towards his bond.
Many face the same lot: about 90 percent of those incarcerated at Cook County are in pretrial detention, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime. “Reclaiming the Crown: The Footwork King’s Battle with Money Bail”, a documentary released in December by Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) and Sensitive Visuals, tells the story of Wolf’s battle with money bail. The ten-minute film packs in interviews, scenes of Wolf in his neighborhood or talking to loved ones, and clips of rallies in the citywide movement to end money bond.
I met with Wolf one afternoon at West Side Justice Center to talk about his experience being held at the jail pretrial. We spoke about how conditions at the jail made it difficult for him to prepare for his case, stay positive, and even maintain his health. “I had health problems at the time, too,” he told me. He went to the jail’s hospital because of kidney issues–the same issues his uncle had died from. Wolf said the lack of access to clean water in jail exacerbated his health issues. “I just started panicking from there like oh, OK, this is serious. I need to hurry up and get on out of here. I almost had to get surgery.”
Fortunately, someone in jail passed on a number: 1-844-END-BOND, the hotline for Chicago Community Bond Fund, an organization that buys the freedom of people being detained pretrial at Cook County Jail. In one scene, Wolf walks down green residential streets alongside his brother Perez and admits that when he first heard about it, he thought the number was a joke. But since its inception in 2015, CCBF has bonded out more than 175 people. They also provide court support and hearing reminder services. After people attend their hearings, the bond money is returned and used to bond someone else out. In June 2016, CCBF helped close this horrifying chapter of Wolf’s life.
Since his release, Wolf has become a core member of CCBF, leading press conferences, fundraisers, and presentations on mass incarceration and pretrial detention. “I think [CCBF’s] work is good because people are not acknowledging that there are people stuck in a situation that they can’t get out of ‘cause they can’t afford to pay their money bond,” said Wolf. “It’s devastating to other people because they don’t have the sources at the moment, or they’re taking out of their kids’ mouth or something just to help out a family relative. I think that’s unfair, because you’re pretty much taking from poverty. “
Wolf’s story could help light the way forward amid shifting public opinion about cash bail. “I think there’s been a large dynamic movement that has helped create this moment where we might actually change the bail system. Right here in Illinois too,” CCBF co-founder and Director of Programs Matt McLoughlin told me.
In September 2017, Chief Judge Timothy Evans ordered court judges to set bail only in amounts defendants could afford. In a matter of months, the jail’s population dipped below 6,000 for the first time decades. Although the average bond amount in Cook County fell from nearly $134,000 in 2016 to $22,000 in 2017, a September report by the Coalition to End Money Bond, which includes CCBF, claims that “new data shows that judges’ adherence to the Order is worsening with time and that more than 2,700 people are presently incarcerated in Cook County Jail solely because they are unable to pay money bonds.”
In late 2017, the Illinois Supreme Court formed a special commission on pretrial practices to investigate the use of money bond in the state, the final results of which will be released at the end of 2019. “We fully expect them to come out and say something like, ‘Money bail is unconstitutional in Illinois,’” McLoughlin told me. “But then it’ll be this big question mark about what is going to come next, so we’ve got our work cut out for us this year to make sure that whatever does come next leads to the decrease in the number of people in jail.”
That means directing legislators and policymakers away from laws like the one just signed in California, SB 10. That law puts the state on track to end money bail in the next two years, but the ACLU and others opposed final drafts because it could potentially create a situation where more people are incarcerated pretrial, not fewer. Release decisions would be at the discretion of judges, and prosecutors would be given an expanded process to block the defendant’s release pending trial. Decisions would also be based on risk assessment tools, which tend to use data that reflects the racial biases plaguing the criminal justice system.
“Unless there’s actually a change in the way we’re looking at people’s experiences, and how detaining them altogether is impacting not just them, but their entire community, we’re not going to get out of this endless cycle of incarceration,” McLoughlin said. “And I think more than anything people like Devoureaux sharing their story and speaking out, people being confronted with the harsh realities of what we’re doing to thousands of people every day in the city — last year it was like 70,000 people went through the jail. For a lot of people, if it’s not in your community, it can be somewhat invisible.”
Had Wolf not been bonded out when he was, his case may have gone differently. In the documentary, his mother, Tamela Milan-Alexander said, “We really felt like we had the law on our side, but we couldn’t get resources that could help him with his case.” Being detained pretrial makes it exponentially more difficult for someone to build a case, work with lawyers, and communicate with the people outside. A 2018 nationwide study found that initial pretrial release decreases the probability of being found guilty by 14 percent–in part due to the tendency for defendants to plead guilty just to get out of jail.
In another scene of the film, Wolf sits besides his mother as he rattles off his accomplishments since being released from jail: he launched Dance N Out, went on the Steve Harvey show, and participated in an event put on by the National Bail Fund Network, a coalition of over 40 bond funds from across the country. “We were both in a cage at one point,” Milan-Alexander said, “and then to be able to go outside the cage and look back in and say: ‘Listen. That’s not right. That’s not how you treat people.’”
The triumphant documentary cuts between shots of Wolf giving speeches at rallies to end money bond, and scenes of him dancing in lots on the West Side or with groups of young people on his show. The jail’s facility, backlit by stark winter white skies, is set against clips from Dance N Out, where people of all ages jubilantly twist and flip around in brightly-colored clothes. Wolf’s love for and connection to his community shines through despite the bleak reality of pretrial detention in Chicago. While our criminal justice system processes people by the thousands and spits them out, Wolf and CCBF work to build the most impacted communities back up, creating occasions for joy, personal growth, and self-possession.
“I wanted to let y’all know like, this general order was supposed to end money bail, but the judges are still disregarding the order,” Wolf said at a rally outside the Thompson Center while the crowd waved signs with slogans like “END ALL $ BAIL.” They returned with a shout, “Vote ‘em out!”
This article is published as part of Envisioning Justice, a 19-month initiative presented by Illinois Humanities that looks into how Chicagoans and Chicago artists respond to the the impact of incarceration in local communities and how the arts and humanities are used to devise strategies for lessening this impact.
Featured Image: Screen grab from “Reclaiming the Crown: The Footwork King’s Battle with Money Bail”. Devoureaux Wolf, an advocate at Chicago Community Bond Fund, wears a t-shirt with their logo as he dances at a plaza downtown after a rally to end money bail.
Jordan Sarti is a writer and journalist in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in In These Times, HYSTERIA, Temporary Art Review and Slutist. Right now, she is thinking about body politics, carceral capitalism, and plants. In her spare time she invents increasingly intricate ways to rest.