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Envisioning cash bail
What stock photos tell us about how the bail bond industry works
I. *record scratch* *freeze frame*
You’re probably wondering how I ended up here.
I went to Dallas to bail my brother out of jail. (His bond amount may have been decided in as little as 15 seconds!) I’m an aggressive positive reframer who makes her own fun, so I decided to write about it for you. This technically makes it a business trip, and therefore tax-deductible. Making lemonade out of lemons!
II. How does one possibly choose???
I began my task, as anyone might, by Googling “Dallas bail bond.” Wow, there are a lot of bond agencies. So many … vibrant and … descriptive names. The names fall into three categories. They either start with the letter A or with numerals (AAA Atlas, 1st Call, A EZ Out—little regard for grammar here); invoke a little Wild West cosplay (Cowboy Bail Bonds, Doc’s, Ranger, Bad Boy, Rebel); or include adjectives for speed or haste (Exit Now, Fast Action, Express, Immediate).
The logos are ludicrous:
How to choose?? Are they really all that different? I picked the agency with the best logo, least obvious name, and most dignified color scheme:
III. Signs, signification, semiotics, (web)sites
In my search for a reputable establishment at which to conduct my transaction, I learned a lot about the aesthetics of bail agency websites. Delta’s uses a shade of green I find very pleasant, while most of the others go hard for the ol’ red, white, and blue. Some of the websites hew to the Geocities/Impact font aesthetic, but even those with a Squarespace vibe use a lot of stock photos. What are those stock photos? Glad you asked!
A search for “bail” reveals two dominant visual idioms.1 The first is tableaus composed of handcuffs, gavels, and cash. My favorite: handcuffs and a gavel fashioned from a roll of hundos. The second is exterior bond agency signage, heavy on the classic neon (this one was shot in Dallas! Neat!)2
“Arrest” overwhelmingly returns photos of disembodied hands in handcuffs; sometimes the hands are being released from the cuffs, a metaphor, I suppose, for the work of the bail agent. The hands are almost always white.3
Other common idioms include disembodied hands grasping the bars of a jail cell door; birds soaring free (I see what u did there, Jailbirds Bail Bonds); Anguished White Guy in Orange Jumpsuit; the ol’ scales of justice; Friendly and Alert Employee Waiting to Take Your Call; and people shaking hands (representing you and your bondswomyn, I guess?).4
Some sites add more local color—lotta images of the Dallas skyline. A couple take their SEO copy in a weird “tourism blog” direction. My favorite, which comes after a couple of paragraphs about Dallas’s many pleasures, is this: “When you end up on the wrong side of the law, Dallas is also a place that can be confusing, perilous, and intimidating.” There are client testimonials, including this agency’s video testimonial highlight reel.
There’s sometimes a personal touch—low-res photos of employees pretending to work or an exterior shot of the building. The latter is maybe not always a good choice. This one made me think, well, that’s certainly grim! Sure, the entire experience (aesthetic, spiritual) is grim, but have some taste, darling.
IV. Local color
I don’t know if Ubering to the bail bond agency is unusual or my driver is just a man of limited life experience. Luckily, I’m a proponent of lifelong learning, and I value the opportunity to teach others something new each day.
We’re getting off of one of the many freeways and the driver says, “You know … what … neighborhood you’re going to, right?” (Turn one way and you’re driving into downtown Dallas; turn the other way and … well. Bail bond agencies and a couple of liquor stores line Riverfront Boulevard, just down the street from the criminal justice complex.) Unfortunately, sir, I do. Pull over up there.
“That’s where you’re going?” he says. “Really? OK! That seems like a story for another time.” (A gal of my character and refinement at the bondsthem’s office?? Dear lord!)
“Let’s just say that being the most successful child in my family hasn’t been very rewarding,” I said.
Anyway, the bail bond office! Parked outside is a lil’ magenta golf cart presumably used to zip on over to the criminal justice complex. (I probably wouldn’t have remembered that, but when someone agreed to zip the paperwork over to the court at 11:30 PM, eight hours after it was supposed to be submitted, I imagined them driving the golf cart.5)
There wasn’t much activity. It was 3 PM on a Friday, just after the day’s first big rush. (I choose to believe Google’s popular times data, please don’t take this away from me.6) The Friday morning crowd was comprised, I imagine, of people bailing out their asshole friends who partied too hard on Thursday evening in time to roll out that night.
