Ahead of Mother’s Day this Sunday, a coalition of local groups has organized a variety of ways to bring immediate support to incarcerated moms and bring attention to the impact that imprisoning the primary caregivers of minor children has on families and communities.
On Friday, demonstrators will gather at noon at the Thompson Center for a rally in solidarity with incarcerated mothers. On Saturday at noon, a vigil and toiletry drive will be help in front of the Cook County Jail. Then, on Saturday May 20, two busloads of children and their caregivers will be taken to visit their moms at Logan and Decatur prisons in downstate Illinois, where more than 80 percent of the some 2,000 inmates are mothers of minor children.
These efforts are part of a nationwide push to spotlight incarcerated moms of minor children, particularly African-American women, that include fund-raising drives to bail out mothers from pretrial detention across several major cities.
“It’s a painful reality that so many families are separated in this way,” says Holly Krig, a cofounder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund and Mothers United Against Violence and Incarceration. “When we talk about community safety, harm, and harm reduction, in no way does incarceration, of mothers in particular, in no way does that make anyone safer or improve any lives or make our communities more stable. It profoundly disrupts families and profoundly disrupts communities.”
Because women are usually the primary caregivers to children, Krig explains, their incarceration destabilizes communities in even more profound ways than that of men. When a mother can’t take care of her children, they are more likely to have to live with other relatives (often grandparents who have fewer resources to support them), more likely to move out of their neighborhood, and more likely to wind up in foster care. And once they’re incarcerated, women have fewer resources than men, from money for commissary to visits from relatives. While incarcerated men often have networks of women helping them on the outside, when women are incarcerated they not only fall away from imprisoned men’s support networks but also lack comparable support networks of men on the outside.
For poor black women in particular, incarceration often represents an intersection between personal and state violence. A recent study indicates that black women are disproportionately vulnerable to community destabilization as a result of incarceration: “the proportion of incarcerated individuals in the family network of an average black female is 8.5 times higher than for the typical white woman.” The same communities that have a high rate of incarceration are also impacted by a lack of affordable housing, transportation, jobs, underfunded or outright closed schools, a lack of physical and mental health care services, and affordable, healthy food.
“The violence of incarceration is exacerbated by the lack of those resources,” says Krig. While many women are in jail for petty crimes stemming from poverty and are too poor to afford their bonds, she points out, others are facing more serious charges for taking action to protect their lives. Naomi Freeman, for example, was 23 years old in the summer of 2015, when she killed her abusive partner while he was in the process of assaulting her. She was already the mother of two toddlers and was pregnant during the attack, but was nevertheless charged with first-degree murder and held at Cook County Jail on a bond she couldn’t afford. The Chicago Community Bond Fund, which devotes particular attention to bailing out primary caregivers of minor children, eventually raised enough to bond her out. Freeman’s case is still pending.
The Mother’s Day actions are just one example of the grassroots efforts among Chicago’s explicitly abolitionist organizations to help individuals caught up in the criminal justice system while also building momentum for policy change, including ending money bail in Illinois.
For those wishing to contribute to the toiletry drive, Krig recommends bringing travel-size shampoos, conditioners, lotions, toothpaste, and deodorant, as well as bar soap of any size. Any items that the jail can’t accept because they’re too large or prohibited from coming from the outside (such as tampons and pads) will be taken to donate to the women’s prisons during next week’s reunification ride. Any items the prisons can’t take will be donated to women’s shelters and social service organizations in Chicago. When asked which items are most coveted, Krig says that fragrant lotions bring particular joy.
“Prison is full of so many bad smells,” she says. “There’s so little color. People don’t have a lot that is enjoyable or soothing to look at when they’re in prison.” Fragrant toiletries and colorful cards remind people of a world outside and give them hope for the future.