This issue of The Fire Inside is dedicated to all the mothers who are enduring separation from their children because of their time in prison. For this mother’s day 2000 we want to recognize the strength it takes for you to just keep on keeping on every day without them. We hope this note we received from one child can speak to all of you of the love and hope which so many of your children possess despite everything.
When I visit my mother and I look into her eyes, even though she’s smiling I see the sadness in her eyes, and every time we say goodbye I feel like I want to die. I miss my mother day and night and I dream of the day she will be home and we won’t have to say goodbye.
Love you mommy,
(Adriana’s mother, Theresa Cruz, is a battered woman at CIW serving a life sentence for her response to her abuse.)
by Coffee Williams, WCCW
My name is Coffee Williams, I reside in Washington Correction Center for Women. Today I received a letter from my daughter, a letter I’d been dreaming of receiving for a while, even if it meant pain. I would know where she was and that she was alive.
My daughter is on her way to prison, Chowchilla I believe. The law says no communication between prisons, but I state I’m her mother. Proof needs to be shown. I have no money for a birth certificate. They took my job because of my health, the whole $.42 an hour. But it worked. Nothing here is free. D. is 30 years of age. I haven’t seen her birth certificate since preschool. I truly wish for my daughter to know I love her now and forever. I cannot make up for the days lost, I can only hope that she realizes that I am her mother and it’s never too late for a mother and daughter to come together, as women, and share our grief. We’ve felt the loneliness we’ve had to bear, the thoughts of being alone and the hope that always seems near.
I love you D. See you soon, “one love.”
by Urszula Wislanka
San Francisco, Ca. – On March 25 the California Coalition for Women Prisoners celebrated International Women’s Month by featuring women fighting criminal injustice. The audience of about 100 heard Picola from the Third Eye Movement, which organized against the California anti-youth Prop. 21 initiative. She said that we have not seen a movement like this, led primarily by young women under 17, since the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. Picola said, “this movement is my home until I see a revolution come.” Despite the fact that Prop. 21 passed, she said youth are ready to start fighting, organizing, for example, a demonstration to oppose guards getting paid $50k while teachers get $30k.
We heard from other friends and family of incarcerated women and former prisoners themselves. The most moving was the appearance of Paula, the mother of Marcia Bunney, who told how her daughter kept expressing her love after going to prison through her handicrafts, displaying the stunning sweater she wore, which was knitted by Marcia. Cynthia Martin spoke about the hell-hole a prison can be for anyone needing medical attention. They all spoke about the importance of recognition that under prison conditions every act of kindness is a struggle. Charisse Shumate, who has been leading the fight against medical abuse in prison, sent a statement:
I Charisse Shumate must say first and foremost I give my deepest thanks to you for not closing your ears or eyes for our pleas for help with the CCWF medical department. Our fears grow as fast as weeds in a garden. We are forced to watch others suffer in pain begging for help. A lay-in is a mission impossible. Lifers are being denied by the Medical Review Board tests that a specialist has reccomended. Oh I could go on and on. As a soldier I’m wounded badly inside and out. My fellow peers wipe my tears and ask me not to give up. Just as I look with one eye at these gray bricks I know behind these walls I will die, but not ashamed. Just wounded and proud of the battle we fought.
Aya deLeon gave a stirring spoken words performance. Luis Talamantez spoke of the investigations into the recent Pelican Bay shootings and Judy Greenspan honored Bunny Knuckles, who died this past year, for her courageous fight on behalf of women prisoners with HIV/AIDS. Many in the audience said they were inspired by what they heard. Prisoners face directly the increasing brutality of the state. People were interested in prisoners’ ideas and perspectives on changing this whole society.
by Cassie Pierson, Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
California Courts recognize two types of child custody, legal and physical.
Legal custody generally refers to having some rights to decision-making about your child’s well being, on things like health, education, and welfare. Physical custody refers to who the child lives with.
California law also says that it is generally in the best interest of children to stay in the same living situation they have been in, because courts believe that stability is important for children. A custody order in California can be changed if there is a “change in circumstances” and it would be in the best interest of the child to have the custody order changed. Generally, courts will not change custody of a child unless it can be proven that the living situation is harmful to them. This can be a very difficult thing to prove and often requires written reports from Child Protective Services, child psychologists and other child welfare experts.
Generally, it is easier to change a legal custody order so that the parents share joint legal custody, meaning that both parents have the right to share in decision-making about their child’s well being. This is because most judges believe that it is good for parents to be involved with their child in this way. However, when you are released from prison it may take some time and effort on your part to establish that you are a responsible parent.
