The Women of WORTH

The United States is home to about five percent of the world’s population, but can lay claim to twenty-five percent of the its prisoners. In 2006, more than seven million or one in twenty-one adults in this country were either incarcerated, on parole or probation. Contrary to stereotypes or what the mass media would have us believe, the majority of these individuals are not violent criminals: nonviolent offenses like drug possession make up thirty-one percent of all state felonies and economic crimes like burglary or fraud another thirty-two percent. Many are women.

According to a new report titled “Mothers Behind Bars” (PDF) released two weeks ago by the Rebecca Project for Human Rights and the National Women’s Law Center, the number of women in prison has risen at a higher rate than that of men since the introduction of mandatory sentencing policies for many drug offenses. The new report also stated that most of those women incarcerated for drug use or possession are nonviolent, first-time offenders, and about two-thirds have at least one child under the age of 18.

What are the challenges for incarcerated and formally incarcerated women—particularly those who have children? How can a penal system built around a “control and punish” model get support to those children without jeopardizing the mother-child relationship? And further, upon the mother’s release from treatment or prison, how can we foster a restorative justice system that helps families heal together?

Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH) is an advocacy and consulting group formed by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, and they are taking on these challenges. Their expertise, experience, and leadership as a collective is able to speak to power the need to reform policies and perceptions regarding incarcerated women.

Silence Opens Doors was at the RISE Conference 2010 on October 23, an interdisciplinary meeting among social workers and activists, to document WORTH’s roundtable on organizing for criminal justice reform. Present on behalf of WORTH was co-founder and chair Tina Reynolds, outreach coordinator Maxine King, and co-chair Carole Eady.

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A COMMUNITY UPON RELEASE

In 2007, the group The Sentencing Project released a report titled “A Twenty-Five Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society,” which found that drug offenders in prison and jails had increased by 1100 percent since 1980, and that nearly six in ten inmates in state prison for a drug offense have no history of violence or high-level drug-selling activity. Confirming what has already become a commonly held suspicion, people of color comprise 37 percent of all arrestees for drug crimes although they only make up 14 percent of all drug users. The system of mass incarceration of drug offenders puts the cohesiveness of family units at risk, and the runaway focus on people of color is symptomatic of a systemic racial bias. As Anne-Marie Cusac infers in Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America, American society has transformed drug users into drug “fiends,” with all of the devilish connotations that word implies.

WORTH, though, goes beyond the statistics and criticism of the corrections system in this country to forge communities of support for those behind bars and those who have been through it. The group moves beyond rhetoric, and into a realm where real networks can emerge to help one another navigate the tangles of a legal and foster care system that punishes women and mothers twice-over.

Tina Reynolds and Carole Eady both each lost one of their children due to a law passed in 1997 called the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which allows states to begin to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for longer than 15 months. In an age when the average sentence for a woman who commits a nonviolent crime is 19 months, the ASFA law extends the trauma of imprisonment and separation out into the rest of a family’s life. Not only do formerly incarcerated women have to fight to get to know their children all over again, they have to do so in a hostile environment in which they are fighting for their parental rights.

As the members of WORTH explained at the RISE Conference 2010, the huge crop of women being released from prison (about 70,000 annually since 2001) have other fights to wage as they try to re-engage with their communities. Many have to rely on shelters. After the 1993 Crime Bill, they are not eligible for Pell Grants, the primary source of funding for prison-based education, meaning that they cannot use their sentences to pursue higher degrees. If a woman has done her time and is committed to change, what support is this system offering to her?

The report mentioned at the top of this post by the Rebecca Project and the National Women’s Law Center echoed WORTH’s proposal of a way out of this Gordian knot: the continued expansion of community-based alternative sentencing programs, including drug-treatment programs, for mothers who have been convicted of nonviolent offenses. The report advised that “these treatment programs permit mothers and children to heal together in community-based facilities and consistently show successful outcomes for children’s health and stability.”

ONE FIGHT WON: SHACKLING

This newest report—in which only one state, Pennsylvania, received a grade of “A”—looked at three crucial ways that women interact with the justice system. It focused on prenatal care, the shackling of pregnant women during childbirth, and community-based alternatives to incarceration that enable mothers to be with their children. This second area of analysis, shackling, is an issue that WORTH has been particularly involved in.

Back in July 2009, WORTH and the Correctional Association of New York held a rally to petition Governor Patterson to enact the Anti-Shackling Bill into law. Tina Reynolds herself experienced shackling during the birth of her son. One a week in the state of New York, a woman in jail or prison goes into labor and has the same experience. Most of these women are locked up for drug offenses, and quite often, they are “severely restrained,” in the words of one New York Times article from the time of the rally, during childbirth to ward off any highly unlikely (if not impossible) escape attempts. The Times story continues to say that “while their bodies heave toward childbirth, they become walking, clanking jail cells.”

After years of advocating for the Anti-Shackling Bill, Governor Patterson signed the bill into law in May of 2009, thereby removing this practice from all state prisons and the jails that serve the 62 counties in this state. New York became only the fifth state corrections system in the nation to have legislation in the books that prevents the restraint of pregnant inmates.

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