Formerly Incarcerated Mothers of Color Face Harsh Realities

By Shani Saxon May 05, 2021

Lisa was thrilled to learn she was pregnant a few years after serving close to 17 years in prison. She was still under parole supervision, but hoped that her pregnancy could be as normal as possible, filled with regular doctor appointments and self-care. She quickly learned, however, that the criminal justice system would make no exceptions for her and her pregnancy. Instead, she was forced to live with the fear and stress of knowing that one misstep would land her back behind prison walls.

The criminal justice system takes the position that “you chose to get pregnant, but you’re still on parole,” said Lisa, who is now in her 50’s and asked to be identified only by her first name. It was clear to her that, as far as New York State officials were concerned, her priority was satisfying the requirements of her parole- not her health or that of her unborn child. She remembers one parole officer threatening her with immediate detainment when she asked to reschedule their meeting for a doctor appointment. “It was real daunting,” she said. “That would have put me and my child back into the system.”

“I was afraid to move or do anything without prior approval. They would constantly remind me that, you know, they hold my freedom in their hands,” Lisa added. “I’m still hurt about it. I’m still angry.” 

Existing roadblocks to reentry, particularly for Black women, are almost always heightened by motherhood. “Whether returning to the community from prison or entering a system of surveillance within the community, all systems involve women facing barriers to housing, employment, physical and mental wellness, and healthy relationships,” said Leslie K. Brown, Women’s Prison Association (WPA) Executive Director. “Add to these being a Black mother and the barriers of systemic racism, sexism, and a shameful lack of community resources like affordable childcare continue to increase.”

As advocates for women in various stages in their lives, the organization works to take care of women “before, during, and after incarceration.”

According to The Sentencing Project, women are uniquely impacted by “more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry.” The organization states that:

  More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.1

•   Between 1980 and 2019, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 222,455 in 2019

   In 2019, the imprisonment rate for African American women (83 per 100,000) was over 1.7 times the rate of imprisonment for white women (48 per 100,000)

   Latinx women were imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white women (63 vs. 48 per 100,000)

Formerly incarcerated mothers, in addition to dealing with rising incarceration rates and debilitating policies, also have to face stigmatization and unfair assumptions by society at large about how they measure up as mothers. In an article written for The Prison Journal, Michael B. Mitchell and Jaya B. Davis stated, “these mothers are ostracized, marginalized, powerless, and, therefore, considered ‘throwaway moms’.”

“While Black motherhood has never been fully recognized,” Mitchell and Davis added, “mothers with incarceration histories are shadowed in relative invisibility.”

“For Black mothers, the freedom and safety their families deserve is fraught with interpersonal and institutional trauma, stigma, and collateral consequences that reverberate for generations,” said Brown. “Women of color are consistently the target of the prison industrial complex: designed and maintained to uphold white supremacy. WPA, and organizations like ours, are uniquely qualified as critical partners to women navigating this extremely fraught system.”

Lisa began working with the WPA while she was incarcerated in New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. She and her peers partnered with the WPA to run an H.I.V. cure education and counseling program. Lisa recalled how during that time, the WPA was a supportive force in her life. “When it was time for me to come home, the wonderful woman that I worked with at the WPA actually took me home,” Lisa said. “She took the day off and took me home the day I was being released.”

Lisa eventually started working at the WPA after she was released. Today she serves as the program manager of the WPA’s Alternative to Incarceration program. She calls the program “her baby” because it’s important to her that women who come from situations similar to hers feel empowered and valued. The WPA works with lawyers, judges and other New York State officials to identify women who can work in their communities and stay with their families as an alternative to serving time in prison. Lisa said she connects to these women, most of whom are single mothers, because she knows what it feels like to be “demonized and seen as not worthy.”

“I remember being treated like I wasn’t on par with the common human. I needed advocacy, but didn’t always know where to find it and who to turn to.” Preventing other women from falling victim to these traps is what drives her to do her work. "I remind women that they made a mistake, but that mistake is not who they are.” 

“WPA’s long history, thorough understanding of trauma, and insistence on honoring women as the experts in their own lives, enable us to support tangible changes in the lives of individual women and move toward our vision of a future where our work is no longer necessary,” added Brown.

“We wrap women with love and caring,” Lisa said of her work at the organization. “We want them to know that we’ll take that first step, or the first 20 steps with them. I’m happy to help them navigate systems until they’re ready to stand up and advocate for themselves.”
rnTo support incarcerated Black mothers, donate to: Women’s Prison Association and National Bail Out/ Black Mama’s Bail Out

Shani Saxon is a full-time television and film development executive who also works as a freelance writer in the criminal justice and immigration space. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her three children and their boss, a rescue dog named Stormy.