Mar 29 2014

“I Love Being A Mommy!!!” On Shanesha Taylor & Black Motherhood in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Every day in this country some women are coerced or forced by circumstances into doing things they don’t want to do. For many women, it is the only static condition of their ever changing lives: to regularly feel required to make hard choices among, at times, very poor options.” – Beth Richie, Compelled to Crime (1996).

You people are Ridiculous for supporting this woman!! What she did was almost kill her two babies!! How many other times has she done this. Ot is not okay to leave ur kids in a car regardless even in winter in Arizona. I can tell from ur post EXACTLY what kind of mothers u are…” – Tamara Carlstrom, Commenter on this blog (2014).

By now, you’ve likely seen the ubiquitous mug shot photo. Shanesha Taylor with tears streaming down her face and a look of fear & devastation in her eyes. This photograph introduced me to Shanesha’s case and galvanized me into action on Tuesday. I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. I know that I am not alone. Friends have expressed their feelings using similar words. One friend, however, confessed that she felt ‘uneasy’ when she saw the photo. As we talked, she admitted that she was ‘embarrassed’ and she wondered if it was exploitative for a stranger’s mug shot, in particular a black woman’s, to be plastered on various media platforms across the country and maybe the world. After all, there is ‘no country’ for black women anywhere.

After the initial wave of sympathy that I felt for Shanesha, I got angry. A homeless mother was so desperate that she left her young children in a car while interviewing for a job. She was then arrested and incarcerated. How could jail be the solution for what was obviously (to my mind) a consequence of poverty and a lack of resources? Of course, I worried about the children’s safety but most of the time removing a child’s primary caregiver doesn’t improve their future outcomes. So I wanted to know more and to find a way to support Shanesha and her children.

I took to social media to find people local to the Scottsdale area who might be able to help her. I reached out to the young woman, Amanda Bishop, who had established an online fundraiser to benefit Shanesha and her family. I was interested in verifying the authenticity of the effort so that I could help to boost it. When I first started sharing the link to the fundraiser, people had contributed $2,200. Since that time, the case has garnered much more attention. The last time I checked, nearly $39,000 had been donated to help cover Shanesha’s bail, legal fees, and perhaps other expenses. Eventually, through Twitter, I connected with two people (one of whom lives in Arizona) who helped me gather more information about Shanesha. I heard from a member of her family a couple of days ago who provided a short update and thanked everyone for their outpouring of concern for Shanesha and her children. He was truly overwhelmed by the support. It was unexpected…

I mentioned earlier that there is ‘no country’ for black women anywhere. I have written about this in many different ways over the past few years. Because most black women expect to be maligned and demonized when we are not being erased, I immediately understood my friend’s trepidation. What would the mass media and all of us do to a homeless black mother who seemingly ‘neglected’ her children? What pernicious tropes would circulate within the public sphere and be internalized like lashes from a whip by all of us as black women? Because rest assured that only delusional black women maintain that we are seen as individuals rather than as members of a morally suspect and undesirable group in the U.S. We’ve always been treated as less than human.

Throughout history and still today, we exist as caricatures in the minds of too many. The popular representations of black women are reflected and shaped by our ideas about race, gender, sexuality, class, and more. We exist in the culture as hypersexual, unfeminine, angry, potentially criminal, depraved things. We are preternaturally ‘strong’ and feel no pain so the image of a black woman in tears in public must be jarring indeed. Society is generally inoculated against black women’s tears. We have been excluded from ideologies of domesticity and our families are pathologized. And for some of us, when these reductive lies about who we are seem to be reflected back to us (maybe through a mug shot photo), we become embarrassed and ashamed. Then we hate ourselves for it.

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Jan 25 2014

Darius, Mo, and Me…

I first wrote about a young man named Darius in a post titled “The Orphans of the Mass Incarceration Epidemic” in April 2011. Here’s how I introduced him:

I received an e-mail from a young man who was a stranger to me about a month ago. I haven’t written about it until today because I have been trying to address some issues that arose from the communication.

