As the female population behind bars continues to rise nationally, so does the number of mothers. Consequently, their children face traumatic and lengthy separations from their primary caregiver, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.
“When you incarcerate women, you incarcerate the whole family,” said Lavette Mayes, a woman who spent more than a year in Cook County Jail because she had no way to raise $25,000 for bail on a domestic aggravated assault charge.
“64% of California’s jail population is awaiting trial or sentencing as of December 2016.” Most remain in pretrial custody because they cannot afford bail. Jail Profile Survey, http://www.bscc.ca.gov/
In Illinois, the number of women being booked into Cook County Jail steadily declined over the last few years – largely due to organized efforts to keep bail affordable so that families can remain intact, the Tribune reported.
“It tears your family apart,” said Mayes, a mother of two. “And when you get out, it tears your family apart again.”
Mayes missed two consecutive Mother’s Days, an eighth-grade graduation, birthdays and her daughter’s dance performances before the courts agreed to lower her bail. She then relied on the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a nonprofit organization, to pay most of it so she could return home to her family.
Both her children still worry that their mom might disappear again whenever she leaves the house, Mayes said in the Tribune article.
“It took two years out of my life, out of my family, out of my community,” she said. “It was like birthing them again. I had never been away from them for that amount of time.”
“I think that the emotional trauma of leaving children is almost too hard to put into words,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a group that watchdogs correctional facilities, policies and practices.
When parents are locked up, their children can end up in foster care or housed with a distant relative—scenarios that usually scar the child psychologically and emotionally.
Histories of domestic violence and/or sexual abuse pose even greater challenges to incarcerated mothers, explained Debra Pogrund Stark, a director of John Marshall Law School’s Domestic Violence Clinic. Most often, the mother serves as protector in households suffering from domestic violence, and when she is incarcerated, that protection goes away.
“In terms of kids, when children have lived in a family with domestic violence, even when they’re not directly abused, it’s incredibly traumatic for them,” Stark said. “And a mitigating factor is when a protective parent is able to be that protective parent.”
This May marked the fifth annual Incarcerated Mother’s Day Vigil outside the Cook County Jail, an event sponsored by Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration. Moms United provides charity drives for toys and other much-needed supplies, as well as family bus rides so children can visit their moms in prison.
The vigil acknowledges all mothers who are separated from their children through some sort of legal incarceration, not just prison, but also deportation centers and parole restrictions. The event “is all about honoring survival and honoring motherhood,” said Holly Krig, the organizing director for Moms United and cofounder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.
Stark believes that mothers who commit crimes should still be held accountable for their actions. “But frankly,” she says, “we should be throwing resources at people without throwing them into jail.”