Atlanta (CNN)It’s just before sunrise on a Saturday morning, and the first few children are slowly trickling in. They’ve arrived at an office space that could easily be mistaken for a cheerful elementary school classroom, with its bright primary colors and cubbies along the wall. The teenagers slump onto couches, while the littlest ones mostly stand, rubbing sleepy eyes.
They are all waiting for the buses to arrive, and they have everything you would expect a kid to bring on a long field trip: pillows, handheld games, lunch for later. But this isn’t the kind of field trip most children make. These boys and girls, 30 in all, will soon be on their way from Atlanta to see their mothers at two women’s prisons in Georgia.
Mariah, the youngest at almost 3 years old, makes this trip every month with her grandmother, Charlene, the woman she calls Mom. The longest stretch Mariah has spent with her birth mother are the two days after she was born, which came a few months into her mother’s five-year sentence on a robbery conviction.
Charlene says she never expected to be the one raising her granddaughter, not at 60 years old. She looks around the pleasant room at the handful of other caregivers and at the children who are starting to wake up a bit, including her pigtailed granddaughter.
“We’re all one here,” says Charlene, who asked that her last name not be used because of the stigma of incarceration. “You don’t feel so bad visiting your daughter in prison. It feels like we’re just going on an outing.”
These outings are the creation of Sandra Barnhill and her staff at Foreverfamily. Every month, caregivers and children pick up breakfasts and lunches at the group’s office, then board buses for the ride to at least one of four women’s prisons across Georgia. It is an invaluable free service to relatives who have problems lining up transportation or, in the case of Charlene, who find it difficult to make the two-hour drive because her vision is not what it used to be.
The program is one of a growing number that aim to strengthen ties between American mothers serving time and their children, whose welfare faces grave risks if those family bonds weaken. The need for initiatives like these, as well as for more legal options and social services for mothers facing criminal charges, has surged, advocates say, in step with the explosive growth of the number of people in lockup — particularly women.
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It is now 35,000 children and counting for Barnhill. Over the decades, Foreverfamily’s mission has grown to include mentoring programs, educational assistance and support for relatives and family friends who find themselves unexpectedly caring for children whose parents are incarcerated.
“If you would have said to me back then in 1987 (when Foreverfamily started) that in 2019 I’d still be doing this, I would have laughed,” Barnhill says. “But I’m still doing it because the first part of our mission is to inspire hope in children.”
Complex factors lead to more women behind bars
While there are far more men behind bars than women — with men making up around 93% of the prison population nationwide — women are the fastest growing segment among the incarcerated, according to a Prison Policy Initiative analysis. The nonprofit research organization found an increase of more than 800% in female inmates over nearly 40 years. That is more than double the pace of growth among men.
Advocates point to a complex confluence of factors to explain the growth, including low-level drug arrests and aggressive enforcement of nonviolent offenses, such as property crimes. Moreover, with higher poverty rates among women than men, many women languish in jails while they await trial because they have a harder time making bail. When those women are mothers, the fallout can be far-reaching because women tend to be the primary caregivers for their children.
It is estimated that 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars, most of them low-income and black or Hispanic. Studies show that kids with an incarcerated mother are more likely to drop out of school and have a higher chance of ending up behind bars themselves. But research has also shown that maintaining family bonds can help ease the trauma of separation for children.
What’s more, an analysis of 16 studies in the Journal of Criminal Justice found a 26% decline in recidivism by prisoners who received regular visits. Given those potential benefits, some correctional facilities are looking at how they can better keep families connected in novel, kid-friendly ways.
Female inmates and their kids visit the museum
The Children’s Museum of Manhattan has become an unlikely place for making connections between children and female inmates at one of the largest jail complexes in the country. Once a month, select women serving time at Rikers Island shed their tan jumpsuits and shackles, put on street clothes and meet their kids on the Upper West Side of New York City for a few hours of arts activities “designed to support the development of a healthy family bond.”
The Crafting Family Connections initiative is a pilot program spearheaded by New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray. It was launched last April for mothers at Rikers who demonstrate good behavior.
