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Mother’s Day in Jail: New models of incarceration preserve maternal bonds

Wed, May 15, 2013

Mother'sDayinJail Seated in the Bright Spaces visiting room of the Cook County Jail, Jill* describes her 9-week-old daughter, Ashley, delivered while she was incarcerated.

“She’s awesome. She’s beautiful. She’s an angel. She’s a miracle, almost 14 pounds, 22 inches long. She has blue eyes, a smile and one dimple on the left side.”

Jill, who is 38 and Caucasian, came to the jail at 2750 S. California Ave. for the first time in November. A former restaurant worker, she says she made bad choices and hung out with the wrong crowd. Jill did not know that she was first-time pregnant, but tests upon entry showed she was 6½ months along, so she was admitted to Division XVII of the Cook County Sheriff’s Women’s Justice Programs (SWJP).

While in the Division XVII women’s residential program, Jill took classes in child delivery, labor and parenting before her 36 hours of labor in Cook County Hospital. There were two officers outside her room and one inside.

“The whole process was a lot better than I overall expected it to be, not to be chained and shackled. I delivered a beautiful, healthy girl, 7 pounds, 3 ounces,” Jill said. “She saved my life. I was doing drugs before.”

Keisha,* who is 30 and African-American, has a son born just over a month ago in the back seat of a car on the way to the hospital. He has remained hospitalized after heart surgery and she entered Division XVII.

Although both women will spend Mother’s Day with the 163 women in the minimum- and medium-security division, Jill said they are not going to be sad. They will sit around and make tamales, burritos or tuna wraps and watch DVD movies with the 58 women on their dorm-like tier, which has doorways but not bars. They may even have their hair done, because most of the women do hair very well and half of them have their beauticians’ license, Keisha said.

The priority for both women is regaining custody of their children after their trials and possible extended incarceration. Because she was within six weeks postpartum, Keisha qualified for Division XVII. She said she begged to enter it because of the chance to take classes – anger management, trauma, therapy – that would qualify her for contact visits with her child. At other times, if she feels sad about her son, she said she can pull someone over and they will find a therapist for her to talk to.

“A lot of girls in Division IV would love to be in Division XVII,” Keisha said. The alternative division houses 700 women who may have jobs outside their tier but whose visits with their children are through Plexiglas.

The more comprehensive Division XVII was originally started in 1999, said Division XVII Supt. Kelly Baker. It is the first such county program in Illinois and the vision is to expand it by another 200 women, Baker said.

Jill has been taking infant development classes and participating in Narcotics Anonymous classes, which has qualified her for alternate Tuesday contact visits with her daughter, who is staying with a north suburban family. Jill is past the six-week postpartum, but her judge ordered her to stay so she could continue treatment, classes, individual therapy and contact visits with her daughter.

Division XVII Supt. Kelly Baker of the Cook County Sheriff's Women's Justice Programs in the Bright Spaces' visiting room

Division XVII Supt. Kelly Baker of the Cook County Sheriff’s Women’s Justice Programs in the Bright Spaces’ visiting room

Usually, contact visits in Division XVII are on Saturdays in the Bright Spaces room, which has four separate groupings of black leather-like sofas and tables. Children’s games are at the far end of the room.

“The main concern is having that contact visit, being able to have that bond with our children, especially from newborn in the hospital through the growing process,” Jill said. “I don’t know if I will be sent downstate [to prison] or if I will stay here. But it is nice to establish that bonding experience with your child while you are incarcerated.”

In between, she sends notes and even a drawing at Easter; the family in turn sends her photos of Ashley. She keeps all of this correspondence and a record of her classes in a logbook, which is recommended by Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM) so that women can document their attempts to maintain contact with their children as they attempt to regain custody later.

Keisha likewise sends small letters and pictures and keeps a notebook to the best of her ability: she cannot read and write well.

“I was bounced around from foster home to foster home,” Keisha said. “People did not take the time. They was like, ‘She’s OK, she’s a foster child. Just get this money.’”

Keisha’s mother had died at age 24, and she was the youngest of four children. Her aunt died at the same time, leaving nine children, all of whom went to their grandmother, who did the best she could, Keisha said.

“Even though I cannot read or write that well, a person would not know it because I articulate my words,” Keisha said. “My grandma taught me how to fake it ’til you make it. I was in [Illinois] DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services] and I signed myself out at 16, got out of the system. I found my apartment, started doing different things. I did go to work for a little while but worked in the sex industry because the money is very well. I never did drugs but I started selling drugs at 25. It’s just your choices, it’s not the poverty. You can be in a good neighborhood and it’s just different things you might go through on a daily basis.”

