Women are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population. Many of them have suffered from sexual trauma and abuse, are dealing with mental illness or drug addiction, and many are mothers.
“If I didn't get incarcerated I'd probably be dead, for sure. I would probably not have any contact with my kids if I didn't get incarcerated,” said Jessie, an inmate who has spent the last 4 and a half years behind bars at Taycheedah Correctional Institution, a maximum security state prison in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
Jessie is a mother to four children, ages 7, 10, 11 and 16.
“They can come up as much as they want, but it's hard, because they're far away and my kids are always busy," Jessie said. "You can only call certain times and if your parents or children are busy, you don't get to talk to them."
Tanya, a mother of two and heroin addict, is doing her second stint in prison.
Her children, who are 10 and 13, lived with her father and stepmother during her first prison sentence. After her father passed away, her son went to live with his own father while her daughter stayed with Tanya's stepmother.
"I came home, I transitioned, I lived in an efficiency apartment, then moved to a regular apartment and had supervised visits, to having overnight visits and going to Christmas concerts doing the slow progression. Then I ended up with my children full time," Tanya said.
After her stepmother passed away, she relapsed, revoking her parole and sending her back to prison.
“The first time I was here, when I did my six and a half years, it made me realize that there was more to life,” Tanya said. “But in the same respect, too, I did treatment while I was in here so I learned how to be sober. I didn't know how to do it outside of here, I didn't know. I didn't have the tools to walk out and be like, okay, I have to find a job. I have to do this I have to do that. Plus, learn to balance my sobriety, it's a lot and it's a lot to take in but there are groups out there. There are organizations, there's counseling."
Taycheedah offers parenting groups to moms, but inmates lament that they’re not enough to maintain strong connections with their kids while they’re away.
"They do have a Parenting From a Distance class, which I did take,” Jessie said.
Jessie explained that the class was unfortunately not up-to-date and worries that she may not be fully prepared as a parent when she gets out of prison.
"They need to teach us how to co-parent with whoever has your children. They need to teach us what we can do to be a better parent to our kids after being incarcerated for so long, and not having that constant contact with them," Jessie said.
"My daughter and I emailed back and forth, and then I talk to my kids at least twice a week on the phone, and they come up here once a month to visit," Tanya said. "But they deal with a lot stuff they don't even tell me about. I find out after the fact. I find out from my best friend or my son's father or my mother because they are just angry."
Prison Social Worker Jamie Gyr says a particularly unique program for mothers at Taycheedah is Homestead Visits, in a home like atmosphere. Some inmates qualify to have their children visit for an entire day.
“We walk them up here with their moms and they get to spend the whole day up here,” Gyr said. “They get to bake, we provide lunch so they get to make lunch together. They do arts and crafts for the kids. There's gym time where the kids get to go to the gym and hang out with Mom play different games things like that. There's books all sorts of little things.”
While at this state prison there are programs designed to keep mothers bonded to their children, most incarcerated moms across the country aren’t as fortunate.
"The Dignity Act focuses on women who are incarcerated,” said Senator Cory Booker, (D) New Jersey. “Most Americans don't understand the massive amounts of women that we have incarcerated, and it is increasing at a far more rapid pace right now then men. We actually have one out of every three incarcerated women on the planet Earth are right here in the United States of America. They have particular concerns, challenges, and I think face a particular type of injustice when they're in prison. About 86% of the women that are incarcerated are survivors of sexual trauma, they are overwhelmingly parents, and we want to make sure, through this bill, that we are empowering women to succeed and not compounding a lot of the hurt and harm that's been done to them.”
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act would make a series of reforms in the federal prison system to reduce the negative impact incarceration has on family members of women behind bars, particularly, their children. It would do things like require the Bureau of Prisons to consider location of kids when placing moms and create better visitation policies. It would prohibit solitary confinement of pregnant women and make calls home free.
“We see mothers in prison who really want to be great mothers, but the prison system itself undermines their ability to be great moms,” Sen. Booker said. “It doesn't take into consideration visitation of their children who are often located far away where visiting becomes difficult, if not impossible. It doesn't at all do anything to make those connections in prison more vibrant, it actually charges outrageous costs just to make phone calls.”
For Jessie and Tanya, the lack of control they have from the inside makes the thought of transitioning home a terrifying one. And they both want more support once they step into freedom.
“It sucks because I see so many people that I was in here with that have come back, and I think that's a big thing with the women's prison is the recidivism rate,” Tanya said. “The relapses and a lot of us here in Wisconsin aren't on new cases, we're just getting revoked and we come back.”
“I'm so scared,” Jessie said. “I'm so scared because when I'm visiting my kids will say to me, ‘We don't have to listen to you.’ Yeah, you do! I'm still your mom, you do have to listen to me. Just because I'm gone doesn't mean you don't have to listen to me anymore. I understand you've been with Gaga and Papa, that's what they call them, for almost 5 years, but I'm still your mom. You still have to listen to me when I tell you something. That's the biggest problem I have. I'm so worried about it, my kids are not going to want to be with me, they're not going to listen to me, they're like, ‘Well, we don't live with you, you don't tell us what to do.’ I don't know how to make that transition yet, I'm very nervous about it.”
“This is what I don't understand about our society, and the Dignity Act tries to empower people while they're in prison and get them the tools to be successful, and successful parents,” Sen. Booker said. “We have evidence-based models, that when women come out help them get counseling, parental support, jobs support, they dramatically lower recidivism rates, lower crime. It's like every dollar you invest you get multiple in return, but we don't do it, so it makes no sense to me that we have evidence-based models at help and heal people and work but we just don't do it.”
“The hardest part is missing stuff,” said Tanya. “My family keeps it really well documented. I get pictures upon pictures or video tapes of every Christmas concert I've missed, every football game I've missed. But it's not the same as sitting there watching it, so that's really hard. but my family is really supportive and helps.”
“I miss them everyday,” Jesse said. “I wish I didn't have to be away from them, but if I didn't get better I'd be dead and they won't have a mom. I try to tell them that this was good for me, like I had to I had to be sober for a long time otherwise I would have just kept using drugs. My oldest understands that. She doesn't like it, she's like, ‘You chose drugs over us.’ And I said ‘Yeah I did. It controlled my life and I'm sorry, but I wouldn't be here today if I didn't come.' I wouldn't. They'd be coming to visit me in a cemetery.”
"It hurts a lot,” Tanya said. “I can't express enough how sorry I am for the choices that I made, I can't express how I hope they learned from my experience. I've been open and honest with them about everything. They know I'm an addict. I felt it was safer to be honest with them then hide it from them because maybe it'll help them, so they don't end up where I'm at or end up down the road that I went down.”
"People should not look at kids any different because their parents are incarcerated, because it is not their fault," Jessie said. "Kids shouldn't get picked on because, 'Your mom is in jail, your mom's in prison. They don't love you.' That's something my kids have had to deal with and it's not fair, it's not right either, because they didn't do anything. They have screwed up parents that's what happened, unfortunately, that's what happened and it's not fair that people say things to them they're innocent they're just kids."
Many states are pushing through their own versions of the Dignity Act at the state level. Senator Booker says we don’t have to be the incarceration nation of the Earth, and as a country it should be a priority to nurture the bonds between mother and child, even when that mother is locked away.