Before you try to change a custody order, you will need to establish a good record of having regular, consistent visits with your child(ren). Even if you choose not to pursue any legal action about your child(ren) at this time, you should try to maintain regular contact with your child(ren) through letters, notes, cards and visits, if possible. You should keep a written record of all the contact you have with your children, so that you can prove that you have tried to maintain a relationship with them. If you will be released from prison soon, you should try to establish a regular visitation schedule once you are released.
Mothers Day 2000. This should be a time to celebrate bonds that develop between mother and child. In a society that professes to foster family values we would expect that the state of California would do all in its power to protect families and nurture the mother/child relationship. But California has more women in prison than any other state, and children are being torn from their mothers and some communities (particularly communities of color) are being completely ripped apart.
The only program that the California Department of Corrections has which has consistently reduced recidivism rates is the community Prisoner Mother Infant Program.
This program, which has been around for more than 15 years, allowed selected women to live with their young children in a group home setting. While the mothers were still prisoners, the children definitely were not. Mothers received parenting training; children received quality care. These programs were contracted to agencies outside CDC. One of the most successful of these programs was in Salinas, as can be seen from the letters from women in the program on pages 4-5. But success doesn’t seem to matter to the CDC, and the Salinas program is being shut down, along with most of the other Community Mother-Infant Programs in the state. The model has been changed to a larger, more “cost-effective” institutional setting.
Approximately 80% of women prisoners are mothers of dependent children. Most of them were sole caregivers before their incarceration. While their mom is in prison, many of the children stay with grandparents, aunts and older sisters. Many are being cared for by friends and many more are in foster care.
All of us who visit women in prison have witnessed small children being searched and x-rayed as they have gone to visit their moms. We have seen children being sent away because they are wearing the wrong clothing or have inquate identification. We have seen the tears as children must leave at the end of a visit without their moms. And we wonder, where are those family values now?
In California, the cutback in family visiting has had a disastrous effect on families of women who are doing life terms. While it used to be that women could spend a 48-hour period with their children and members of their immediate families, the CDC has determined that this is “coddling” life-term prisoners. And where does that leave family values?
The number of women in prison is increasing dramatically. Most women are doing time for non-violent crimes. As long as this society depends on punishment and incarceration to solve deep and complicated problems, women and their children will be separated. This Mother’s Day, as we’re barraged by Hallmark phrases about the importance of motherhood, remember that women in prison are mothers as well, and they have not lost their human right to preserve strong bonds with their children.
by Amy Weaver
Bay Area community activists Joyce Miller and Ida McCray Robinson have their hands full preparing for the May 12th demonstration for “Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis: a National Campaign. The event, which takes place at noon in front of the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, is part of a ationwide day of protest against the “destructive social and economic consequences of maternal incarceration.” Speakers will include affected women who are formerly or currently involved with mother/children care facilities, various clergy and civic officials. The numbers are frightening: In 1980, there were only 10,000 women incarcerated throughout the United States. Today, there are more than 11,000 women in California’s state prisons, and thousands in county jails. The alarming rise is due in large part to the criminalization of substance abuse and the harsh sentencing for drug law violations. Ida McCray, a former federal prisoner in California, knows first-hand the damage that is being inflicted on children of women prisoners and the frustration and pain this causes mothers behind bars. “It is so important to raise awareness to the drastic need for alternatives to incarceration for mothers,” says McCray. Joyce Miller seconds that notion. “People need to be educated about this crisis.” For more information, call Families with a Future/Legal Services for Prisoners with Children at 415/ 255-7036 ext. 320.
by Paula Foster Stallworth, Florida State Prison
I’ve picked you up when you’ve fallen,
brushed off your skinned knees
and kissed your owies.
I’ve held you after your nightmares,
checked under your bed,
in your closets for the boogie man.
I’ve watched you grow, seen you stumble
Only to catch yourself time and time again.
I’ve watched you sit on the sidelines,
when you’ve really wanted to play.
I’ve watched you fight back tears
when some idiot told you, “big boys don’t cry!”
during all these times I’ve had to stand by, helpless
to change the reality of your life.
“Why?” you ask …
because it’s all a Bittersweet Dream!
