BY DIANE DIMOND
Women and children: two segments of the population we cherish and try to protect. But, sadly, not if the woman is in the prison system.
Now, don’t think for a minute that I’m soft on women who commit crimes, because I’m not. But generational incarceration is a real thing, and we are doing little as a society to stop it.
Since 1980, the U.S. has seen a rise of more than 500 percent in the number of inmates in our jails and prisons. But females make up the fastest growing segment of prisoners, the number up more than 700 percent. Of the 1.2 million women currently under criminal supervision — in local jails, state or federal prison, or under parole or probation — a full two-thirds are mothers. Many are single mothers.
Think of all the children left behind.
Research shows that children of incarcerated parents have significantly higher rates of being expelled from school, turning to drugs or alcohol, and going to prison themselves. It is a terrible cycle. And one major thing that might make the difference to the child, continued contact with a loving parent, is the very thing our justice system often denies them.
The Marshall Project nonprofit recently joined with Teen Vogue magazine to film videos with formerly incarcerated women and the adult daughter of convicted criminals who are still in prison. Their candid conversation about life inside a women’s prison might shock you.
Kyndia Riley was just 2 years old when both her parents went to prison. Mom was sent to Connecticut, and Dad was sent to a prison in Pennsylvania. Little Riley was raised by relatives in Virginia. It took 10 hours to drive to see her mother, and there was no money for an overnight hotel stay. As she grew older, she realized the indignity her mother had to go through just to enter the prison visiting room.
“You have to take off all of your clothes and the squat,” Riley told the interviewer. “My mom, when I would go visit her and it would happen to her, it was like she had to take a moment to herself because she’s had a guard fondling her naked … and then she comes and sits down and has to get herself together because her dignity is just kinda stripped.” Riley, now in college, also admitted that she deliberately acted out in school thinking if she were bad enough, she, too, would be sent to prison and then get to be with her mom. Only after the dean of students asked her, “Why are you doing this?” did she realize the futility.
If only there were enough concerned adults to sit down and really communicate with the children of incarcerated parents.
Ex-convict Ayana Thomas was asked what it was like to try to parent her child from behind bars. During visits, Thomas said: “You can get an initial hug. … You can’t have them sit on your lap. You can’t hold their hands.” The visits with her daughter were so emotional that with nine months left of her sentence, Thomas told her family not to visit anymore. She said she could do her time easier “without the stress” of it. She added: “It takes me two days to recuperate from a visit, from my daughter crying. You know, just the whole ripping you apart all over again.”
Former inmate Sarah Zarba said she could relate: “My mom visited me when I was incarcerated and, like, she would talk about going through the metal detectors and, like, having to take off, like, her bra sometimes and just having to go through that and the shame of it she felt. So, I told her at one point, ‘Don’t come.'”
If only prisons made it easier for families to remain close.
Prison jobs earn the inmates less than a dollar an hour, about $14 a month in Thomas’s case. With that they must buy phone time to call home, personal hygiene products like shampoo and toothpaste, or monthly hygiene products, which often sell at the prison commissary for inflated prices. (Just two months ago, a memo went out from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that required a range of feminine hygiene products to be distributed at federal prisons for free. State prisons and jails were not included in the directive.)
Some inmates are lucky enough to have family adding money to their commissary account, but in many cases, relatives must choose between sending money to their loved one or using it to pay for a visit with the children.
There’s a bill pending in Congress called the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. If passed, it would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to consider the geographic divide between women and their children before assigning them to a prison. It would reform visitation policies for primary caretakers, outlaw charging inmates for essential hygiene products and prohibit handcuffing and solitary confinement for pregnant women.
Here’s hoping state prisons also realize that anything we do to strengthen family bonds could help all of society down the road.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net