America Needs to Do More to Support Mothers in Prison
Studies show helping moms stay in touch with their kids behind bars is good for inmates and their families. So why aren't we doing more?
Photo by Claire Ward
"Any little bit of time I can get with my kids, I would die for. I just want to stick my face in their necks and smell them. It's the little things in life. The smells… I dream of the smells."
Stormy*, as she's known to fellow inmates, wears a faded blue uniform with the words Texas Bexar County Jail penned on her back. She's hunched over a bench with a handful of other women, all shuffling bits of food around their plastic breakfast trays.
Other inmates chip in, fantasizing about what they will do when they eventually make it out, bonding over heartbreakingly similar goals: to pick their kids up from school and meet their teachers, to read them books, cook them spaghetti, go shopping for sneakers, and veg out over movies.
It's hard for me to imagine many places in America more depressing than the overcrowded all-female wings of local jails and prisons I've visited over the last few months. Countrywide, these places are home to the fastest growing segment of America's incarcerated population: women. The number of women in jails alone has multiplied 14 times between 1970 and 2014.
Many wind up in these institutions for one of three reasons: drugs, money, or the men in their lives. A glaring percentage of women are locked away for nonviolent drug offenses, or minor crimes like shoplifting. They are rarely the masterminds of the drug conspiracies they find themselves wrapped up in, but by the time they're behind bars, their partners have often already moved on.
This situation may get worse before it gets better. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions sticking up for mass incarceration and making moves toward stricter mandatory minimums at the federal level, more and more women could end up languishing in cells no matter how small the charges against them.
The fact is that around 60 percent of women in state prison are mothers, many of whom served as primary caregivers before being locked up. To sentence a mother means to break up a family and strip a child of normality.
Take Nakita. We met in a halfway house in Indianapolis where she was serving the remainder of an 18-month sentence. Wiping streams of tears and mascara from her face with her sparkly pink nails, she told me how she was arrested last year for violating her parole.
As a single mom with no family around, her eight-year-old son Antonio was sent off to foster care. It was the first time they'd been separated, and both parent and child were overrun with grief. A few months later, Nakita said, Antonio attempted suicide and was submitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Nakita needed an early release if she were to win back parental rights over her son. She failed to obtain one. Now Antonio will grow up, at least for some time, without knowing his mother.
Still, there is lingering resistance from conservative lawmakers across America to the idea that children should be factored into rehabilitation efforts. The assumption is that all criminals are inherently bad and that their kids will be better off without them.
What I saw suggested the opposite.
In women's prison in Indiana, the "Wee Ones" nursery program allows certain nonviolent offenders to stay with their babies on the grounds for up to 18 months. Participants are required to take classes in post-partum exercises, "family therapy" and "responsible mothering." Stephanie was enrolled in the program with her daughter Abigail, who was nine months old when we visited.
"Things I didn't know with my other children, I know now," she says of the program. "Now I have a chance to do right with this baby and, when I get out, to do right to my own children. You know, be a better mother, be a better person, and not have to be dependent on a man."
Not only do rates of recidivism drop significantly once women have spent time in nursery prisons, but their children's own prospects of breaking that cycle of imprisonment are also considerably brighter. The economic and broader societal benefits are obvious.
Investment in similar nurseries is badly needed throughout the country, as well as programs that encourage and facilitate children of all ages to be in contact with their mothers. Visitor programs where women can spend quality time with their children away from the visitors' room have also proven to be effective.
And, of course, reducing the number of women behind bars in general should be an urgent goal. Intergenerational rehab programs in the real world can help divert women and their children away from prisons altogether, allowing families to work through their issues together. Supporting a family unit is easier for any society than supporting a parentless child.
Keeping in touch with their children is often the best motivation these women have for seeking self-betterment. It's also a possible formula for breaking the generation to-generation trend of mass incarceration that continues to plague America.
*Inmates' full names have been withheld to protect their privacy and that of their children.
Check out our segment on women behind bars tonight on VICE on HBO at 7:30 and 11 PM.
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