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The Forgotten Mothers

The majority of women in prison are domestic violence survivors. Most women in prison are also mothers.

A rally in support of Marissa Alexander held in Oakland. (Photo: Daniel Arauz)

The majority of women in prison are domestic violence survivors. Most women in prison are also mothers. This Mother’s Day, Monica Simpson of SisterSong discusses the case of Marissa Alexander in the context of reproductive justice and the criminalization of survivors and mothers of color.

As Mother’s Day sentiments begin flooding our social media timelines, with each poster opining that theirs is the greatest mother, we tend to forget how painful this day can be for some: mothers and children who have been separated for various heart-wrenching reasons, including incarceration. Oftentimes, these are mothers who found themselves in relationships where domestic violence proliferated, and – with few options – were forced to make decisions and sacrifices in the face of circumstances many will never know. According to the Correctional Association of New York, the overwhelming majority of women in prison are domestic violence survivors. It is no wonder these mothers frequently go unconsidered, since their collective voice is rarely amplified. Their situations rarely meet the mainstream public eye unless they are brought into another conversation, usually for the purpose of comparison, and often in negligible ways.

Such is the case with Marissa Alexander, mother of three and domestic violence survivor. In an August 2010 incident in which her estranged husband assaulted her, threatened her and held her against her will, Marissa fired one gunshot that injured no one. As Dr. Beth Richie, author of Arrested Justice, recently indicated, “Alexander had already been incarcerated under brutal conditions for more than a year, been denied immunity in a Stand Your Ground hearing and was awaiting trial by the time many of us came to know her through the lens of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.”

Much of the discussion surrounding Marissa remains narrowly centered on the application of Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws – most recently as Florida legislatures expanded SYG by approving the “Warning Shot Bill” allowing gun owners to fire warning shots to ward off attackers. By restricting the conversation, we remain blind to Marissa’s most important title – mother – and the ways in which her plight is vastly compounded as a result. It was, in fact, two years ago – the day before Mother’s Day weekend – that Marissa was initially sentenced to a 20-year imprisonment. Though it took another tragedy to bring Marissa Alexander’s case to light, her story provides an opportunity to bring mothers in similar circumstances out of the shadows.

Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, works tirelessly to amplify the voices of such mothers through her work with reproductive justice. A collective of 80 local and national grassroots organizations, SisterSong strengthens the collective voices of women of color and indigenous women to ensure reproductive justice by securing human rights. Truthout recently spoke with Simpson about her work.

Ayanna Banks Harris for Truthout:Reproductive justice is a term infrequently used in mainstream discussions. How is reproductive justice most accurately defined?

Monica Simpson: Reproductive justice (RJ) is the right to have children, not to have children, to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments and the right to the self-determination of our bodies. The RJ framework is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, free of discrimination, coercion and violence.

It represents a shift for women advocating for the rights of their families and control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural and structural constraints on our power.

Reproductive justice also addresses the social reality of inequality, specifically that of available opportunities to control our reproductive destiny. Our options for making choices have to be safe, affordable and accessible. This is especially important for women of color because it provides an exciting, intersectional framework that allows us to include all the social justice and human rights issues that affect our lives without segmenting, isolating and pitting one priority against another.

The swift injustice brought against Marissa is due to her being bound at an unique intersection that serves as a microcosm for numerous ills plaguing our justice system and society. Her case highlights the inconsistent application of SYG; prosecution of women who interrupt violence inflicted upon them; rigidness of mandatory minimum sentencing; prosecutors who are seemingly unconcerned with balancing lady justice’s scale; unconstitutional jury instructions; and the opaque lens through which society views black women that hinders them from being seen as un-provoking victims of violence. How is Marissa Alexander’s case also a reproductive justice issue, and in which ways has she been denied such justice?

Marissa Alexander’s human right to parent her children in a healthy and safe environment was violated due to domestic violence. She, like everyone else, has the human right to live a self-determined life and to bodily autonomy, both of which were violated due to violence inflicted upon her by her estranged husband. Marissa is again victimized and imprisoned by an unjust criminal justice system that lacks the ability to analyze and eliminate racial and gender bias within legislation such as the Stand Your Ground Law – a law which should protect those in peril.

Before we can even discuss the ways in which the criminal justice system mishandles RJ issues, we have to acknowledge the criminal justice system’s racial, cultural, gender bias as well as its inability to digest conversations around sexuality and sexual orientation. Because of this, we cannot expect for the criminal justice system to even begin to address RJ issues properly. However, we have countless examples where rape, violence, coercion, shackling, forced sterilization and the like were not addressed properly by the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is not designed to keep the most marginalized at the center. Instead, it seems as if the most marginalized are the ones preyed upon, persecuted and incarcerated the most.

Marissa’s imprisonment alienated her from her three children, including her 9-day-old breast fed daughte,r who was born six weeks prematurely and had not yet been released from the neonatal intensive care unit at the time of the August 2010 incident.

Since her imprisonment, Marissa Alexander’s daughter has been placed in the custody of her abusive husband while she fights for her freedom.

I know it’s troubling for some to imagine that Marissa’s daughter is in the primary care of Marissa’s abuser, especially as we discuss the right to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments. He has admitted to abusing all but one of the five women who have mothered his children. This is not to say that he will abuse anyone else, but the concern and outrage is understandable, especially as we recall that two of his children witnessed him abusing Marissa in the August 2010 incident. Into whose custody a child is placed when mothers are incarcerated is another layer that’s not discussed.

It’s beyond deserving of our attention. Seventy percent of people in women’s prisons are mothers. One million, three-hundred thousand children have mothers who are in jail, prison or on probation. Not only are the majority of people in women’s prisons mothers when they enter prison, many of them are also the primary caretakers of their children at home.

Reproductive oppression is another term used in the reproductive justice discussion.

A Reproductive oppression is the control and exploitation of women’s, girls’, and individuals’ sexuality, labor and reproduction. Their regulation becomes a powerful strategic pathway to controlling entire communities. It involves systems of oppression that are based on race, ability, class, gender, sexuality, age and immigration status. Women of color who enter the Prison Industrial Complex continue to face reproductive injustices such as forced sterilization, inadequate reproductive health care, shackling and the inability to breastfeed their infants.

Reproductive justice is a movement-building framework that identifies how reproductive oppression is the result of the intersections of multiple oppressions and is inherently connected to the struggle for social justice and human rights. A woman’s societal institutions, environment, economics and culture affect her reproductive life.

Why does the national conversation surrounding cases like Marissa’s fail to discuss reproductive justice?

Articulating the various intersections of this case can be difficult for the reproductive rights movement. Although the RJ movement is better equipped to address this issue, we lack the access to national platforms to discuss it. Therefore the RJ framework and language has failed to enter into national conversations – unlike reproductive rights and health.

What will Marissa’s case do for other women whose names we don’t know with regard to RJ?

I feel that this case gives the RJ movement an opportunity to educate and engage a larger grassroots base. I feel this case gives us an opportunity to bring black women’s issues to the center of this movement.

With that, we begin the process of bringing these issues to the forefront by acknowledging these forgotten mothers. We honor these women, though incarcerated and separated from their children, as mothers nonetheless deserving of far more than what they have been given. Certainly, most are equally worthy of the expression of love and appreciation from their children and community that’s ubiquitously wrapped in “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Find out more about SisterSong at Join Free Marissa Now and CAFMA in donating to the Freedom Fundraiser as a Mother’s Day gift to Marissa. Share your donation and Mother’s Day sentiments to Marissa using the hashtag #FreeMarissa.

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