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On Mothers, Mothering and Mass Incarceration

In this Mother’s Day tribute, law professor and advocate Sheila Bedi learns how ‘having a child is like letting your heart walk around outside your body.’

(Image: Hand holding fence via Shutterstock)

In this Mother’s Day tribute, law professor and advocate Sheila Bedi learns how “having a child is like letting your heart walk around outside your body.”

When I was a teenager, my mother posted this quote on her mirror: “having a child is like letting your heart walk around outside your body.” Back then, the sentiment made me roll my eyes, but even then I knew I had an exceptional mother. She is fierce, yet gentle, demanding, supportive and self-sacrificing. My mother taught me to feel deeply, think rigorously and to find my own voice and use it loudly. I’ve carried a piece of my mother and her teachings into my work as an attorney and activist who works with and for people caught up in the criminal justice system. And I recognize my own mother’s fierceness and love in so many of the mothers I have worked with over the years – the mothers of children and young people who are imprisoned in this country’s prisons and jails.

I’m talking about mothers like Mrs. W. I represented her fifteen year old son, who was locked up in a maximum security adult prison. One day she and I drove together to the prison to meet with the Warden to discuss her son’s education. Once we arrived, the security staff wanted to shake her down – remove her head scarf, shake out her bra. I tried to put a stop to the intrusive and humiliating search, but Mrs. W. told me to fall back – she told me that the prison staff had her baby’s life in their hands and she wasn’t about to piss them off over her head scarf and a pat down. She directed me to save my fire for what mattered – protecting her son.

Mothers like Mrs. G., who testified before the state legislature about seeing the light going out in her fourteen year old son’s eyes after he spent months in solitary confinement. She told lawmakers about the pain and powerlessness she felt as she watched her son endure tortuous conditions in a juvenile prison. She channeled her pain into working to protect other children who were imprisoned in abusive prisons.

Let’s be clear about who these mothers’ children are. The vast majority of young people who end up behind bars are there because of non-violent offenses. They are overwhelming poor and come from communities of color. Communities where schools look more and more like jails. Communities targeted by prisons run on the cheap by corporations that exist solely to enrich shareholders.

Private prison companies only make money when they ensure that the revolving door to and from prison remains well-greased. Mass incarceration and the war on drugs have ravaged many of the communities these mothers and their children came from. But even in the face of these realities, many of these communities have developed strength and resilience: a deep faith, a strong sense of interconnectedness and family. My experience has been that when one looks to find the source of this strength – it’s the mothers. Watching each other’s children, attending a know-your-rights meeting in between working all day and getting dinner on the table, calling 100 phone numbers to find an advocate who can help her help her child. It’s the mothers who end up holding it all together.

After well over ten years of representing people who are locked up, I have had the privilege to know many mothers who move heaven and earth to fight for their children. Too often these mothers must fight against a criminal justice system that targets black and brown youth. Mothers who save and scrimp and travel hundreds of miles to visit their children behind bars for an hour a week. Mothers who endure in the face of learning that their children survived the unspeakable abuse that is endemic to our nation’s prisons and jails: sexual violence, prolonged shackling, months in solitary confinement, beatings, stabbings. I could go on and on listing the tortuous conditions that exist in this nation’s prisons and jails. Much of that story has already been told in lawsuits and consent decrees. What remains untold and largely ignored, is the strength and resilience of the people who lived through these abuses – the children and young people, their families and communities. And the mothers. Especially the mothers.

After spending over a decade working with mothers like Mrs. G. and Mrs. W. and after having many conversations with my own mother about the pain and the joy of mothering, I thought I had an understanding about what it meant to be a mother. And then a year ago, I became a mother myself. And I realized that I had no idea. None.

Motherhood is hard and wonderful and terrifying and humbling. During this past year, I’ve struggled to become the kind of mother my son deserves, I’ve thought often about the mothers I’ve known. The best part of my day is when I rock my baby boy to sleep, and I whisper to him: you are safe, you are loved, and I can’t wait to see how you’re going to love the world back. I simply do not know how I could keep breathing if he wasn’t safe. If he ever had to endure the conditions endured by the imprisoned children I’ve worked with and for. Yet, because of the United States’ addiction to incarceration, millions of mothers do it every day. They not only keep breathing – but they keep fighting. These mothers leave me in awe.

So on this, my first Mother’s Day, I’m holding close my mother, who let me be her heart. And I’m also holding close the mothers’ whose hearts are living behind bars. And I’m more hopeful than ever that one day soon my fellow mothers and I will be successful in our quest to end mass incarceration. Not only has having a child of my own reaffirmed my commitment to this struggle, but I think I’ve finally realized a truth about motherhood (a truth that my own mother knew long ago). As mothers, we do indeed walk around with our hearts outside of our bodies – this makes room inside of us for the strength, persistence, rigor and grace needed to fight the battles our children need us to fight.

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