Cry, cry, cry, set the women prisoners free

For the New Year, Zambia’s President Michael Sata released 59 women from prison. Of the 59 women, 43 are “inmates with children”, four are pregnant, and 12 are over 60 years old. As a consequence of President Sata’s move, 50 children, who were living in prison with their mothers, will see something like the light of day. The Zambian Human Rights Commission is pleased, as is Zambia’s Non-Governmental Organisation Coordinating Council. Both remind the President, as well, that now the State must attend to the “empowerment” of the 59 women. That includes economic, political, emotional, physical and spiritual well being.

In Uganda, members of civil society are calling on the State to “exempt women offenders with babies and expectant mothers, from long custodial sentences”. 161 children of women prisoners are currently guests of the Ugandan State. 43 of them are in Luzira Women’s Prison, aka Uganda’s Guantánamo. In March 2012, Luzira Women’s Prison at 357 percent capacity, and it’s only gotten worse since.

The situation for U.S. children of the incarcerated is equally horrible. In the U.S. the children don’t get sent to prison with their mothers. Instead, they are sent to “kiddie jail” … or they are left to fend for themselves at home, especially if the at-home parent is a single person, and more often than not in that case, a single mom. One study has shown that only a third of patrol officers modify their behavior or actions if a child is present. Of that third, 20% will treat the suspect differently if children are present, and only 10% will take special care to protect the children. That’s 10% of 30%. That’s 3%, in a country in which imprisonment is a national binge, and in which women are the fastest growing prison population.

And that “special care” can mean something like this: If an adult caregiver is arrested and there are no other adults around to care for a child, the child is taken first to the hospital, then to juvenile detention for processing, and then dropped off at a foster home. It’s a recipe for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The vast majority of incarcerated mothers lived with their children before going to prison. Almost half of incarcerated mothers are single heads of households. Most of their kids end up going to stay with grandparents. For those women prisoners who give birth to children while in prison, more often than not the children are immediately taken away, often forever.

And for women of color, and the children of women of color, it’s worse. For example, some judges give mothers longer sentences because “these women should have considered the impact on their children before committing a crime.” Women of color “bear the brunt” of that largesse.

Since 1991, the number of children under age 18 with a mother in prison more than doubled. In 2007, 1 in 15 Black children, 1 in 42 Latina/Latino children, and 1 in 111 White children had a parent in prison in 2007. Those are the ratios of racial justice and concern for children in the United States.

Make 2013 the year of the child. Set the women prisoners free, and, in so doing, set the children free.


(Video Credit: YouTube)