The young man is 14 years old and he came across this blog by doing a Google search about boys with incarcerated fathers. He wrote to tell me his story. I have his permission to share some of it with you. I promised that I wouldn’t quote directly from the first e-mail that I received from him. I want to honor the trust that he has bestowed. I will call him Darius.

So Darius found me through the internet using a computer at his public library. When he reached out to me, he was a freshman in high school and he was struggling. Since his first email, in March 2011, we’ve become good friends. Last weekend, Darius called to tell me that his father will be released from prison in February.

In my first post, I explained Darius’s reason(s) for writing to me:

Darius reached out to me because he wanted to let me know that he feels alone even though his grandmother is doing her best by him. He wanted me to know that he never talks to any of his friends about his father. He doesn’t talk to anyone about his father. He is unable to visit his father regularly because he is incarcerated over 100 miles from where Darius lives. His grandmother has no means of transportation. Even if she did, she works as a nurse’s aide and has very inflexible hours. Darius confided in me that he is struggling a great deal right now. He wrote that he feels like he might “explode.” He doesn’t understand why he feels so angry all of the time. He said that he doesn’t want to cause any “trouble” for his grandmother. I can understand that.

I have a friend, Maurice, who lives in the same city as Darius. Mo stepped up to become a friend and mentor to him. Over the years, I’ve provided a couple of updates about Darius like when he was accepted into a technology apprenticeship program in 2011 or when he graduated from 10th grade (with honors) in 2012.

Darius is a senior in high school now. He has applied (with help from Mo) to several colleges. He is going to be an engineer. As I type the words, I am bursting with pride, gratitude and most especially with love. It’s been nearly 3 years since Darius first reached out to me, a stranger. We have yet to meet in person. Our communication has been online and by phone. But as I watch from a distance, I am in awe of the man that Darius is becoming. I hope that he knows this.

When we spoke last weekend, I heard a mix of anticipation and apprehension in Darius’s voice as he shared the news about his father’s release. He feels guilty for his conflicted emotions. “Shouldn’t I be 100% happy, MK?” he asked. My response was no. I fully understand his apprehension after all he was 10 years old when his father was locked up and he will be 18 in June. His father’s drug addiction was the driving force of his young life. Why wouldn’t he be worried about what might happen when his dad returns to the same troubled neighborhood?

And Darius is not the same person that he was at 10 years old. I imagine that his father has changed too in almost 8 years behind bars. It’s hard to know how they will get along. Darius also worries about leaving his grandmother behind when he goes to college. How will she adapt to her son’s return from prison? he wonders. These questions are unresolved and it creates uncertainty which breeds anxiety. This is the messiness of incarceration that plays out mostly out of view.

I’ve been thinking about chance and fate. That a 14 year old would use the internet to reach out for support and find it, feels miraculous to me. I am so thankful that the stars aligned so that Mo could step into his role as Darius’s friend, mentor, cheerleader and surrogate father. Last Father’s Day, Darius gave Mo a card. I don’t know what it said but Mo was overwhelmed. We need each other so much. I am reminded of this truth daily.

This is a love letter of sorts. A long time ago, I fell in love with a man who has stayed dear to me even though we are no longer in love. And to see this man, who has no biological children, father a stranger’s child brings tears. This is a love letter for the black men who step up and who are brave enough to be vulnerable in a society that punishes this. This is a love letter to a young man who is determined to earn enough money to move his grandmother out of their neighborhood and who stepped into the void to reach out for help when he was only just a boy. This is my love letter to Darius and to Mo. Thank you both for letting me hold on to the dream of happy endings.

Dec 15 2013

Ruptures & Repair: Mothers Coming Home From Prison (2 Short Films)

Earlier this week, I was privileged to listen to Ms. Helen Jenkins, Marissa Alexander‘s mother, provide a short update on how her daughter is doing now that she is out of jail on bond awaiting her March 2014 retrial. Ms. Jenkins said that it had taken some adjustment and that Marissa was still settling back into the lives of her children and family but that she was doing well. This was wonderful to hear. Marissa’s older children were 10 years old when she was first jailed and they are both now 13 and a half. Her baby who was only 9 days old when she went to jail is now 3 and a half. That’s a long time to be separated from your children.

