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Prison Rips Babies From the Arms of Their Mothers: A View From Behind Bars

Children are the “collateral damage” of a system obsessed with punishing rather than supporting mothers.

Children are the "collateral damage" of a system obsessed with punishing rather than supporting mothers. (Image: JR / TO; Adapted: Pixabay)

Part of the Series

This story is the ninth piece in the Truthout series, Severed Ties: The Human Toll of Prisons. This series dives deeply into the impact of incarceration on families, loved ones and communities, demonstrating how the United States’ incarceration of more than 2 million people also harms many millions more — including 2.7 million children.

Oklahoma continues to be number one in the incarceration of women. Its maximum-security prison, Mabel Bassett Correctional Center — where I am incarcerated — houses many mothers. Many of them also had parents who were incarcerated. A report from the Oklahoma Children of Incarcerated Parents Advisory Committee found that nearly 4,000 children in Oklahoma have a mother in prison. And in Oklahoma, 96,000 children — or 10 percent of Oklahoma’s children — experienced parental incarceration between 2011 and 2012.

As of May 22, 2017, Mabel Bassett had 1,321 women in custody and new arrivals in the Assessment and Reception Center for mental and physical evaluations numbered 107. As is true in women’s prisons across the country, the majority of the women here at Mabel Bassett are mothers. Here are some of their stories.

A Childhood-Long Prison Sentence

Twenty-seven-year-old Ashleigh Jenkins has a father currently in prison. As a young girl, Jenkins was curious as to how people lived in prison and why her dad kept going back. Her own experience brings that childhood memory back, along with unanswered questions about why anyone would keep coming back to prison.

Jenkins was arrested May 5, 2015, for “assault and battery with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.” Jenkins felt the arresting officers added the latter to make her sound “so bad.” Jenkins told Truthout that the reason she stabbed her friend was because she did not want to be with him, yet felt trapped with no other way out. “I was in a domestic emotional abuse situation,” she said. Jenkins’ victim was not the father of either of her sons.

“I was always on drugs, so the state ended up terminating my rights when Keylan [one of her sons] was nine months old, before I was arrested for the assault charge,” she said. “I still had my kids’ best interest in mind. I didn’t know it at the time but I was later diagnosed by a doctor that I was suffering from postpartum depression. That was something I had never heard of before. I grew up in a single-parent home, and my mother Stacy suffered from severe depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. And my dad, who was in and out of prison, used to beat my mom unmercifully.”

When Jenkins was arrested, one-year-old Keylan went to live with his dad. Three-year-old Khylan, her other son, whom she had already potty-trained, went to live with her best friend.

“The courts don’t know me. They just think the worst of every mom that gets into trouble.”

In April 2016 Jenkins’ grandmother adopted Khylan and took him to her home in Georgia. Jenkins is at ease about her children’s placement now, but the period before it was settled was one of her most trying times. The court administrators advised against Jenkins having contact with the children.

The courts don’t know me,” she said. “They just think the worst of every mom that gets into trouble.”

Jenkins visits weekly with Keylan, now almost three, but five-year-old Khylan comes only twice a year from Georgia. Jenkins also writes her children letters and they send her colored pictures. She saves every single one of them.

“Distance is a huge barrier for me and Khylan because he lives in Georgia and the phone calls are so expensive,” she said, “We have managed to stay connected through mail. I send pictures, painted cups that I’ve made in Arts and Crafts, crocheted hats that I’ve made, and letters galore telling them that I love them. The last time I talked to Keylan’s dad, he told me they had been riding around in the car and when he woke up, he started saying, “Mama Ashleigh, Mama Ashleigh. He must have thought that he was waking up and arriving to come in to visit me.”

Jenkins has a 25-year split sentence: 13 years in prison and the remaining 12 on probation. Even if she is granted parole, she will have to complete at least 11 and a half years behind bars due to Oklahoma’s 85 percent law, which requires physically remaining in prison for the whole amount in calendar years except for about 18 months. “So far I have two years done. So, another nine and a half years. My kids will be teenagers when I am released.”

“They Tore Us Apart and Threw Us Away”

At least Jenkins knows where her sons are and will have some time with them before they are grown. For some mothers, incarceration means a complete break from their children.

“I don’t know right now where any of my children are,” 45-year-old Geneva Phillips said. “Prison has become a barrier [too] deep and hard to chisel through to have a relationship with my children. Too many years of missed birthdays and Thanksgivings and Christmases and lost quality time of their childhoods have severed the tie that binds mother and child.”

