Families Behind Bars: A Glimpse Into the Lives of Forgotten Women
“Research suggests that people rarely change their minds or form a new worldview based on the facts or data alone; it is through stories (and the values system embedded within them) that we come to reinterpret the world and develop empathy and compassion for others.” — Michelle Alexander, forward of Becoming Mrs. Burton
By: Amber, Riley’s Way Council Member, The Nightingale-Bamford School
On a rainy Monday on May 14th, a few of my fellow Riley’s Way Council members, Lauren, Laura and I headed over to St. Phillip’s Church to attend the Families Behind Bars event (a #kNOwJusticeHarlem series) organized by the organization Circles of Support. We were invited by Linda, the program coordinator of Circles of Support. The purpose of the event was to highlight ending incarceration for women and girls who are being imprisoned at an alarming rate. I was especially excited to attend because I had organized the Riley’s Way Sisterhood Dinner with the Riley’s Way Council and Circles of Support in May of 2018. That event was truly transformative for me.
On the way over to the event I reflected on the profound effect the last year’s event had on my worldview. I had sat next to Wanda at the event, a powerful, resilient woman who had been impacted by incarceration. At the dinner, as I listened to Wanda’s story, I felt a fraction of the real effects of mass incarceration on a person, family, and community that last much longer than a prison sentence. I was so angry at the injustice of mass incarceration, especially its impacts on women, specifically women of color. I was eager to attend this event to learn more and fulfill this necessity to use my privilege to fight injustice – as it brings such tangible wounds. The moment I walked into the Families Behind Bars event, I saw Wanda. Immediately, I gave her a hug, and it was like the connection we made last year simply resurfaced. She excitedly told me that she was graduating from college, and I beamed with excitement. I was so happy for her and so in awe of her resilience. I hope to one day embody some of her strengths.
We walked in to the church and shuffled into a pew. The event began with some alarming statistics. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, “Women in jail are the fastest growing correctional population in the country—increasing 14-fold between 1970 and 2014.” And even more alarming: “Nearly 80% of women in jails are mothers.” When a mother is incarcerated, her entire family is shaken by the loss of a mother, wife, sister, daughter. In New York alone, since 1980, the number of incarcerated women in New York’s prisons has increased by nearly 400 percent. An estimated four percent of women are pregnant when they become incarcerated. A woman on the panel emphasized that there isn’t even a sufficient amount of research that is being conducted, simply because these numbers aren’t being tracked. Without the knowledge of the magnitude of incarceration’s impact on women, how can there be comprehensive reform? These statistics disturbed me to my core – there were thousands just like Wanda’s story, different in specific experiences, but all connected by incarceration’s drastic, lifelong impacts.
One woman who spoke on the panel had me in awe. Her name is Lanetta Hill, a mother who has been impacted by incarceration. She shared the moving story of parenting from prison. I vividly remember her sharing how she wouldn’t want to waste time sleeping during the short overnight visits from her children. She wanted to catch up on everything she missed about her kids’ lives, all the advice she couldn’t give because she was incarcerated. She then went on to talk about how once her children didn’t come to visit her, and she was upset. She mentioned it to her cellmate, who said that her children hadn’t seen her in many years. Incarceration has drastic effects on families.
We then invited Lanetta to the Family Matters Celebration dinner that our Council was planning. This event was a second edition of our partnership with Circles of Support. This goal of the event was to celebrate loved ones. Nicole and Scarlet, fellow Riley’s Way Council members, wrote blog posts about it for Riley’s Way. Lanetta attended the event with her daughter, and she reflected on the event saying, “It was a wonderful experience for both my daughter and I. The amount of compassion [the Riley’s Way Council members] have for mass incarceration is refreshing. I appreciated their kindness and the celebration of those previously incarcerated and their families.”
Towards the end of the #kNOwJusticeHarlem event, Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas delivered closing remarks. The room was silent, avidly listening to the Reverend. We were all filled with anger, compassion, and a need for justice. The Reverend talked about how after we had the privilege of hearing the experiences of some of the most powerful women, we need to take action. And he gave us a small way we can contribute to bringing justice. And you can do it too.
The call-to-action is the New York Senate/Assembly Bill relating to protecting women’s health in correctional facilities around the state. A call-to-action letter is pasted below, so you can copy it and add your name and recipients. You can also download it as a PDF to share with others. This is also suggested language—feel free to personalize your message with additional information, personal stories, etc. You can either print and send your message in the mail or send the text to your representatives as an email. You can also text RESIST to the number 50409 and follow the instructions to send messages to your representatives.
It is events like this one that viscerally remind me that my anger at the injustices of mass incarceration are personal. I got a glimpse into their tangible impacts from listening to these resilient women. The brilliant Arundhati Roy writes, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” It is our duty to use the privilege we have to amplify the voices of the silenced. Together, let’s amplify the forgotten stories of resilience, courage, and bravery of women within the system of injustice that is mass incarceration.
To locate your assemblymember or state senator: https://www.elections.ny.gov/district-map/district-map.html
(Note: This is a state-level bill and is under consideration at the Capitol in Albany, not in Congress.)
To read more information about the bill and view its sponsors, the Assembly and Senate bills are linked below.
As your constituent, I’m writing to ask you to support the health and wellbeing of women and mothers in our criminal justice system.
A118/S3126 take multiple steps to protect the health of the thousands of incarcerated women, especially pregnant women, throughout our state. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women in New York’s prisons has increased by nearly 400 percent. An estimated four percent of women are pregnant when they become incarcerated.
The bill provides for common-sense services such as access to prenatal vitamins, and includes gynecological services in the definition of routine medical care for inmates at correctional facilities.
It’s also crucial that all medical staff in state and local correctional facilities be trained on how to provide appropriate and respectful care to women, especially for survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence.
Finally, women who give birth while incarcerated should be able to have a support person of her choice present in the delivery room, and should be made aware of all of her options including nursery programs that are available to her and her child. Nursery programs have been shown to significantly decrease recidivism rates for mothers as well as to improve early childhood outcomes for their children.
Women and new mothers in our justice system deserve access to holistic health services as a human right.
I ask that you support this effort and speak with your colleagues to protect access to essential health services for women in our justice system.