Twenty Years After Prison - A Mother’s Thoughts
“Despite the availability of perceptive portrayals of life in women’s prisons, it has been extremely difficult to persuade the public—and even, on occasion, to persuade prison activists who are primarily concerned with the plight of male prisoners—of the centrality of gender to an understanding of state punishment. “ Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete.
A few months ago I was in my office talking with my colleague, when I realized that I’ve been doing criminal justice reform work for almost two decades. I stood for a moment to gather myself and be present to the conversation. Needless to say, I was without words, humbled, and grateful, and moments of the journey immediately flashed before my eyes. I had not thought of the time, or the work I had taken on with so many phenomenal women to change perceptions and policies that affect women in the criminal justice system. My passion for this work persisted throughout all these years. I realized that when you are passionate about a cause, time is irrelevant. I thought about the challenges of being an activist, an inclusivist (I define this term as “someone who includes women who have not gone to prison but who have supported the organizing work of incarcerated/formerly incarcerated women”), and a co-collaborator – all of it, including the difficulties, the mistakes and criticism, the successes and, most importantly, the many relationships. The relationships I am most proud of and have struggled with the most are my relationships with my children.
In 1995, my youngest son and I walked out of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. What I know from the experience of raising my son in prison during the first year of his life is that he never knew he was in prison. He never knew his mother had to stand for count, wear green every day, wear state shoes, ask for toilet paper or sanitary napkins, or to never be called by her first name. He never knew that his mother had to suffer oppression, listen to relentless humiliations, or be treated without dignity by prison staff. He never knew he lived in a building with other mothers who were incarcerated. He never knew he lived in a nursery behind bars. However, what I am sure of is my son knew he was loved. He was held, fed and lovingly cared for by the volunteers who came in the prison, the women who lived in the prison nursery with me and, most importantly, the women who lived in the prison with me and cared for my son during the day while I went to programs. The women living in prison with me were grandmothers, mothers, sisters and aunts, black, brown and white. Despite the prison experience we loved, laughed, cried, and resisted the prison’s oppressive environment together in many ways through our common focus on our families and children.
There are almost two million children who have a parent in prison in the United States. The children that I’ve met and known have wanted to know about their parents, visit their parents, have a relationship with their parents of their own choosing, and love their parents without assumptions, shame and guilt. Children whose parents have been in conflict with the law need to be given the dignity they deserve because their situation is different than other experiences children have. The experiences of children whose parents have been involved with the criminal justice are mixed with betrayal and feelings of insignificance. The criminal justice system neither honors the relationships between parents and children nor does it make meaningful efforts to maintain those relationships during incarceration and after incarceration. The system discounts familial bonds between parents and children, punishes both of them for having that a parent-child relationship and does everything in its power to negate and destroy it. When a mother goes to prison, it is viewed as a moral failing of the woman as a mother. Furthermore, within the same breath, society labels our children as at risk youth who are destined to fail.
We neglect to look at the real social problems most women, who have been involved in the criminal justice system, face. These include poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence and trauma, unequal sentencing structures and personal safety. We neglect the challenges to reentry when mothers have to reunite with their children through a court system that is unsympathetic and unjust. In Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Vikki Law states, “Mothers in prison are forced to navigate the legal maze of family law more often than their male counterparts in order to maintain contact with and retain legal custody of their children”. The Adoption and Safe Family Act (ASFA), a law passed during the Clinton Administration, can result in the termination of parental rights of many mothers whose sentence is longer than the time-frame allowed to reunite with their children who have been placed in foster care. Women must navigate a housing system that does not provide for safe and accessible housing for them and their children. They encounter a human resource agency whose employees often look at the applicants as if they are the dregs of the world, unfit, unreliable and manipulative. Mothers must contend with an employment system that will forever judge them on their last conviction as if they have no redeeming qualities.
This Mother’s Day, I am reminded of my children and their gifts (smiles, hugs and questions), and the many challenges that come with being a mother, especially one who has experienced prison. All I ever wanted to acquire during my mothering experience is self recognition that I am a GEM. There were many situations that have taken me close to acquiring the title. Late nights tending to fevers, letting go the first day of school, putting a Band-Aid on the first boo-boo, knowing that when they grew taller than me, they were still my babies in bigger bodies, showing up for plays and sporting events, and being witness to first dates, first time driving a car, graduations, weddings and births. Yep, I did my best to be a “Good Enough Mom” then and now. This piece is dedicated to all the GEMS out there…Happy Mother’s Day!