Phillips has four children. She was initially arrested in 2006 for an old warrant that had been adjudicated two years earlier. Her older children lived in Arkansas and her youngest, Zen, who is severely autistic, was living with Geneva’s ex-husband who was Zen’s biological father. Zen’s father had remarried and Zen now had a stepmother. Zen eventually ended up in state custody because his father went to jail and the school nurse said Zen was sent to school with a dirty diaper by his stepmother. That was when DHS intervened and Zen was placed into the system. Meanwhile, Phillips’ roommate said she would keep the other kids from the moment when Phillips was arrested until she got out of jail 10 days later. The roommate was unable to follow through on her promise after only two days, however: She called DHS and the children were put into a shelter two days after Phillips was arrested. Upon release 10 days later, Phillips had to follow a tedious treatment plan to get her children out of state custody.

Phillips noted that while in state custody, her children were moving five times in one month between one court docket date to the next. She recalled that the family court judge even commented on the number of moves, shortly after they were placed in separate group homes on the same property. They were later split up and unable to see each other except for rare visits.

For the next two years, Phillips tried to get her children back, but family court still terminated her rights. Phillips was never given a reason as to why nor was there a hearing that she was told about. After that, she says, she just gave up trying to live.

“I had been working the program they gave me, had entered college full time, and had an apartment,” Phillips said. “Once they terminated my rights I fell apart and spent the next several years heavily medicated along with illegal narcotics. That is what I was arrested for — robbery to get money for narcotics — while in a drug-induced blackout. I entered prison in 2013.”

Over the years Phillips has had only sporadic correspondence. Her daughter, now 19, aged out of a shelter. Her son wrote her for a year and a half, then was moved to yet another foster home that prohibited their correspondence. He is still being shuffled from foster home to foster home. Last year, DHS sent her a form letter stating that one of her children was about to “age” out of the system and he would need a place to spend holidays, so that he would have a sense of “family.” Phillips did not think the social worker realized that she was sending the letter to the mother in prison.

Phillips says that parenting was difficult for her due to her own traumatic childhood, but she never abused, neglected or hurt her children. Her children knew they were loved, well-provided for and valued. She sent them to school, they had good clothes and they never went hungry.

“They loved me and they loved each other. The state took all that away and broke us apart and cast us to the wind.”

“They loved me and they loved each other,” Phillips recounted. “The state took all that away and broke us apart and cast us to the wind without a thought. I was completely broken after that. I am in prison and I have no idea where my children are now but I know they are broken, too. The state did not help us — not me or my children. They tore us apart and threw us away — from one system to another.”

No Visits, No Calls, No Letters

Forty-six-year-old Jordon is the mother of three boys, all over the age of 21, and a daughter who turned 16 in January. By the time she was arrested, Jordon did not have much of a relationship with her three sons; at the time, her two oldest, ages 13 and 14, were with their adopted family, while her nine-year-old was with her best friend. Only her five-year-old daughter lived with her, and she was sent to her grandmother after Jordon’s arrest.

Jordon does not receive visits, phone calls, or letters from her children. The last time she saw, spoke or heard from any of them was a year ago when her daughter came to the prison with the Girl Scouts program. The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program brings 25 children to visit their mothers once a month for two hours.

“Girl Scouts was the only time I was able to be in contact with my daughter Shannon,” she said.

Her daughter has now aged out of the program, and Jordon does not know when she’ll see her — or any of her children — again.

Brenda Rayburn also knows something about being completely cut off from her children. Rayburn had already spent 22 years in Texas prisons before she arrived here eight years ago, for another case. Rayburn was 22 years old and in an abusive marriage when her husband went to jail for beating her. As a direct result of the domestic abuse, Rayburn’s two children, aged two and three were taken by Child Protective Services (CPS) in California.

“I didn’t feel like I had anything left to live for after my kids were taken from me,” Rayburn said. She met another man through a mutual friend and left all that she had known to go on a three-state crime spree with him. They were arrested in Texas. After serving time in Texas, Rayburn is now serving two 30-year sentences in Oklahoma.