Jill agreed. “Our tier is the ‘house of growth.’ We focus on growing, changing, everything very positive. Some of the officers offer inspirational advice like an aunt or a sister. Some are disciplinary. Some women act out. There are all sorts of different women, from horrible abusive family backgrounds to having everything you wanted growing up.”

Keisha has a caseworker who makes additional phone calls to check up on her son’s condition. She has been clean for three years and is learning how to stick to a routine. “I am just keeping God first and being more focused on my treatment. I am really trying to work on my behavior because my behavior got me here. I need to get my anger under control, be more humble.”
Jill ultimately hopes to be released to the SWJP’s Empowerment Center, which offers evidence-based mental health services and linkages to community-based agencies to women exiting the jail.

Still other facets of the Cook County SWJP are a furlough program that combines electronic monitoring with Monday through Friday reporting for its first two phases, followed by two more phases that allow work, trauma groups or 12-step programs in tandem with random drug testing. Off-site, the MOM’S program in the Haymarket Center in the West Loop provides 24 beds for pregnant women and mothers of small children.

The Bright Spaces program at Division XVII, along with the Haymarket MOM’S program and the 16 slots at the Women’s Treatment Center in the West Loop for women remanded to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) after conviction along with their babies are all examples of programs that need massive expansion, said Gail Smith, an attorney and senior policy director at CLAIM. There should be another 2,000 residential and day program slots, Smith said.

That’s because more than 4 out of 5 women (82.5 percent) incarcerated in Illinois are mothers; the majority are their children’s only caretakers, Smith said. When these mothers are in county jails awaiting trial or in prison after conviction, about 20% of their children are placed in foster care.

Yet if a child is in foster care for 15 of 22 months, the state must move to terminate the mother’s parental rights, which means she will no longer be entitled to visits or phone calls — almost as if she never existed. That’s because since 1997, the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act has encouraged quick termination of parental rights so that children can receive a permanent home, she added.

Entrance to Division XVII shows inspirational posters in its windows

Entrance to Division XVII shows inspirational posters in its windows

“But the law that was intended to provide permanency for children in fact does the opposite because the person most likely to provide that permanency is their mother and she is being cut out of the picture,” Smith said.

A better method, she said, is to keep families together to address the root causes of the mother’s offense, since almost all CLAIM clients have suffered multiple trauma, from sexual abuse as kids to domestic violence, both of which can lead to drug addiction. They need trauma-informed treatment.

That’s why CLAIM’s “Reunite Moms and Kids Campaign” has two goals:
**ensuring that women who remain in prison have the resources to maintain bonds with their children, address the problems that led them to prison, and upon release, reunite with their families to become self-supporting community members.

**releasing women convicted of nonviolent offenses to the community or sending them home on electronic monitors so they can live with their kids. More than 16,000 women go to jail annually in Cook County annually and about 82 percent are mothers, according to a CLAIM fact sheet; about 80 percent of detainees at Cook County Jail are charged with non-violent crimes, CLAIM officials say. Within IDOC, 63 percent of women are serving time for nonviolent crimes such as property (30.2 percent) and drug (32.8 percent) offenses.

“Being a mother is about making 100 decisions a day: do you enroll in Sunday school, what religion are you raising your child, does your child need to see a doctor,” Smith said. When a woman is removed from that role, her lifestyle skills break down.

“By sentencing them to prison we are making it more likely, not less likely they will commit another crime because we are taking away the skills they have and breaking down their family relationships,” she said.

Smith provided the written testimony of former colleague Joanne Archibald before the Illinois House Youth and Family Committee in 2009. Archibald described a mother who was admitted to a mother-infant care program in San Francisco, yet considered giving her baby to her mother because of the difficulty of the required programming.

Gail Smith, Senior Policy Director at CLAIM

Gail Smith, Senior Policy Director at CLAIM

“Once she had her baby, however, her attitude changed,” Archibald said at the hearing. “She developed a strong bond with her child, and now was determined to do anything necessary to stay in the program and more importantly, make a better life for them and never return to prison.”

Smith argues also for the emotional wellbeing of the children, from toddlers to teens.

“Children under age 6 suffer more greatly when Mom goes away,” Smith said. “At age 5 or 6 when kids go off to kindergarten and first grade, they are starting their relationship with the larger world. Up until then, their level of dependency is much greater and they are still forming their psychological identity. If you separate the mother and child before that, you are almost always doing some irreparable damage.”

Smith told the same Illinois House committee hearing in 2009 that CLAIM had phone calls from hospital social workers because toddlers whose mothers were incarcerated refused to eat and were dehydrated. “Physical contact with their mothers is the most important and quickest way to reassure them.”

