A Struggle to Survive: Motherhood Post-Incarceration
by Brenda Lawson, #WORKINGfuture Member
May 15, 2018
Like so many mothers I spent this past Sunday—Mother’s Day—with my children. But for me it’s a day that’s more about my children than it is about me. It’s important that I’m there for them because for so long I couldn’t be. My kids were so little when I was incarcerated.
I had to watch them grow up from far away and they had to grow up far from me – a thick concrete wall between us. What a lot of people don’t realize is that when you’re a mother and you’re incarcerated, your children do the time with you. I was dehumanized by a system designed to dehumanize. But so were they. I was wounded rather than healed by that system. But so were they. I was stigmatized by that system. But so were they.
By the time I was released, my daughter had become a woman with a child of her own on the way. And my baby boy was nearly 18 years old.
I see I was blessed to have a mother and two sisters who together were able to care for my babies in the years I could not. They put their lives on hold, to make sure that my children were okay. I was blessed to have children that thrived in their care, and knew that they were loved. I was blessed to get out and have my daughter offer me a home, a refuge of support, as we rekindled and tried to rebuild after so many lost years.
Returning from being incarcerated is an ongoing hardship. All formerly incarcerated people face barriers to housing, employment, healthcare, and support.
When I came home, I tried to make my way. Even with the family support I had, I was released to a world without ready resources or even basic assistance. I soon found the only job I could get as a mother of two was at McDonald’s making minimum wage.
I felt trapped.
The stigma of my incarceration was defining me for potential employers utterly and completely. I desperately wanted to be able to do something about it. But I didn’t want to lie on an application. I didn’t want to hide my mistakes. So I didn’t. Instead I experienced the pain and humiliation of being told, over and over again, I can’t have that job.
I was thrilled when I got a really great job at the State Commission for the Blind. I went from being a prisoner of the state to working for the state. Sure enough, a month in, someone must have flagged my record because I was suddenly fired. It wasn’t because I wasn’t working. In fact, I was excelling. It was just because of that box I have to check because I have a criminal record. I may be qualified for the job. I may be overqualified. But employers’ minds get made the minute they see the box checked on my application. The stigma follows me and steals opportunities. It steals hope. It steals dignity.
Where the system continued to fail me, my family supported me. I feel so fortunate to have had them. I am now married and have another young son to join his brother and sister. My life is full of love. At the same time, my weekly paycheck is still not enough to feed and clothe my youngest. I’m not alone in that struggle.
There are 175,000 mothers incarcerated today. The majority of us children who are still minors, and when we return “home,” many of us don’t have any access to a support system. Women are exponentially more likely to experience housing insecurity because of lack of resources and as a result of prior domestic abuse. Over 75 percent of incarcerated women report having experienced domestic violence prior to their sentencing. And then there are the children. If women have children in the foster system, we have to fight tooth and nail for reunification, and even if we win that battle we can’t get employment. And as a Black, formerly incarcerated woman, I am stigmatized and ignored in unique ways.
Formerly incarcerated and convicted women are half as likely to be called back for an interview as men with same record. Black and Latina women are 93 percent and 61 percent less likely, respectively, to be contacted for an interview or job by employers than white women with a record.
The institutional racism built into hiring has devastating consequences.
Women with records can’t work so we can’t put food on the table. Then to top it off, we are denied public assistance.
It is estimated that 92,000 women, mostly Black women, are subject to a lifetime ban from programs that provide cash assistance. In South Carolina and five other states, that lifetime ban extends to SNAP benefits (food stamps) for women convicted of a drug felony – a type of crime that sends more and more women to jails and prisons each year.
This is a state-by-state problem with national implications for racial and economic justice.
I’m a mother. So hear me when I say that when you re-stigmatize and punish women by withdrawing support for us as we return home, you’re also extending the stigma and punishment to our children, little ones and big ones, who have just been reunited with their mother.
We must break this cycle and fully restore the rights of formerly incarcerated women. Motherhood should be defined by mothers; mothers should not be defined by their record. Women returning home must have the freedom to define our lives; and when all women have the economic justice necessary to flourish and support their families, that will be cause for celebration. As a Black formerly incarcerated mother, if that day comes, it will be a day my children and I will celebrate, together. Because I am a human and I demand a #WORKINGfuture.