The scene: Lots of leather chairs held together with duct tape, brown linoleum, weird smell (greasy? stale? desperate? I guess a lot of flop sweat and fearful pheromones are released there). A little like the office at an auto shop, complete with plexiglass, though I’m not sure if that’s a regular feature or a pandemic precaution. There’s a television on top of a soda machine, tuned to a Gunsmoke marathon. The soda machine is covered with a large semi-translucent panel printed with a waterfall scene.7 There’s also a snack machine. (I regret not observing the selection more closely.)
It all seems charmingly local. You know, big “dirtbag entrepreneur” vibes, nice “lowlifes r doin’ it 4 themselves” energy. Get that “Small Business Saturday” feeling by keeping your dollars in the community, etc.
V. The abstract financial instruments behind the curtain
Turns out that the squat brick buildings lining Riverfront all house shitty franchises!8 The bail industry is dominated by nine national and multinational corporations; I could have used almost any bail agency in almost any state, and the same insurer would likely still have been backing the bond.
Six insurers own 27 of the 36 bail bond companies licensed in Dallas County. Delta Bail Bonds, where I transacted my business, is owned by Bankers Surety, which underwrites bond agents in 37 states and claims to be “the country’s largest surety provider to the commercial bail business.” (Bail bonds are also called “surety bonds,” and it sure is interesting to notice when and where that language is used!) Bankers Surety also owns eight other Dallas agencies.
Bankers Surety is a division of Bankers Insurance Company, which is, in turn, a subsidiary of Florida-based Bankers Financial Corporation, which reported $525.72 million in profits in 2018. A Dun & Bradstreet profile of Bankers Financial Corporation praises the company’s “diverse portfolio.”9
The Bankers Surety website doesn’t look anything like the bond agency websites. This was the only criminal justice stock photo I could find, and if you don’t know what a “surety bond” is, it just looks like a financial services stock photo!10
Surprisingly, the parent companies are a bit shy about the division that brought in nearly $40 million last year! There is little mention of Bankers Surety or any public-facing content about it on the Bankers Insurance site—like, their Business Insurance splash page does not link to the page about the product. The Bankers Financial website doesn’t mention it on any public-facing page.11 [Insert things-that-make-u-go-hmm.gif]
I’m still thinking about the relationships between all of these images—what they reveal, what they obscure, who they serve. I’m not sure I even know what to say about that yet! I guess this means that Part I of this series will require its own Part II!
Delta Bail Bonds, Dallas, TX: ✰✰ 2 stars (out of 4)
You also get the occasional cricket-related image, because cricket wickets have a part called a bail.
This neon aesthetic is absolutely important, but for now let’s just say it evokes “urban danger” in an interesting way. The visual suggestion that the industry is still analog or old fashioned is also striking!
A recently released three-year study of racial disparities in Dallas PD arrests revealed that "residents who identify as Black or African American are 24% of the population in Dallas [but] represented 44% of the low-level custodial arrests during this period." For low-level drug offenses, that number jumps to 57.3%. Black Dallas residents make up an astonishing but not surprising 77% of arrests for “quality of life” offenses like disorderly conduct and criminal trespass; determining whether something is a quality of life offense is almost always up to officer discretion.
Delta’s site features this arguably wildly inappropriate character, who I couldn’t find elsewhere. The image is tagged “Go-To-Jail-Guy” in the URL.
Did you know that stock photo models sign special releases and are compensated at higher rates when they appear in images that might be seen as negative?
I just want to believe that the 9 PM spike on Sunday night is people who have decided that they’re done punishing their loved ones by making them spend most of the weekend in jail and that the 9 AM Monday spike is made up of people who decided to “leave ‘em there all weekend.”
This is likely the product of two historical forces: the rise of mass incarceration after 1970 and the ruthless corporate consolidation of the 1980s. If you know a lot about bail reform, this is not news to you, but I didn’t really understand it in a concrete way until now.
The portfolio, D&B continues, “even includes a private hunting and sporting club in the Florida woodlands called the Gilchrist Club and a parolee monitoring company.” Well, then!
All this—serene color scheme, Executives Using Headsets, etc—is a recent glow-up. Until 2014, when they changed their URL from bankersbail.com to bankerssurety.com, their website was a little more—well, frankly, I don’t know what adjective to use: