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Watch: this 5-minute documentary exposes the harsh reality of America’s bail system

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

"Either you pay or you stay."

That's the reality for many poor Americans when confronted with a criminal justice system that runs on bail.

The inequalities of that system are at the center of Limbo, a new short film by director Razan Ghalayini (Entrapped). Limbo takes the viewer inside a typical jail — where most of the inmates have yet to be convicted of any crime.

In today's overcrowded penal system, 60 percent of America's incarcerated citizens are being held in pre-trial detention, or "limbo." This is either because they've been denied bail or because they're among the one in 10 defendants who are unable to post bail at the time of their arraignment. The vast majority fall into the latter category.

Those who oppose the system of bail in America argue that it leads to poor citizens who can't pay bail being further exploited by bail-bond agents, who agree to pay the full amount in cash, usually for a percentage fee. Currently, a San Francisco lawsuit is challenging the constitutionality of the bail system.

Limbo is part of a new series of five, five-minute documentaries called Take 5: Justice in America, whose aim is to explore the underbelly of contemporary American politics. The series is part of the SundanceNow Doc Club, a streaming service focused on sharing documentaries and independent films. The other short films in the Take 5 series include:

  • Who Will Survive America, a film about firearm accessibility in the US, directed by Sheldon Candis
  • A Hug from Paul Ryan, a glimpse at the life of the only working-class woman permitted to testify at the 2014 "War on Poverty" hearing of the US House Budget Committee, directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce
  • The New Fight for Voting Rights, a look at the impact of voting restrictions under a draconian new North Carolina voting law, directed by Rachel Lears
  • Degentrify America, an exploration of the reality of gentrification across America, as seen through the eyes of residents of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, directed by Nelson George

All five films are available to stream on the Take 5 website and on SundanceNow.