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Monday, July 15, 2013

Prison Babies

This past Saturday, it took only a few hours for Benevolent donors to step up and help Brianna keep her baby. It's not often that a small amount of money can help a mom and baby stay together, but this was a special circumstance. Brianna needed $210 to pay off a traffic fine so she could keep her baby and raise him from the moment he’s born. The baby’s due next month, and Brianna’s in prison. There’s a special program that will allow her to stay with and keep her baby, but not if she has any outstanding fines.

There was something about the simplicity and raw humanity of Brianna’s need. She’s a mom who wants to nurture her infant when he’s born. We can envision what it will look and feel like when Brianna holds her son. We can also imagine what it would feel like if he were taken from her. We’ve been parents; we’ve been parented; we’ve held newborns close and we’ve suffered hurts. We can feel the urgency of this even if we can’t imagine what it’s like to be in prison and to face the reality of a child being taken away from us.

Over 64% of the women in prison in this country have been convicted of nonviolent crimes, mostly property or drug offenses, and over 2,000 women in prison will give birth this year. Most of us know that babies are born to women serving time in prison and that the vast majority of women who give birth while incarcerated in the U.S. don't get to stay with their babies for even a week after they're born. We don’t often get the opportunity to change that for a mom and her baby. This week, we did.

I knew it. I knew that women in prison in the U.S. have their babies taken from them when they’re born. But I’ve got to tell you, I've never signed a petition, called my legislator or lobbied to urge policymakers to change prison policies and programs to allow women to remain with their babies, if they choose to, after birth.

When Brianna's need came to us, though, I felt an immediate surge of adrenaline. I knew we had to help this young woman get into the program that would allow her and her son to remain together, and I knew that donors would feel as I did. I was right. Seven donors from five different states took only seven hours to completely fund Brianna’s need.

If the donors felt anything like I did, it didn't matter to me how many times Brianna might have been arrested (only once, as it turns out), what the traffic tickets she had left unpaid were for, how many children she had (this will be her first) or whether she had made poor choices rather than paying her fines. All I could think about was the hours and days after my own children’s births, about the sweetness of their new skin, about the way they smelled, cried, and felt in my arms, about all the protectiveness and responsibility I felt for the fragile life in my arms.

In the U.S., we seem to cherish parenting for ourselves, but not always for others. Paid parental leave is not a protected right; all parents are expected to work starting as soon as six weeks after birth; and babies are taken from prisoners at birth. This makes us very different from many other countries and cultures.

In Germany, for example, mothers serving jail sentences can have their children remain with them until age four or six and some are allowed work-release privileges to go and parent their children. That's right; moms leave prison in the morning like anyone else headed off to a work-release job and their work is getting their children ready for school, taking care of their children's needs, and doing everything associated with being moms to their kids. At the end of the workday, they head back to prison like any other work-release prisoner. In Germany, being a parent is considered a vocation; a child’s need to have his or her mom present is valued; and systems are put into place to make the situation work.  

We helped Brianna and her baby to stay together.  What could we do to help the other 2,000+ moms who will give birth in prison this year to have the same option? I checked into it, because it seems to me that when a need we encounter on the Benevolent site strikes us as powerfully as this one struck me, we should find out how to get involved and become a part of the solution for people beyond the one we’re helping through the Benevolent site.

Here’s what I found...
  • The Women’s Prison Association appears to be one of the strongest organizations engaging in research and advocacy work around the issues of women in prison. Their program work seems to be only in New York state, but their policy and advocacy work extends nation-wide. Interestingly, the president of the Board of Directors for this organization, Piper Kerman is the author of the book and new Netflix series about women in prison - Orange is the New Black.
  • The National Institute of Corrections maintains a list of programs for women in prison state by state. You could use this website to find out how to get involved as an advocate or volunteer in your area.

So these are places for us to start. I hope that Brianna’s story touched you the way it touched me. I hit “send” on the payment to Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers earlier today so that Brianna’s fine can be paid and she can qualify for the program that will keep her together with her son when he’s born. I’m so glad we were there to help.

- megan kashner
  founder & ceo