Angela is another example. She is a CLAIM client who was incarcerated for 18 months at Dwight, a 90-minute drive from Chicago, and at Decatur, three hours away. Angela’s mother cared for three of her four children, but since her mom did not want to bring them to a prison setting Angela did not see them the whole time, she said in a telephone interview.

Her two sons are doing well now in school and say “Mom, I’m never going to jail, I’m never going to do anything wrong, I think people who sell drugs are stupid.” However, Angela’s youngest daughter is struggling with school and she attributes it to abandonment issues.

It’s normal for teenagers to be outrageous, said Smith, who raised her own niece from age 14 to 17, “because they are mapping their own territory of how they are not you.” When they are with their own mother, “they weather the storm because their mother fell in love with them when they were 1 and 2 years old.”

But grief in children looks like anger, she said, and that can be expected if they are dealing with missing mothers and feeling their stigma of incarceration. “We have clients who don’t know where their kids are living, because the teen felt mistreated and ran away or the relative kicked the kid out, said ‘I don’t have to deal with this.’ ”

Sonovia Petty, 39, is coordinator and Sylvia Begay, 45, is a member of CLAIM’s Visible Voices speaking group in support of its platform for trauma-informed therapy that gets to the root of family issues. Both have children who have become homeless because of broken maternal bonds.

Petty never lived with her mother but with her aunt and her grandmother, who became her legal guardian until she became ill.

“I was running the whole household at age 11 and had two kids by age 16. I went to go be an emancipated minor but instead of helping me, they took my kids and put them into the system. Then they put me in a group home. I had a nervous breakdown.”

The stress between Petty’s mother and grandmother trickled down so that she was not shown love. She did learn survival skills, although she only went through ninth grade. “Their way of surviving was bootleg. My way of surviving was selling drugs, retail theft. They didn’t instill how to live and I fell through the cracks. I was a product of my community.”

Petty’s kids age 23, 20 and 19 were all adopted out; the 20-year-old daughter’s parents let her reach out to Petty two years ago and the 19-year-old did so last year, two weeks before turning 18. Petty’s 11-year-old stays with an uncle and she has custody of her 6- and 8-year-old sons. Petty can’t find her 23-year-old but she has been able to stay in touch with her 25-year-old, thanks to a doctor who sought her out during a mental health crisis when the boy was 10.

She now works part-time for CLAIM while she takes classes for medical billing and coding. She formerly worked for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and still serves on its Reentry Committee after time in downstate prisons. Last year, this committee urged the Chicago Housing Authority to adopt less restrictive policies toward formerly incarcerated people, similar to what Los Angeles and Seattle have done.

Begay grew up in Robert Taylor Homes but her mother had the work ethic to get good jobs and move to South Shore. Still, “She didn’t show affection [and] when you don’t know who you are relationally, you look for love in all the wrong places. I began to copycat the domestic violence I saw.”

As a result, Begay wound up serving 7½ years of an eight-year sentence for armed violence against her one-time fiancé, a police officer. She earned a master’s degree in Christian ministries, a doctorate in Christian counseling and was released January 9.

Begay has a son, 27; a daughter, 23; boy and girl twins age 20 and an 8-year-old daughter. She began fighting the case 11 years ago before serving time at Dwight, Decatur and Lincoln (which is also a three-hour drive). She says her sons took her situation the hardest. The 27-year-old and the 20-year-old are homeless: “wherever they can lay their heads. They may have a place to stay this week but next week fend for themselves.”

The 20-year-old was involved with street gangs and some offenses but Begay is working with him to get him stable housing, even as she herself is in an interim housing program.

Sonovia Petty (left) and Sylvia Begay

Sonovia Petty (left) and Sylvia Begay

Little things that helped her parenting during her incarceration, Begay said, were groups where you could address issues related to mother and child bonding, visits via webcam and a child-friendly visiting room with games where mother and child could interact. When one of her children was going through a difficult time, she was allowed an extra phone call for the month. There was also a four-day camp on the prison grounds, with kids gathered at different sites to do arts and crafts, play games or interact with their moms.

“Women in prison, being on the inside but also respected by their peers, each person knew how to work,” Begay said. “They were diligent about completing their assignments. They can clean a commode for $14.40 a month, so they would be willing to work for $14.40 an hour. They just need a stable place to live, a job and counseling.”

Petty added, “We can create all the job programs we want but if we don’t educate employers that we are hard workers, we paid our debt, this cycle is going to continue. Me and Sylvia are going to teach them to lean on God.”

By Suzanne Hanney,
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

* Bright Spaces names have been changed.

CLAIM will host its Mother’s Day rally in support of keeping families together at noon Friday, May 10 at the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St. For more information, call CLAIM at 312.675.0912, x 14 or email SPetty@claim-il.org or Gail@claim.org.

– Ethan Ross contributing

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