The following is an image made by Meredith Stern which is available for purchase at Just Seeds Cooperative for $10. Stern explains why she created the image:
This is a redo of an image I made over ten years ago when the incarceration rate had already skyrocketed and the trend has tragically continued as a direct result of harsh and disproportionate racial profiling, targeting and sentencing of communities of color for non-violent drug related behavior. For starters, we must end mass incarceration, the criminalization of undocumented migrants, and the war on drugs. It is incredibly damaging for families, for communities, and our entire society to be putting such a large portion of our population in detention centers for non-violent behavior.
The Sentencing Project has incredibly eye opening data on the current state of affairs.
For anyone interested in learning more about the current state of affairs:
“This House I Live In” is a documentary about the “War on Drugs” in the US which I highly recommend.
For book readers I recommend “Race to Incarcerate” and “The New Jim Crow.”
I purchased a couple of the prints.
Last night, I was privileged to attend an event titled “Breastfeeding and Incarceration: A Panel Discussion on Maternal Rights in Prison and Criminalization of Black Mothers” organized by the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA), Moms United against Violence and Incarceration and Black on Both Sides. It was a wonderful, infuriating, and moving event.
My friend Ayanna Banks Harris who is a co-organizer of CAFMA was on the panel. I thought that her remarks were excellent and asked for permission to publish them. They are below for all of you to read and consider. My thanks to Ayanna for allowing me to share her words here.
Breastfeeding & Incarcerated Mothers
Remarks by Ayanna Banks-Harris
26 June 2014
I am very grateful for this opportunity to share the stories of two mothers who are just a miniscule representation of the thousands of mothers whose stories go untold and voices go unheard.
Before our discussion opens to insuring breastfeeding rights of mothers who are incarcerated, we must examine how and why our society is caging mothers at increasingly exponential rates and why we’ve become comfortable with so many children being ripped from the loving care of their mothers who are more often than not nurturing, loving, caring and providing.
Exactly four years ago, a pregnant woman and already mother of two fled the marital home she shared with her second husband as she had been physically abused multiple times by him. Being pregnant did not ward off the violent attacks of her husband, the father of her unborn child. Six weeks prior to her scheduled delivery date, she gave birth to a daughter who would remain in NICU for weeks following her birth. Nine days post-partum, the now mother of three was once again attacked and threatened and has been in a battle for the right to live her life freely ever since.
She is Marissa Alexander.
In August 2010, just nine days after giving birth, Marissa briefly left her daughter’s side to return to her marital home to retrieve necessary documents at a time she knew her estranged husband wouldn’t be home. While there, he did return home along with two of his children from another relationship and began invading her privacy by going through her phone. In a jealous rage, he confronted her while she was in the restroom, assaulted her, shoved her, strangled her, threatened her and held her against her will preventing her from fleeing. Once she was able to leave, she headed to the garage where her car was parked but left behind her keys and phone.
Upon realizing she’d left her keys and she attempted to open the garage door but could not.
Trapped, she retrieved her gun for which she has a permit and re-entered the home with her gun down at her side for the sole purpose of obtaining her phone and keys and leaving through another exit.
Upon hearing her reenter the home, her estranged husband entered the kitchen. He became further enraged upon seeing the weapon at her side, lunged at her while yelling, “Bitch, I will kill you.” It was at the moment of him lunging at her did Marissa raise her arm with weapon in hand to fire one shot in an upwards direction that neither hit him nor anyone else. Marissa was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, each of which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.
Marissa went from asserting her right to live by defending herself against her husband to asserting her right to live by defending herself in a fight against a system that seeks to imprison her for 60 years for interrupting the violence inflicted upon her.
Marissa Alexander is just one of thousands of women who are incarcerated for warding off abusive partners as violence inflicted against women and girls puts them at greater risk for incarceration because their survival strategies are often deemed criminal.
Domestic violence is just one precipice from which mothers, specifically those of color, fall into the criminal justice system
Earlier this year, another mother of three had to make a decision no mother, no person should have to – leave her children in the car that she could attend an interview that would catapult her and her family out of homelessness (housing insecurity) and poverty or be a no-show.
It’s not that Shanesha Taylor hadn’t diligently coordinated the day so that she wouldn’t have to make such a decision as she had already arranged a caretaker for her two youngest children. When she arrived at the home of the caretaker on her way to the interview, no one answered the door. Literally having no other options, Shanesha made the difficult decision to leave her kids unattended in the car for an hour. She made every attempt within her power to alleviate the dangers involved with doing so – cracking the tinted windows and leaving keys in the ignition with the engine off but allowing the fan to continue to blow air. Upon returning to the car following her interview – an interview she says went extremely well and resulted in a job offer – Shanesha discovers her car is parked in the center of a crime scene. The two children who were in the car were taken to the hospital and were immediately released as they had not been harmed. Shanesha was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse. Though only two of her children were in the car, both unharmed, all three of her children have been removed from her custody. She faces upwards of seven years in prison.
What is solved by imprisoning Shanesha for seven years?
What is solved by caging Marissa for 60 years?
How are these families, these children, made better by their mothers being incarcerated?
How are our communities any safer as a result?
Why is such behavior even deemed criminal?
Though the manner in which Marissa and Shanesha were catapulted into the judicial system and separated from their children are vastly different, a similarity is glaring -both of these mothers, women of color, have been incarcerated, face years of further incarceration, are no longer their children’s primary caretaker/guardian not for having actually done harm, not for having an intent to do harm, but because of a hypothetical harm that COULD HAVE been done. We are punishing mothers in desperate situations against impossible odds for NOT inflicting harm on their children or others.
It is past time that we demand to live in a society that is less concerned with being punitive for every reaction and obsessed with ensuring solutions for all, that no person – no mother – is cornered in perilous situations with no options.
I love you very much, even though we haven’t had the greatest relationship.
I sometimes get angry when I think of all the years we have been separated.
I love you very much and wouldn’t trade you for anything.
I know it’s not your fault and I don’t blame you.
I just hope and pray that I will be able to spend more time than once or twice a year with the mom I love and adore.
Always remember I love you and never forget it.
And when you are in rehab and you feel like no one cares and you are not going to make it just remember what I am writing in this letter and I love you.
Love, your daughter,
Source: Writers’ Block: The Voices of Women Inside (Women and Prison Program, Beyondmedia Education)
Brave New Film’s newest release follows a young woman named Vanessa whose mother’s incarceration had a destructive impact on her life. From the Huffington Post:
When they took her mom away, Vanessa stopped caring. She acted out in school, got in trouble with the law, and ended up in a group home. By the time we met her, her mom only had a year left in her sentence, but Vanessa was one small mistake away from violating her probation and ending up in juvenile hall. Imagine the mother walking out of the walls of prison, only to see her child step in.
“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.
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.
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.
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.