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Life Arts    H2'ed 2/14/10

Part Two: Victoria Law Explores "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women"

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But also keep in mind that about half of all incarcerated mothers were single mothers before being arrested and, given that those who go to prison tend to be those with the least amount of resources and opportunities, they have less of a support network to rely upon to help care for (and keep in contact with) their children.

A 2007 government study of incarcerated parents found that 37% of incarcerated mothers reported that their children were living with the father. In contrast, 89% of incarcerated fathers reported that their kids were living with the mother. An incarcerated mother's children are five times more likely to end up in foster care than an incarcerated father's children. And, as I pointed out earlier, this becomes particularly pernicious because of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act's (ASFA's) stringent timeline. (Here's another fact that will trouble you: the 15 month timeline was decided upon as a political compromise; it was not based on any child development theory or practice. When ASFA was first negotiated by Congress, one party wanted the timeline to be 12 months and the other wanted it to be 18 months. So hundreds of children are legally losing their parents based on a timeline that was a political compromise in Congress.)

The children of incarcerated mothers who don't end up in foster care are often cared for by other family members, like their grandparents.

For those who think that this is not such a bad thing, remember that people who go to prison are often at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and that the families and communities from which they come are as well. That means that grandparents may already be struggling financially (and perhaps health-wise as well). Given that women's prisons tend to be built far from the urban communities they called home before incarceration, it is a strain for caregivers to take children to visit their mothers. One study found that 60% of incarcerated mothers are imprisoned at least 100 miles away from their home communities. Approximately half of all incarcerated mothers in state and federal prisons report never having had a visit with their child(ren).

Keeping in contact by phone is also a huge challenge, one that can be almost impossible for those with limited resources. In Colorado, for example, a 20-minute phone call costs $3.80 in state or $4.60 for an out-of-state phone call. Again, given that family members and caregivers often come from the same socioeconomic circumstances as the women in prison, these costs can be prohibitive.

Even when a family has the means to visit their loved one in prison, they are subject to the whims and caprices of the prison staff on duty. A woman in Colorado recently sent me a few examples of how prison officials can arbitrarily withhold visits:

  • Last month, my roommate was expecting a visit from her family, including her four-year-old daughter. Visits begin at 1 pm, but she was not called until 3:30 pm. She learned that her family had arrived at 1:45, but the guard at the front desk told them that the visiting room was full and that they would have to leave and return later if they wanted to visit. He told them not to come back until 3 pm and that they could not wait in the parking lot or sit in their car.

Later, another woman, who had been in a visit that day, heard about this, told her that there had been an empty table next to hers during the entire afternoon. Of course, there was no way for my roommate's family to know this in order to question being turned away. My roommate knew even less; all she could do was wait and worry.

  • Last weekend, my friend was to have two days of visits from her mother and daughter, who had driven 1200 miles to see her. On the second day, her mom arrived wearing the exact same shirt as on the previous day. The officer on this day did not permit her mother to visit until she left and bought a new shirt, despite the fact that it had not been a problem 24 hours earlier.

All the while, my friend watched from the window as her family pulled into the parking lot, walked in, then she watched them leave without knowing what was going on. She sat on the stairs, devastated and crying for what she believed was a lost visit until her family returned and she was paged one hour later. One hour is precious time, especially when our families drive across the country to visit.
Now that I've given you some context as to how hard it is for mothers to stay in contact with their children and families, I'll answer your question about the system using women's access to families to keep them in line.

As you can see from the above examples, prison staff can arbitrarily impede a woman's ability to visit with her family, even when the woman has not been challenging prison conditions. Prison administrators also use visiting to punish those who challenge existing prison conditions. A woman incarcerated in New York noted that prison staff would actually turn away family members who were visiting women who had been seen as problematic.

Other times, prison officials have acted to strip a mother of all ability to see her child(ren). After one woman successfully sued the Michigan Department of Corrections for sexual abuse, guards targeted her cell and belongings for frequent searches. In the eight months after MDOC adopted a policy banning visits for prisoners with repeated substance abuse violations, the woman, who had never tested positive for any drug during her eight years of incarceration, received four tickets for substance abuse. "I received two substance abuse tickets in one day," she recalled. "One was for borrowing Motrin (Ibuprofen) from a prisoner for cramps. I also had Iron pills that had been prescribed to me that were a day over the expiration date." These tickets prevented her from having her daughter visit her.

A woman in the federal system had been speaking out against prison conditions in the facility where she was housed. She was finally eligible for a furlough, which was a chance to leave the prison for 36 hours and visit her family at home. The prison's unit manager delayed approving her furlough papers, stating, "It was concluded that you may be a threat because you might contact the media and manipulate the system."

She did eventually receive her furlough and wrote, "Here I am enjoying my sons in my arms and wondering if it is worth it to put my next 7 day furlough and half way house at risk, if I continue writing from prison." However, she concluded, "But my dear friends, I feel that if I do not write to you I am as good as dead. The truth is important to me, and such it should be told."

I give you these examples to illustrate the all-too-real threat that incarcerated mothers face when deciding whether to speak out or otherwise challenge prison conditions. However, despite these threats, mothers (and other women) have spoken out against, challenged and resisted unjust prison conditions.

This breaks my heart. Would I have the strength to persevere in the face of this? I wonder. Let's break here. When we return for the final portion of our interview, Vikki will tell interested readers how we can help women in American prisons.

***

Part One of my interview with Victoria

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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