War On The Family

Amanda Gardner
5 min read
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When Francesca Duran got pregnant at the age of 16, an Albuquerque judge decided it was a violation of her recent release from a youth detention center. “I pleaded with the judge,” says Duran, now 20, “but to no avail.” Duran, who had already spent ages 12 to 15 behind bars, was sentenced to another two years.

Her son, Joedamien, was born at the detention facility on April 20 and went to his grandmother as soon as he was released from neonatal intensive care. He saw his mother, at best, one hour per week and sometimes only twice a month.

When Duran was released, just four days after her son’s first birthday, he cried for his grandmother. “He would say ‘I don’t want you. I want Nana,'” recalls Duran. “It felt like he was stolen from me. I felt like the child had been in jail from before birth, jumping in the womb at the sound of slamming doors.”

Duran’s is a success story: She and her son have bonded, although there are still days that Joedamien wants to go with his Nana. But as the number of mothers confined to prison skyrockets, thousands, if not millions, of similar stories are being played out across the country with less happy results.

The destruction wrought on families is the subject of two recent books, War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind by Renny Golden, an adjunct professor of sociology at UNM, and All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated by Nell Bernstein.

Both authors will be appearing at a public awareness event April 19 at UNM Law School, sponsored by Peanut Butter & Jelly (PB&J), a program that works with high-risk kids and their families, and the Women’s Justice Project. The program will also feature a panel of children of incarcerated parents.

“This outrageous system destroys families,” says Golden, who is also professor emerita of criminal justice, sociology and social work at Northeastern Illinois University, a former Dominican nun and a published poet. “The children are traumatized and the mothers are stigmatized. This is a system that doesn’t even ask in classification if they are mothers. It doesn’t ask at the time of their arrest if they are mothers.”

Thanks largely to the so-called War on Drugs, between 1986 and 1991 the number of African-American women incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses rose 828 percent, the number of Latino women increased 328 percent and the number of white women 241 percent. And, according to Angie Vachio, founder and director of PB&J, 94 percent of imprisoned women are mothers and 88 percent are single mothers of dependent children.

“The impact of having a parent in prison is devastating, and it’s more devastating when the mother is in prison,” Vachio says. “By and large, the mother is the primary caregiver. And mothers do not reintegrate very well. They tend to go back [to prison] far more often. They are doing it with horrible regularity so what hurts the children so much is the repeated cycle, getting their hopes up that this time it will be different, then the abandonment again.”

As one incarcerated mother put it, “The mothers are not the only ones doing time.” More than half of mothers in state prisons never receive visits from their children. Sixty percent of inmates report that their children live at least 100 miles away from their prison.

For her book, Golden draws on the experiences of formerly incarcerated women in both Chicago and Albuquerque. The stories are ones of triumph even more than despair, but not “triumph over the demon of drugs,” Golden writes. Instead, they represent a triumph over the demon of society, the same society that would label these mothers degenerates, responsible for society’s moral decay and the reproduction of a criminal class. They offer both resistance and hope.

“I’m looking at the resilience of the women and the kids that go through this so it isn’t all tragedy,” Golden says. These words ring especially true for me. I met Golden through the work I do running a creative writing workshop for incarcerated women. Whenever I tell people about the program, the first question always seems to be “why?” Why write poems when you could be _________ (fill in the blank: teaching life skills, parenting skills, job skills, stay-off-drugs skills, fit-into-society-better skills).

I had no good answer to this question until I read War on the Family. Now I realize that it is, literally, all about the stories. Just like the efforts of PB&J, Golden and others, the program gives these women a chance to construct new narratives for themselves, narratives where they are mothers and providers, heroines and caregivers. Every week we erase more of the old narratives and write new ones, repeating them over and over in the hopes that the world will hear.

And maybe it will.

After two years of trying, this month PB&J took a group of four children into the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque to see their moms in the flesh. Normally, the facility is no-contact; the visits are only done by video hookup. More groups are planned for the future.

“What we unfortunately do is dehumanize people and forget that first and foremost we are human beings,” Vachio says. “This hurts children.”

Or, as Golden quotes one teacher, “Women who use illicit drugs do not need pity, compassion, life skills, or social services designed to help them better adjust to the worlds they inhabit. They need different worlds to inhabit.”

Renny Golden, an adjunct professor of sociology at UNM and author of War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind, and Nell Bernstein, author of All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, will take part in a public awareness event on Wednesday, April 19, from 6 to 8 p.m. at UNM Law School. The program is sponsored by Peanut Butter & Jelly (PB&J) and the Women's Justice Project and will also feature a panel of children of incarcerated parents. For more information, call Chris Lehman at 877-7060, ext. 141.

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