Justice Reform Work: The Promise of a Healing Balm for Black Mothers

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

Two of five black women has a family member in prison. Sit with that for a minute.

Incarceration nation, mass incarceration, and school to prison pipeline are meaningful policy and social justice concepts that are driving slow but steady reform across the country for both juveniles and adults. Each concept represents a raw reality for a living, even if sometimes barely breathing, woman. A woman who has sat for hours on crowded buses on Saturday mornings to see her 14-year old son in an upstate prison or detention facility. A woman who has clutched the back of a wooden bench and wept as a judge flanked by the American flag announced to her that her 11 year old would be tried as an adult, and if convicted, imprisoned with fully grown adult men. A woman who now sits in the back of the church—if she still goes at all—because she can no longer endure the knowing looks of church mothers and deacons who ‘knew that girl was nothing but trouble” and “could’ve told her” it would end up this way. A black woman who had hopes and dreams for her child, her husband, her family.

This then is our collective reality: 40% of the black women in this nation are living under crushing mental and emotional strain. Not surprising given that studies show they are the ones bearing the mother lode of the burden of mass incarceration and over-policing. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, in partnership with Forward Together and Research Action Design issued a startling report in September 2015, Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families. Their report revealed that “in 63% of cases, family members…were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction. Of the family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83% were women.”[1] The economic toll on black women often intersects with effects on family structure, employment, and housing, causing a critical mass of anxiety, fear, and depression for many. One previously incarcerated research participant describes how this drama played out in his family’s life: “The impact of my crime was expensive for the simple fact that my wife had to put up everything that she had to retain an attorney. From the process of doing so, she went into poverty and lost custody of the children and then had to join the navy to support herself.”[2]

Separated from the ones in prison and possibly even from the ones not in prison, and struggling to maintain a semblance of a home and relationship with other family members and friends puts incredible strain on a group already faced with formidable obstacles of survival. Usually reticent to speak about the taboo subject of mental health, the Who Pays? participants admit the impact of their loved ones’ incarceration on their minds and hearts. One mother describes her experience:

When my son was first arrested and incarcerated, I couldn’t work for 2 years. I had to apply for disability. I had to go on all kinds of medication for manic depression, anxiety, and it really affected my health. Then I had a son that was killed—New Orleans police shot my son in the back. So I lost two children in one year to the system and I think that’s wrong.[3]

Black women also face persistent stigma related to having a child, husband or other family member in prison. Simply being the mother of a black child carries its own stigma, including not being extended the same understanding other parents receive when their children commit acts commonly considered youthful indiscretions when committed by white youth. Stigma leads to shame and isolation, powerful factors known to contribute to mental health issues.

While many black women and their families have suffered for decades through the ill effects previously described, a movement of survivors turned reformers is changing the landscape of mass incarceration by being catalysts for changed policy at the state and national level and supporting other mothers and caregivers trudging their way through the experience of having a family member in prison. These women along with non-minority women and men, too are restoring hope and strengthening mental and emotional health through in-person support groups, education on corrections systems, advocacy training, and even group support for court hearings and trials. A newly-released report from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), Mothers at the Gate: How a Powerful Family Movement is Transforming the Juvenile Justice System, releases survey data that showcases the impactful work being done; black women are playing a vital role at every level.

Of the 14 family justice organizations highlighted by the survey, black women currently (or formerly) hold leadership positions in six of them. The groups they lead have been instrumental: in exposing brutality and rampant sexual abuse in Texas youth prisons; influencing legislators to pass a law that forced the closure of Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth where documented, horrific abuse occurred unchecked for decades; and created innovative programs that mentor and coach parents of system-involved juveniles. The outcomes of their work and services they provide are emotional and mental release valves not only for the families served, but also for the reformers themselves. Becoming actively involved in producing tangible results can do wonders for the psyche of mothers who have incarcerated children. Involvement in reform efforts can help other women, too by restoring to them part of the power stripped from them when their sons and daughters become virtual wards of the criminal justice state. The vast majority of mothers want to mother, and when a child comes under the supervision of the system, every mom affected involuntarily relinquishes her power to nurture, guide, and protect that child.

Juvenile justice reform is needed, and it’s coming. The active role being taken by black women offers untold potential to also relieve the mental and emotional health challenges too many face.

[1] The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design, “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” Retrieved from http://whopaysreport.org/executive-summary/.

[2] Ibid p. 15

[3] Ibid p. 3