They’re mothers like Amanda Martinez, 32, who says she once chose the streets over her family but now wants to do better. She has visited the museum twice to spend time with her daughter, Ananda. On one recent Monday, Ananda was celebrating her 12th birthday. She said being at the museum, about an hour’s drive from the concrete and concertina wire of Rikers, made her feel a little more normal.
Mom agrees. “I would have never thought in a million years I’ll be able to see my daughter without shackles, without a uniform, without these bars,” Amanda says. “It’s already changed my train of thought. I don’t want to go back to what I used to do, not one bit. I just want to be her mom. I’d rather see her in the streets, me and her, instead of me and her through the bars.”
This is Martinez’s first stint in jail, but she has been arrested more than once and served probation on drug charges. She is currently charged with endangering the welfare of a child for allegedly selling heroin while her daughter was with her. Martinez has not yet entered a plea, and she declined to talk in any detail about her case, noting she has not yet gone to trial.
There is often little public sympathy or patience for those accused of breaking the law repeatedly, and cases like Martinez’s may give rise to critics who question whether inmates should benefit from a program funded by taxpayer dollars.
But McCray, the wife of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, suggests the program is an important investment in both inmate families and the larger community.
“I think that it just doesn’t get better if we don’t encourage positive relationships and positive understanding of parenting,” McCray says as she considers Martinez’s case. “I think it’s always important to ask, you know, well, why did this happen, right? Why? And address the root cause of the issue as opposed to just punishing someone for the behavior.”
McCray said she’s confident Rikers’ museum visitation program will pay off for society by reducing recidivism.
It will take years of study to know if those hopes are borne out. But other cities are not waiting for data. And already, they like what they see. In Kansas, the Children’s Discovery Center launched its Play Free initiative in partnership with the Topeka Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison. It’s modeled on the New York City program. Chicago is considering a similar move.
Defense must be holistic, advocates say
Elsewhere, the focus is on dealing with the issues that land many women in lockup in the first place. It’s the focus of Still She Rises, which describes itself as the country’s first public defender’s office dedicated exclusively to representing mothers.
The nonprofit was founded by former New York City defense attorney Robin Steinberg about two years ago in Oklahoma, a state that incarcerates more women per capita than any other in the nation, at double the national average.
“(Women are) more often charged with nonviolent offenses than men are,” Steinberg says.
She and other advocates note that women who come into the criminal justice system are also usually living on the margins and are more likely than men to be victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. It’s believed these women may be better served by drug treatment or mental health counseling than prison sentences that can shatter already fragile families.
With its staff of attorneys, social workers and investigators, Still She Rises offers women what it calls a “holistic defense.”
“When we do our initial interview with the women and mothers that we’re defending, you have a full assessment of where are the areas of advocacies?” says Steinberg. “It almost always has to involve thinking about what the possible ramifications of an arrest are going to be for child welfare, what it is going to mean to their housing, what it is going to mean for public benefits.”
Advocates are encouraged by recent efforts to alter criminal justice standards, which have drawn rare bi-partisan cooperation. Lawmakers at the federal and state levels, including in Oklahoma, have reduced penalties for low-level drug crimes. In some cases, they’ve given judges more leeway in sentencing by dropping mandatory minimums. These are gender-neutral changes, to be sure, but they do benefit vulnerable women and children. Still, advocates like Steinberg see a need for deeper changes, including on cash bail policies.
“The problem of unaffordable cash bail persists,” says Steinberg, “particularly for women who tend to have much lower incomes and are thus much more likely to not have money for bail. This is the reason why we launched a Bail Project site (which pays bail for those who cannot afford it) in Tulsa with a focus on serving women.”
As advocates push for more change, policymakers and prosecutors maintain it is a matter of finding the right balance between keeping the public safe and funding viable alternatives for offenders and their families — families that often do not have a voice in these debates. For them, it comes down to the day-to-day work of maintaining family ties.
It is what mothers at Rikers are doing, trying to make sure they qualify for the next museum visit. It is what Charlene in Georgia is doing with her granddaughter, Mariah, with every weekly phone call and every monthly bus ride to prison.
“She doesn’t know any of this, you know?” Charlene says of Mariah. “I don’t know if she’ll remember the weeks going to the prison and the time her mommy wasn’t here.”
But Mariah will be 5 when her mother’s sentence is up — old enough to have made memories, good or bad, from such formative years.