There are 2.7 million minor children who have an incarcerated parent. Each of them has a story and so do their parents. I was moved by the following two short videos about how incarceration impacted the relationships between formerly incarcerated mothers and their children. Each film is under 10 minutes and I highly recommend watching them.

val new re-entry compress from New America Media on Vimeo.

Steeda and Malaysia: Re-Entry To Motherhood from New America Media on Vimeo.

Nov 12 2013

Poem of the Day: Son

By Jessica Muniz J
From recent issue of Captured Words

When I think of you,
I think of your eyes,
How they are sparkling pools of blue,
That always calm me when I see you.
When I think of you,
I think to myself how much strength you give me,
You are my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,
Just knowing that you are waiting for me
To be home,
Helps me to carry on.
Ever since that day you left,
Loneliness had taken its toll.
You are a very special part of my life,
A life that has had its twists and turns,
I know I have missed out on a lot,
But somehow I know that I will be given another chance,
To prove that I really am a wonderful mom.
When I think of you, Son,
You lift up my spirits.
So many of my smiles depend on you.
You bring me so much happiness,
I hope you will never forget,
Not even for a single day,
How wonderful you are to me.
When I think of you, Julian,
I am sorry that I hurt you,
It’s something I must live with every day.
I never meant to do those things to you.
I want to show you a side of me you do not know.
Julian, my Son, you are my reason for all that I do.

Apr 12 2013

Crazy PIC Fact of the Day


More here.

Mar 15 2013

7 (More) Things You Should Know About The Prison Industrial Complex by Prison Culturefeed

1. There are 2.7 million children in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent.

2. We spend a lot of money to incarcerate young people.

Created during Just Us Comic Workshop 2010

Created during Just Us Comic Workshop 2010

3. “The youth incarceration rate in the nation dropped 37 percent from 1995 to 2010. In 1995, 107,637 young people were held in correctional facilities on a single reference day, while in 2010, this number had dropped to 70,792, the lowest in 35 years. The rate of youth in confinement dropped from 381 per 100,000 to 225 per 100,000 over the same period. But the United States still incarcerates a higher percentage of its young people than any other industrialized country — in 2002 the nation’s youth incarceration rate was almost five times that of South Africa, the nation with the next highest rate. Most of the young people incarcerated do not pose a clear public safety threat: almost 40 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent reasons such as status offenses, public order offenses, low-level property offenses, drug possession, or technical probation violations, while only about one quarter are incarcerated for a Violent Crime Index offense (homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, sexual assault). (Source).”

4. According to the ACLU, “In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants in over 250 facilities across the country, and currently maintains a daily capacity of 33,400 beds—even though, in the overwhelming majority of cases, detention is not necessary to effect deportations and does not make us any safer.”

by Molly Fair

by Molly Fair

5. The numbers of elderly prisoners (65 and over) are increasing in the U.S.

6. Sexual assault and rape is rampant in U.S. jails and prisons.

7. The PIC is very costly. Preliminary data from the Census Bureau’s annual State Government Finance Census indicate states spent $48.5 billion on corrections in 2010, about 6% less than in 2009. Between 1982 and 2001, total state corrections expenditures increased each year, rising from $15.0 billion to $53.5 billion in real dollars.

Pew Center on the States

Pew Center on the States

Special Bonus:

Stop and Frisk is a policing tactic that is used across the U.S. but particularly in New York City. The practice criminalizes mostly young Black and Latino people.


Oct 02 2012

Connecting Incarcerated Moms & their Children: If Walls Could Talk…

Several months ago, I contributed to artist Katie Yamasaki’s Kickstarter project “If Walls Could Talk.” Katie describes the project below:

Children from the East Harlem Community and the greater NYC area worked to design a mural that I painted with the mothers inside of the women’s jail in Rikers Island. The women also created an image and message dedicated to their children and the East Harlem community. Last month, I worked with their children and other members of the East Harlem community to bring their message to life.

Below is the first video that I saw of Katie describing the project in her own words.

