As many will celebrate Mother’s Day on May 13, activists have stressed the fact that celebrations must be inclusive and acknowledge incarcerated caretakers, mothers, and guardians. The Sentencing Project cited that in 2016, there were 213,722 women incarcerated in the United States. A fact sheet prepared by the Sentencing Project the year prior reportedthat more than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.
For much of her 20-year sentence, Monica Cosby was one of those women, incarcerated at the time that her three daughters were 1, 4, and 7 years old.
“While I was in [Cook County Jail in Illinois], I saw my kids every week,” Monica tells Teen Vogue. “When I was transferred to [an Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) state prison] in 1998, I never got to see my kids again, except one time in 2013. I saw my oldest, and by then she was already a mom she had two kids…. By the time I got out, she had two more.”
Like many other states, state prisons in Illinois are located in rural areas, placing women in facilities hours away from their families. For Monica, this meant keeping in contact with her growing daughters through letters and phone calls. She was released from the state prison around the end of 2015 and, with the welfare of other women in mind, began organizing with Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration (MUAVI) in her hometown.
Monica grew up in what she described as “the tradition before we were calling it social justice.” She carried those beliefs and ideals with her into her time in IDOC, talking with other incarcerated women about abolition, and then participating in MUAVI’s yearly Incarcerated Mother’s Day Vigil and Toiletry Drive and helping with Reunification Rides, a program that brings children to visit their mothers and caretakers who are incarcerated in Illinois.
“One of the key things that keeps people from returning to prison is stabilization of people with their families and children,” Monica says. “We know this but institutions and governments don’t invest in the things we know work.”
Despite Monica’s distrust of government-implemented solutions to problems regarding incarceration, she believes working within the system to some extent is necessary to reinstall dignity along the way. Over the last two years, Monica found herself working with Deanne Benos, former assistant director for the IDOC, by consulting on state legislation HB3904, which would establish a permanent Women’s Correctional Services Division within the IDOC, a dedicated division to create accountability and intentionality for the conditions of women’s prisons and treatment of those incarcerated in these facilities.
“We’ve been fighting very different battles, the hardest are on the women fighting them behind bars,” Deanne tells Teen Vogue. “But for those of those us promoting decarceration of women or reducing harm, it’s really exciting to see the traction that’s coming back on multiple levels.”
Deanne believes the lack of gender analysis around mass incarceration is a contributor to the problem. Paraphrasing conversations she had with mostly male correctional officers within facilities, she says: “The officers would say, ‘Women and men are the same, they’re both convicts, they both have to serve their time.’ That was the culture, it still is the culture today but it’s changing, we’re on a promising track. But what you run into is largely a culture that is very gender-neutral.”
After leaving IDOC, Deanne founded the Women’s Justice Institute, an organization that became the vehicle for her to assess women’s prisons in Illinois and author HB3904, which was enacted in January 2018. Monica sees this legislation as one “with teeth,” and Deanne agrees.
HB3904 establishes a permanent women’s division to solely focus on the operations of women’s prisons in Illinois, and requires that the chief of this division and its staff in women’s facilities have received credible “gender-responsive and trauma-informed” training. Dianne explains that the bill says gender analysis must be taken to address mass incarceration to improve prison conditions in the short term, and break cycles of trauma in the long run that destabilize families and children in particular.
Illinois isn’t alone in its efforts addressing women’s incarceration. The #Cut50 initiative, with the goal of cutting mass incarceration by 50% within 10 years, is driving the Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign in which formerly incarcerated women and mothers are pushing legislation in at least seven states. Some of these bills call for increased access to feminine hygiene products, protection for women in these facilities from sexual abuse from male correctional officers, the prohibition of shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women, and address the physical location of incarcerated caretakers in relation to their families. The federal version of these bills, the Dignity Act — introduced in 2017 by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), and co-sponsored by Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) — encompasses all the language included in state-level Dignity Acts.
While policy advocates are legislating harm reduction, grassroots organizers are taking a more immediate approach by bailing women out of local jails.
Bailout campaigns have become a source of political education around bail reform and visible practice of radical politics. Mary Hooks, a co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), inspired the formation of the National Bail Out Collective, which has bailed out hundreds of people since the launch last year. As a result, bailouts inspired by her efforts have happened all around the country and each year are increasing in participation.
Nicole Townsend, a regional organizer with SONG, is co-facilitating this year’s Black Mamas Bail Out, a campaign and action to specifically bail black women out of local jails so that they can spend Mother’s Day with their families.
“Buying the freedom of our people is not a new concept. On this land, black people have been engaging in the act(s) of buying their loved ones’ freedom for hundreds of years — be it from a plantation or a jail cell,” Nicole tells Teen Vogue. She says “roughly 650,000 people are sitting in local jails across the country” and “an estimated 70% are there because they cannot afford to pay bail.” This criminalizes poverty, and in bailing out black mothers and caretakers, SONG is calling it out. The organization’s work focuses specifically on black women and femme-identified caretakers, recognizing that this population is hit the hardest by the pre-trial cash-bail system.
“The costs are devastating,” Nicole says. “Women often lose their jobs, housing, or even children only to be found innocent. Some women, like Sandra Bland, have lost their lives. The cost to the children black women nurture, the partners they love, and the communities they hold is incalculable. As mass incarceration has taken root and the bail industry’s influence has grown, more and more people are being held before trial because they can’t pay bail.”
Gina Clayton, the founder of the Essie Justice Group, a California-based organization that is part of the National Bail Out Collective, agrees. She told Teen Vogue a story of a woman and mother named Miss M, who was recently bailed out by the work of Essie’s members. Gina explains that Miss M had been in a jail since March 10, after a judge said she could “get out and go home,” but only if she paid the court $50,000 to ensure she would come back for her court date.
“We are not taught the way women are being impacted by system of mass incarceration. The narrative is that this is just happening to men, as if it’s coincidental. It’s targeting,” Gina says. “One in four women has a family member in prison; for black women, one in two of us has a family member in prison. The emotional cost and economic cost and opportunity cost that women are enduring and taking on [is huge]. It is a fact that mass incarceration is one of the largest barriers to gender justice.”
For those interested in helping out the cause and bailing out mothers behind bars, activists and advocates suggest donating and participating in bailout efforts regionally and nationally, supporting the organizing work of formerly incarcerated women and caretakers, and remaining aware of the legislation regarding women in prison that is — or is not — on the table in your state.