How incarceration affects families: Interview with Lateefah Simon

By Rina Palta
Lateefah Simon is the director of the California Futures Initiative at the Rosenberg Foundation in San Francisco.
Nationally, women are the fastest growing prison population. And one of the highest female prison populations in the world is here in California. That’s slated to change under the state’s new realignment program. The number of women in prison is supposed to shrink drastically, by as much as half, over the next few years.
Anticipating that change, California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation officials announced they’re converting one of the state’s three women’s prisons to a men’s facility. Lateefah Simon, director of the California Futures Initiative at the Rosenberg Foundation in San Francisco, says this will be the first time the state has emptied a prison.
KALW’s criminal justice editor, Rina Palta, sat down with Simon to talk about what’s happening in California, and what sorts of alternatives are on their way. She started by asking Simon what the new California Futures Initiative is about.
RINA PALTA: What’s unique to the experience of women in prison versus traditional male experience in prison?
LATEEFAH SIMON: The question about the uniqueness of women who are incarcerated in California is an interesting one. What we know is that prior to many of these policy changes that are happening right now as we speak in California, California has been a mass incarcerator of women. We would incarcerate 9,000 women per year in our state’s prisons. We also know that 67% of women who are locked-up in our state prison system are mothers, many of them are single mothers. We also know for women who are incarcerated, amongst those 67%, we have to think about where their children are.
PALTA: So, talk a little bit how realignment is impacting this population in California and what’s going on so far.
SIMON: Advocates and folks like the Rosenberg Foundation who are involved in philanthropy and supporting groups who are working for change… Some would say it’s too early to say how realignment would work out for women. But what we do know is that the CDCR’s proposal to close and convert Valley State Prison… Literally the first time in a generation that I know that we’ve talked about emptying the prison and figuring out ways to send women home. That is a very clear indicator that realignment will be one of the most important reforms, critical reforms and efforts.
When women come home, non-violent women come home, children connected back with their mothers… The statistics say they are all over the place, and they are clear when women are reunited with their cildren they are less likely to go back to prison, they are less likely to commit crimes. So, as a women’s advocate for my whole career, I am really excited. And of course no policy is perfect and that’s why we have to keep our ears to the ground and we have to keep supporting advocates who are pushing the lines and creating opportunities for women. It’s extremely exciting!
PALTA: What do we know about how incarceration impacts families? And what happens to kids when their mothers are incarcerated? Do they usually end up with other relatives? Are they put in the foster system? How is this impacting the larger community?
SIMON: There are some great advocates who have been working on the issue of incarcerated parents. And I don’t believe that there is a blanket statement on what happens to kids when their mothers enter the criminal justice system. There are number of things that actually happen.
One of the things that we are really clear about and also focusing on is the issue of child trauma. Some of the most profound advocates on this issue say that when a child is separated from their parents, 100% of them experience post-traumatic stress. One hundred percent! Many of the women who I’m talking to who are right now housed in the California state prison system for non-violent crimes ? their parents are struggling, their mothers are struggling with addiction. They’re caught on non-violent felony charges, they are taken away to prison. There is a number of things that can happen depending on the circumstances of the arrest and conviction. What we hope is ? but we also know it’s not necessarily true across the board ? is that a family member can take these children in and work with them and love them until the day their mother gets out of prison.
Anyone who has grown up without their parents suffer. It’s difficult. But when your mother is behind the bars three to four hours away from you, and you are not able to see your parent, you are not able to take part in what some would call a normal childhood. It’s extremely difficult. And we know that there is trauma associated with that; there is trauma associated with poverty, there is trauma associated with law enforcement. There are so many things that these young people must hold on their shoulders. We got to get out act together as a state.
PALTA: That’s a good question actually. What does that mean? What does that look like? Everyone always calls in after these stories asking, ?What can I do?” That’s a good question ? as a community, how can you embrace this population that’s coming home and what can you do to help?
SIMON: There are so many ways that folks can get involved. If you want to write letters to your legislator about making sure that supportive housing and alternative citizen programs are well-funded within the next year. Because again, successful reentry, I should say, can only happen when people come home and there are opportunities for them to heal and transform. Of course, helping on a policy level and representing your county on the state level so they know how you feel.
But I always say give to your local food bank; give clothes to the local women’s shelter, the domestic violence shelter; make sure that the children in community schools have lunch and breakfast. I mean, what we are talking about is family reunification. What we are talking about is making sure that the counties do it right. What we are talking about is making sure that the state no longer would waste $50,000 times 9,000 women per year, many of those non-violent offenders who simply want to care for their children and get rehabilitation.
I just feel that there are so many ways that folks can help out on a very micro-level. But also it’s the voices within our congregations, the voices within our temples, the voices within our masses, the voices at Occupy, the voices around the state ? we have to make sure that the voices of women who are coming home are amplified. Because in fact ? I know this so well ? in communities that are most impacted by poverty, by crime, it is women who are holding-up those communities. It is the grandmothers. It is the mothers. You go into any community whether it is Echo Park or Hunter’s Point, and you knock on any door, and it’s the mother with children who is going to answer that door. Until we figure out how to really mend our families we have to step up and support women and families.