The project is now complete and there was a mural dedication celebration on September 14. Since I no longer live in NYC, I was unfortunately unable to attend. But thanks to the magic of technology, Katie shared photographs and regular updates about the progress of this project. Below are some photographs of the East Harlem mural:

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May 21 2012

In Absentia: Fathering Behind Bars

I have received many e-mails over the past couple of years as I have been writing here. Several of these have been from the children of incarcerated parents. I have never published their e-mails because they have been so personal and often emotionally raw. I have also not wanted ask for permission to share them on the blog. The e-mails have felt private.

Some children of the incarcerated (at least the ones who have reached out to me) seem to live difficult lives. One particular young woman and I have struck up an e-mail pen pal relationship. She has struggled to move past the hurt and harm caused by her father’s estrangement. He has been locked up for most of her life. She is dealing with unresolved anger and grief from his absence. Yet at the same time, it seems to me that he actually occupies an outsized space in her world too. She thinks of him constantly. She feels a lot of rage. This idea of the gaping hole that can be left in a child’s life when he or she has an incarcerated parent is well illustrated by Tupac’s “Papa’s Song.” The accompanying video paints a searing portrait of how the absence of a father through incarceration can negatively impact a child’s life.

Read more »

May 08 2012

Guest Post: Our Children and Prison by Randy Miller

The following is from my pen pal, Randy, who is incarcerated at Indiana State Prison. Randy loves to write and has been using his words to reach out to young people for the past few months.

Our Children and Prison
by Randy Miller

One of the most difficult aspects of prison life is the knowledge that our children are doing time with us. Our children did not choose to do our time. They were forced into it by our poor decisions and actions. They were left on their own to wonder why they don’t have a daddy to care for them. Wondering what they did wrong to cause their daddy to go away, and often face severe hardships in trying to establish a positive relationship with their incarcerated father.

Prisons are not designed to promote an environment for healthy family interactions. Prisons are designed to warehouse some violent, dangerous men and keep us as isolated from society as they can, so society can continue existing as if we didn’t. “Out of sight, out of mind,” should be the motto for the Department of Corruption. Little do lawmakers and prison officials care that the main people being hurt by their policies and regulations are our children.

Prisoners do care! I have seen hardened, defiant men, reduced to tears over their children. I’ve seen men who had otherwise lost their will to fight their own case, still fight everyday to see their kids. I’ve seen some of the hardest and meanest men in here, smile like kids when they talk about their children. Children are the most precious and sacred part of any prisoners life, and unfortunately, it’s the most difficult part of our lives to get straightened out.

Prison officials don’t care who gets hurt outside these walls. The only thing they care about is controlling the population of the prison, in such a way that it goes as efficiently and smoothly as possible. The smoother it runs, the more beds they can open up and the more men they can lock-up. Prisons were designed to be not-for-profit institutions, to rehabilitate men and integrate them back into society as productive citizens. Prisons have become a business, and like any business, the more beds they fill, the more money they make, and they don’t care who gets hurt in the process.

Just like us, our children have become nothing more than statistics, to the home-wrecking machine known as the Department of Corruption. How much longer will our children have to pay the price for our mistakes? How much longer will society carry on acting like they don’t know about the problems that exist within our prisons? How much longer will we have to wait for those in power to realize they are crippling society by continuously releasing institutionalized, traumatized men back into society? Someone needs to take notice, before it’s too late.

Apr 01 2012

Poem for the Day: Guarded

(Dropping Daddy Off At Jail)
by Danna Botwick

Good-bye at the gate
We hugged & kissed like families do
He held his youngest daughter,

She wanted to see where he would sleep.

The guard, a black woman
with sunglasses & white uniform,
scooped up his belongings with
long red nails.
It’s just a camp,
no bars, she made light
of our darkness and I hated her
long red nails.

Lucy did not cry
for almost two hours.

When it folded over her,
she was trying to spell
and decided she could not do her work
without him
so she beat the couch
with small angry fists
“I want my daddy, NOW!”
Until she could not breathe,
eyes puffy,
face flushed she raged,

“I wish daddy didn’t do that bad
thing in the first place!”

I paused inside my hurt
and suggested,
“He didn’t know…”

Too smart for me
she smashed her face into a pillow,
“I’ll bet all mothers say that to their children.”