Always have loved you and
Always will –
Your birth mother
from Donna Villanueva
[The Fire Inside asked Donna Villanueva, a case manager with the Community Prisoner Mother Infant Program (CPMP) which is run by the Friends Outside group in Salinas, to ask mothers to write about their experinces with the program. None of us knew then what we have since learned – that the CDC was planning to close the Salinas site down on June 30th because the program is not “cost effective”. After reading the letters from these women it would seem that the real problem is that it is too effective in empowering women to suit the CDC.]
I am so pleased to be able to submit these letters from the women of the Mother Infant Program in Salinas. As you know, we will be closing our doors June 30th which has made it very difficult emotionally for both the women and staff.
This was my first opportunity to work with inmate mothers. In my five years of working in the recovery field, I have to say it has been the most rewarding. It has been a joy to see the light return to their eyes, their hope for the future and the knowledge they can empower themselves as women and mothers. I am confident that the women who leave our facility leave with the tools they need to have a full and rewarding life. I hope that in the future I again have the opportunity to work with this very special population of women.
Below are excerpts from the women’s letters.
What CPMP has meant to me is that I get to start a new life with my first child whose life started without me being able to be there. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to have him taken from me just 3 days after he was born. At 2 months I was reunited with him here at CPMP and it has been the most fulfilling experience of my life. I’ve been here close to 8 months now and have been learning things about myself and my drug addiction. I’m also learning parenting skills to help me be a good parent to this wonderful gift from God that I’ve been given who is my son. This is not my first time in treatment, but I’ve learned more here than at any of the retail institutions I’ve been through. I feel like this place has prepared me to go out into the world and make it without the use of drugs or criminal behavior. If I were to have one wish it would be that every woman who’s given this opportunity gets as much out of it as I have. Thank you Friends Outside. I love each and everyone of you who has made this all possible for me and my son Noah.
-Tracy Jane Steintrager
“From Under A Rock” (excerpt)
by Tori Alvarado
At this program we learn how to change old behaviors
All the women that work here are really like saviors.
It’s been almost 2 years now, I feel that I’m ready,
I just hope when I get there, I can keep my life steady.
It’s easy to forget all the fear that I felt,
All the sad lonely nights, locked in a cell,
A few lines and a beer, all I learned can be lost
I’m not willing to lose that, at any cost!
Coming to CPMP has given me a second chance at being a good mother, wife, and sister. I was able to be reunited with my youngest child who was 11 months old when I was incarcerated. I have also been able to open up communication with my 2 other children and I have been very fortunate to have a supportive husband…I can go back to where I came from and live a better life with the tools I acquired at CPMP.
by Linda Field, CCWF
I came to prison when Sara was seven. She was too young to understand 25 to life meant she’d grow up without her mother. Her brother and sister, who were 15 and 12, didn’t truly understand.
Sara’s first visit was traumatic. She spent the day begging me to allow her
to stay with me. She promised to be good, never leave my room, and never bother the guards. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t want her. She sobbed, clinging to me when it was time to leave. Her little arms reached out to me over her grandfather’s shoulder, her hands rapidly opened and closed, begging me.
I kept telling her I loved her. She was finally out of sight, the dam I had erected broke and I let the flood free. I cried for my children and myself.
I cried for every mother and child who went through this. Why didn’t the courts understand? They passed a verdict not only on me but my children. My children were abused by their father, orphaned by me, and abandoned by the judicial court system.
After 13 years of heartache, we now have a governor who doesn’t want to hear any circumstances of why a murder was committed. He believes we should rot in prison. While I cannot justify my actions, no one is beating my children anymore.
The state decided family living unit visits were no longer acceptable for lifers, further punishing my children. No longer could we have visits in a little apartment in prison which allowed a pretense of normality. During
those visits mothers could rock their children, cook for them, and talk for endless hours. No more can we maintain a thread of parentship with children or grandchildren. Instead visits are conducted in a visiting room with cameras and guards who look at a mother-child relationship as abnormal. We cannot talk about important things because “Big Brother” is watching.
The playroom in visiting has few toys, only foam-type blocks. There are no strollers, no high chairs, no outside toys or activities. The few board games are geared for older children and adults.
Our children deserve better. Punish us but not our children. It is time for the state to re-evaluate their treatment of our children.
Demonstrate at Chowchilla Women’s Prisons, Saturday July 15, 1p.m. Simultaneous demonstrations will take place at prisons around the country demanding human rights for prisoners and their families. Initiated by the Prison Reform Unity Project 2000. Chowchilla demonstration is coordinated by CCWP and California Prison Focus.
We welcome the recently formed San Diego chapter of CCWP! We look forward to hearing about thier activites in our next issue.