Every night, nearly half a million people who have not been convicted of a crime are nevertheless sitting in jail cells across the US. The vast majority of these people in pretrial detention are at risk of losing their jobs, their homes, and even custody of their children because they cannot afford bail. And so, regardless of their innocence, 90% will choose to plead guilty rather than wait the weeks, months, or years necessary for backlogged court systems to hear their cases. It’s just one of the many ways that the US criminal justice system punishes the poor before they ever get to trial.
In an effort to address this injustice, The Bronx Freedom Fund provides bail for the accused who cannot otherwise afford it by collecting donations from the public. And in recent months, the organization has partnered with the online culture magazine The New Inquiry to take a much more experimental approach: building its bail fund with the proceeds from mining cryptocurrency.
Bail Bloc, an app developed by The New Inquiry and launched in November, allocates a small percentage of the operating device’s excess computing power to mine cryptocurrency. Bail Bloc mines Monero, a relatively energy-efficient cryptocurrency, and transfers the rewards it collects to a central pool, which is converted to US dollars and donated to The Bronx Freedom Fund. It can be downloaded for free on the magazine’s website.
The New Inquiry estimates that each Bail Bloc user can generate $3 a month. Although that may not seem like much, the magazine figures that only 5,000 users running the app for one year can produce enough funding to free as many as 1,800 people from pretrial detention. And because 96% of defendants out on philanthropic bail money return for all of their court dates, the vast majority of funds raised will be returned to The Bronx Freedom Fund and used to free people in perpetuity.
“The New Inquiry deserves the credit for this innovation,” says Ezra Ritchin, project director at The Bronx Freedom Fund. “They pitched us the idea of Bail Bloc, and we were thrilled to collaborate.”
Although creating an app that fights mass incarceration is ostensibly outside the wheelhouse of a magazine dedicated to criticism, The New Inquiry doesn’t see it that way. Not only does founder and co-publisher Rachel Rosenfelt view Bail Bloc as part of the magazine’s near decade of work criticizing the US criminal justice system (which The New Inquiry has conveniently bundled together to accompany the app), but she considers Bail Bloc a piece of criticism itself.
“We think of criticism as a political weapon—that individual pieces can actually help us, and help our readers alongside us, articulate an understanding of something that needs to be made sense of,” she says. In Bail Bloc’s case, the thing that needs to be understood is “criminal justice in the United States as the profound evil that it is.”
In this sense, Bail Bloc follows The New Inquiry’s other “rhetorical software” projects: The Founder, a start-up simulator illustrating the all-consuming aspects of capitalism; and White Collar Crime Risk Zones, which applies real-life predictive policing techniques to financial malfeasance.
As far as its development goes, Rosenfelt describes Bail Bloc as “a true horizontalist, collaborative effort.” The concept of distributively mining cryptocurrency was introduced by Grayson Earle, who teaches emerging media technology at the New York City College of Technology, but its application to bail was suggested by JB Rubinovitz, an artificial intelligence designer. Along with Earle, The New Inquiry’s senior editor Maya Binyam helped lead the project, ensuring it complemented the work being done by bail funds and activists.
The New Inquiry’s conception of Bail Bloc as a form of criticism may seem like intellectual spin on just another social justice project, but the app’s design embodies that principle. Monero became the cryptocurrency of choice over the better known Bitcoin because mining the latter requires significantly more electricity—an issue of practicality for users, but also an environmental concern.
Similarly, bail funds were selected as the beneficiaries of the app because they could recycle the small amounts of money produced by distributive mining in perpetuity, while such little money would be of almost no use to other kinds of organizations. Furthermore, Bail Bloc collects very little information about its user—in keeping with activist concerns over surveillance technology and The New Inquiry’s conception of bail as a form of social surveillance, in which the poor are forced to regularly check in with courts and bail bondsmen, lest they be arrested once more.
The app “only tracks how many people are using it at any given moment, but not the identities of those people,” says Earle. “We can also only estimate the number of installs given how many people visited the download page and currently run the software.”
Based on visits to the app’s page, he estimates that 3,000 people have downloaded Bail Bloc to date. With around 1,000 users running the app daily, Bail Bloc has raised more than $5,000 for The Bronx Freedom Fund in the two months since the software’s launch. As successful as that may be, it falls far short of the ultimate goal shared by both The New Inquiry and The Bronx Freedom Fund: abolishing bail altogether.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to drive ourselves out of business by fueling the momentum for systemic change,” says Ritchin of The Bronx Freedom Fund.
It’s a sentiment that Rosenfelt echoes. Discussing reactions to Bail Bloc, she notes the virality of the project, with its coverage in major publications and its mentions across social media (including the Twitter account of popstar Grimes). Of the criticism the app has received, Rosenfelt points to a trend disparaging it for “wastefulness.” She summarizes the complaints as: “ ‘What a wasteful thing to do! Why shouldn’t we just give money directly to bail funds?’ ” To which she responds: “Please! Oh my god, yes!”
Rosenfelt’s delight reveals Bail Bloc’s true purpose. In developing the software, The New Inquiry’s goal isn’t necessarily to have users passively assist the poor. The hope is that, the sooner users realize that they can do more than just run Bail Bloc in the background, the sooner they can start making moves to abolish bail, period. In other words, it’s only once Bail Bloc is made obsolete that its job will truly be done.