Women Unite to Keep Prisoners' Families Together
"Come, come here dear child. Give me your hand. Come on, give me a kiss. Merry Christmas, my dear one," a woman says in Spanish, smiling as she leans forward in her seat in a scene from the 1996 documentary, "Voices from Inside." She reaches her hand out and then, although no noise accompanies this gesture, she hits some sort of barrier. The reach is not completed, the kiss not really begun, the connection intercepted by some invisible boundary line of virtual space. As the camera pulls away, it is revealed that the obstacle is actually a television, the conversation a videotaped monologue that 15-year-old Guillermo Pagan is watching of his mother Dylcia, a Puerto Rican political prisoner who is living out a 55-year sentence with no possibility of parole in the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), a women's prison in Dublin, California. Pagan was sentenced for her involvement with a Puerto Rican liberation group accused of conspiring to overthrow the government.This visual representation of how prison dissolves a woman's relationship with her children is only one of many such stories that occur every day for this country's nearly 120,000 women prisoners, a number which is increasing at a rate of nearly 10 percent each year. In an attempt to preserve the mother-child bond while women are in prison, several prison activists, including former prisoners themselves, are starting up programs to keep families together.According to statistics from the San Francisco-based California Coalition for Women Prisoners, there are now more than 10,000 women imprisoned in California, 80 percent of whom are mothers with at least two children. Because women, like male prisoners, are frequently placed in prisons far from their homes, a jail sentence often becomes synonymous with an isolation sentence from their children. Consequently, children are often handed off to older relatives who thought they had completed their child-rearing duties years ago.In an attempt to ease the burden on these newly appointed care-takers, the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoner's with Children (LSPC) created the non-profit Children Grandparent Caregiver Advocacy Project. The program seeks out funding for the large number of grandparents who end up caring for their incarcerated daughters' children without the benefits of government aid such as foster care."Having grandparents take care of the children is often an informal arrangement between them and the parents," says legal services staff attorney River Ginchild, explaining that for a guardian to receive foster care benefits, the child must first go through the social services system. "And who wants to make a child go through that trauma?" she asks. For former prisoner Harriet Davis, who served time after killing her abusive husband, the only plausible choice -- what she saw as the best way to remain connected with her children -- was an informal agreement with her mother to care for her three children. Her youngest was born just months after Davis entered prison."It was very hard for my mother," says Davis. "She was working and had to care for three children who were traumatized."After spending from 1983 to 1985 at the California Institute for Women in the southern California town of Frontera, Davis was able to transfer to Brandon House, a community-based halfway house in San Jose for the final year of her sentence. California set up the Mother-Infant-Care Program for low-security women prisoners and their children under 6-years-old following a 1978 class action litigation by LSPC. As part of the program, the state --prior to cutbacks -- provided 100 beds in such alternative facilities throughout California so that, in addition to living with their young children, women could be housed in communities close to their families. "The program made a lot of difference for me. Another year apart and I wouldn't have been able to repair the damage," says Davis who had previously only been able to see her children about every six months while at the California Institute for Women. "In prison, it was really a financial hardship for my family to come visit me from Berkeley," she says.While at Brandon House, Davis received counseling and enrolled in a local college. In addition to being able to live with her 2-year-old daughter, Davis' 10-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son were able to visit frequently and even spend the weekends with her. "My kids could communicate with me more often and I was able to work out a relationship with my baby," she says, while noting that this relationship with her youngest daughter was still affected by the fact that the baby spent the first two years of her life separated from Davis.Davis, who learned about Brandon House through her attorney rather than the Department of Corrections, says she waited two years to be admitted due to red tape in the application process, and wishes she had known about such alternatives earlier. "It takes such a long time for a family to heal," she says. "If I could have been in the program right away with my children, they wouldn't have been so traumatized." Accessibility to these programs theoretically should have improved after LSPC won a suit against the Department of Corrections in 1985 for failing to fully implement the program and inform prisoners of their options. But this is not the reality, says Joyce