Rayburn’s daughter went to live with her in-laws, who prohibited Rayburn from any contact. It wasn’t until recently that Rayburn’s nephew, whom she has kept in touch with for all these years, informed her that he had found her daughter, now 31, on Facebook. Now they are corresponding and rebuilding a mother-daughter relationship through a request to the warden for permission and authorization to correspond. It is an eight-week process. Rayburn’s 30-year-old son is now a two-time recidivist himself and only corresponds when he is in prison. Rayburn’s daughter has been to prison three times and is presently court-ordered to an in-prison drug treatment facility. It is worth noting that studies show children of incarcerated parents are more likely to become incarcerated themselves, demonstrating the multigenerational impacts of imprisonment.

Nearly 20 percent of Oklahoma’s women prisoners are African American, although on the outside Black people make up only 7.7 percent of the state’s population. Dorothy Faye Marshall, a mother of four, is one of those 20 percent. Marshall has been locked up for 25 years. Her own parents never had a chance to visit because her mom couldn’t get her birth certificate to prove she was Dorothy’s real mother. This was necessary because only immediate family were allowed on each individual visitation card, plus one friend. Both parents died while Marshall was in prison.

When she was arrested, Marshall’s four children went to her mother’s home. Now, they’re grown up and have families of their own. Their last visit was five years ago. When Marshall saw her oldest son, she didn’t recognize him; her oldest daughter had to introduce mother and son.

She said, “Mom, this is Jeremy!’ and I said ‘WHAT!… that’s Jeremy?’ She said, ‘Yes’ and he hugged me so tight and I grabbed him and hugged him and he held my hand the whole time. Jeremy has a little son named Cue and his mama wants to meet me,” She said of that visit. “They told me, ‘Mom, no matter what, we’re always gonna love you.’ And when Jeremy was up here, he asked me all kinds of questions about my case. It was hard but I had to do it. It was hard for me to explain it but I did it.”

Moms Weigh In on How to Change the System

Each of these mothers feels that incarceration devastated their relationships with their children. They all have ideas on how to keep the mother-child bond stronger.

Marshall believes there needs to be more programs like Oklahoma’s Messages Project, which allow some mothers to record a 15-minute message to their children and grandchildren, even though restrictions apply, and not every mother receives permission from guardians to participate and send books or messages. The Mommy and Me program also sends recorded messages along with a photo and age-appropriate books for the little ones. At one time, there was a rumor that video calls were going to be implemented at our prison, but this has not occurred.

However, no matter how many connections are able to be built from behind bars, it’s no replacement for seeing each other in person.

“There needs to be a connection and more social contact between mothers and their children,” Marshall said. She now has grandchildren, and has only met them once.

These questions of “connection” raise the issue of why all these mothers are imprisoned in the first place. Jenkins thinks criminal court systems need to look more deeply into the reasons why a mother has committed a crime and not just say, “Bad mother — put on your prison shoes, that’s it and that’s all.”

In Jenkins’ case, the reasons were addiction and depression. She needed help, she says, and instead she was put in prison, where she struggles to ensure that her children won’t forget her. “There has got to be a better way — putting people in prison for an illness seems sacrilegious in a state that is in the Bible belt,” she said.

Jordon, too, believes that on the criminal court level, the judges need to order mandatory investigations into the “why” of it all. If mitigating circumstances exist, she says, a restorative justice committee should convene on behalf of the mother. The system shouldn’t “just throw her away.”

Countless lives — including those of millions of children — could be considered to be “collateral damage” of mass incarceration. Plus, as these women’s stories have shown, other state systems also intersect with imprisonment to disrupt families and separate mothers and children.

“Most of my experience was from the child welfare system, and that system is just as much in need of reformation as the criminal justice system,” said Phillips. “Warehousing children in various homes with people who are not emotionally invested in them is only going to perpetuate the cycles of brokenness in those lives. Placing siblings in separate homes, moving them multiple times, giving them to families for adoption who give them back when faced with the emotional and behavioral problems of children stored in the systems for 8-10 years only damages them further. The state needs to invest in the successes of a child’s future and stop warehousing them and guaranteeing their failure.”

Rayburn, who has been locked up in other states, reflected, “Oklahoma is very much behind other states and I believe that is why they rank number one in the incarceration of women.” She pointed to programs like California’s Civil Addict Program, in which people with drug addictions may receive a “civil addict commitment” instead of a criminal sentence. When Rayburn participated in the program, she was offered classes on how to cope with trauma. She also pointed to New York, where coalitions are advocating for better conditions within prisons — and to shut down prisons instead of building more of them.

“Mass incarceration of mothers and fathers begets more prisoners,” Rayburn said.

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