Miller, coordinator for LSPC's "Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis" campaign, which is working to maintain mother-child relationships through halfway houses and other such alternatives to jail. As evidence, Joyce points to the recent closure of the San Francisco mother-infant care house, the Elizabeth Fry Center. "I don't know how many beds that leaves us with now," she says. "Everyone talks about these alternatives, but there are so few in place." When contacted, the California Department of Corrections in Sacramento did not respond to requests for information about the closure."These programs hit maybe one eighty-seventh of the people who are in prison," says Ida Robinson, one of the women profiled in the "Voices from Inside" documentary who has recently completed a nine year sentence at FCI Dublin for conspiracy in a 1970s airplane hijacking with the African Revolutionary Movement (RNA). When I first meet Robinson for this interview, she is standing in the back yard of a north Berkeley house she shares with several people including her 16-year-old daughter, Lebwah. Today, nearly two years after Robinson left FCI Dublin, she speaks articulately and passionately about her time there, about what she views as the biggest problems with the woman's prison system and about the ways in which she's trying to remedy them through her grassroots advocacy work. Last year Robinson founded "Families With a Future" (FWAF) a program that helps keep relatives connected by providing money for phone calls home and prison visits. "We've already re-united 22 families," says Robinson who receives no formal funding for FWAF. The program exists solely on donations and a small group of volunteers who drive local families to the prisons for visiting hours.When Robinson's children were able to visit, she says, "It gave me hope to spend quality time with them where I could see, touch, and feel them." According to Robinson, behind the bars of Dublin prison, any type of physical contact was strictly forbidden."A lot of women become very fearful of hugging and touching their children because if you haven't been able to see them for a long time, how do you act? Do you hug a stranger?" asks Becky, who requested anonymity because she remains on parole. Becky is a current housemate of Robinson's and former prison mate who recently completed a 20-year sentence for bank robbery and now helps out with FWAF. She and Robinson agree that, in addition to physical restraints, most family visits are invaded by the prisoners' sense of helplessness. "It's very painful sitting on the other end of the phone or being in the visiting room and having your children tell you that they were slapped or they were hit, and you can't do anything about it," says Robinson. "You can't move them. You can't say, 'Well so-and-so can take you in.' You just sit there and you just listen." Simultaneously, as though through some commiserate telepathy, Robinson and Becky say, "You just tell them, 'Do the best you can.'"Although Robinson's children were cared for by friends who lived near enough to the prison to enable visits, Becky says this is an exceptional case."Most children are like my children who are totally forgotten and left behind," says Becky, who spent 17 years of her sentence in a prison hundreds of miles from her home. "I had two sons in the midst of doing these 20 years that grew up without me. They grew up with relatives and then, when the relatives got tired of them, with foster families. They were emotionally abused and neglected," she says. "These are things that happen to the children of women [who are] doing long sentences in prison and nobody wants to hear this."To prevent similar stories from occurring, Robinson, who's currently studying sociology at San Francisco State, has started up a support group for prisoners' children at King Middle School in Berkeley. "I go there one-and-a-half days a week," says Robinson. "And every week there are more kids."When Robinson began the program in January, there were 10 kids. At the time of this interview in March, there were 22, and Robinson expects the numbers to increase as more and more children learn of the program.Having a space to air their worries and frustrations is an essential part of re-uniting families with children who are often too embarrassed to talk to friends about their parents' incarceration.Discussing how she dealt with growing up without a mother, Robinson's daughter Lebwah says, "The thing that first comes to mind is when people would ask, 'What are you doing this weekend?' and I'd have to ask my grandmother instead of my mother and people would ask, 'Why do you live with your grandmother?' When I was younger, I didn't want to explain. I thought if I told them my mother was in prison, they'd think that I was a bad person."Lebwah, who enrolled in Oakland's Laney College at age 15, says she no longer feels this way. In fact, when Keith Daniel Williams was executed at San Quentin in March of 1996, Lebwah told Robinson she planned to go protest at the prison."I thought, 'Can I do that too? Can I go back to prison?'" says Robinson. "And then I realized, I can. I have to ... There's a crisis going on and we need our women soldiers." **To give a donation or volunteer with FWAF, call Ida at (415) 255-7036 ext. 320. **"Voices from Inside" is available for distribution through Transit 2000/Karina Epperlein, 641 Euclid Ave., Berkeley, CA 94708, (510) 559-8892.