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What’s Gender Got to Do With Policing and Prison?

For decades, incarcerated mothers have fought for their right to parent behind bars.

Yraida Guanipa, a mother of two sons who fought for her right to parent while incarcerated, with her younger son on Christmas 2013. (WNV/Yraida Guanipa)

When Yraida Guanipa, a mother of two living in Miami, was sentenced to prison, both her sons were under the age of six. During her 10-and-a-half year sentence, she saw her sons a total of six times. But she was one of the fortunate ones. Guanipa, who was incarcerated at the federal prison camp in Coleman, Fla., nearly 300 miles from her family in Miami, learned that the distance and cost of travel prevented many other women from receiving visits from their children at all. Guanipa had read about a church in West Virginia that provided free transportation for the children and families of women incarcerated at the federal prison there and decided that she would find a way to create a similar opportunity for the mothers at Coleman.

But organizing even this basic transportation was risky, since prison rules prohibit incarcerated men and women from soliciting any assistance from the outside world.

“As a prisoner, I cannot freely write to churches or other organizations asking for free transportation for my sons, for fear of being indicted again for SOLICITING,” Guanipa wrote in a letter from Coleman. Nonetheless, despite the risk of an additional indictment, which could lead to more prison time, she wrote to every organization whose address she came across. After eight years, her efforts paid off. Guanipa found a church willing to pay for a bus so that 48 children, including her two sons, could spend seven hours with their mothers. Since that first church-sponsored bus, she found two other churches to pay for the transportation necessary for children to visit their mothers.

The number of incarcerated women has been growing, swelling 108 percent from 44,065 people in 1990 to 93,234 people in 2000. At the end of 2012, 108,772 women were incarcerated in state and federal prisons throughout the United States. This number does not include women in local jails or ICE detention. It also excludes trans women in male jails and prisons.

This often-overlooked fact of the swelling population of incarcerated women also masks the organizing among women and their outside allies against the often invisible and gendered impacts of the prison-industrial complex. From organizing against gendered policing to incarcerated mothers’ fighting for their right to parent, movements against police brutality to prison liberation are ones in which in which issues of gender, and incarcerated women, are increasingly front and center.

People don’t just show up in prison

“Women are the fastest growing prison population,” explained Andrea Ritchie, the director of Streetwise and Safe, an organization that works with LGBTQ youth of color who experience criminalization in New York City. “But people don’t just show up in prison. Someone puts them there. It starts with an encounter with the police.”

Ritchie frequently works with people who have experienced the New York Police Department’s infamous Stop and Frisk, a policy that allows police to stop and search anyone they deem suspicious. Although the practice is purportedly color-blind, the police overwhelmingly target young people of color, particularly black and brown men.

But the people Ritchie works with are not the ones people usually think of when they think of Stop and Frisk. She recalled one instance in which four sisters aged eight, nine, 13 and 16 were stopped and, despite having no drugs or illegal paraphernalia on them, taken to the precinct where they were detained until their mother was able to pick them up. Then there was the young woman who was ordered to take her newborn daughter out of the stroller and place her on the sidewalk while the police searched the stroller. (Again, they found nothing.) In yet another instance, during a Stop and Frisk, a police officer took a young woman’s phone, managed to take down her number and, since then, has been sending her increasingly threatening and violent text messages. These women are not the face of Stop and Frisk. But not only do they experience the aggressive policing practice, despite mayor Bill deBlasio’s promise to end the policy, but they are impacted by it in gendered ways that their male counterparts frequently escape.

In New York City, organizing has led to a partial victory around gendered policing: In early May, New York police commissioner Bill Bratton announced that police will no longer use possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution. During Stop and Frisks, the police frequently confiscate condoms as evidence that the person stopped is engaging in sex work, in part in order to justify the stops or arrests. LGBTQ youth of color and trans women of color are disproportionately affected by this practice of Stop and Frisk, leading many to be afraid to carry, or even use, condoms. While the announcement is a first step, police and prosecutors can and will continue to use condoms to justify arrest, confiscate condoms as “investigatory evidence” where promoting or trafficking is suspected, and confiscate condoms as evidence in promoting and trafficking cases.

Advocates also point out that the policy continues to put sex workers at risk as police continue to target those that they suspect of being sex workers or teen runaways under the guise of investigating pimps and traffickers. Pimps and traffickers are more likely to push sex workers not to carry condoms, and thus engage in unprotected sex, because they fear condoms could be used against them. Organizers, including those who work with LGBTQ youth of color, have stated that they will continue to organize for an end to using condoms as evidence at all.

Parenting from behind bars

For women whose police encounters end in prison time, they find a whole new set of gendered challenges behind bars, including, for many, the struggle to maintain contact with their children and to hold onto parental rights. For decades, incarcerated mothers have fought for their right to parent behind bars. But these efforts are rarely noted in larger discussions about incarceration and prison organizing.

The prevailing view of the imprisoned parent as “unfit” has been used to legitimate policies that disproportionately strip incarcerated women of their right to parent. Approximately two-thirds of women in prison are mothers to children under the age of 18, and the majority of these women are single parents. While the majority of incarcerated men are fathers, these men are also much more likely to have family members and loved ones to take care of their children during their incarceration. Women rarely have the same support network, leading to a situation in which children of incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to be placed in foster care than children of incarcerated fathers.

As a result of the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, social workers must begin proceedings to terminate parental rights once a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the past 22 months. Once these rights are terminated, parents no longer have a legal relationship with their children and have no right to contact them. Given the decades-long push for long mandatory minimum sentences, even for non-violent offenses, many sentences run longer than 22 months — leading to the termination of a mother’s parental rights. Yet, terminating parental rights does not ensure that foster children will be adopted into permanent homes. In fact, at the end of each year, approximately 100,000 children in foster care are still waiting for an adoptive family, according to data from 2011. Their average age is eight years old, and the average length of time in foster care is two years.

Even before the Adoption and Safe Families Act was passed in 1997, women behind bars began organizing to fight for legal custody. Women who had no children but had some knowledge of the legal system helped mothers with legal paperwork. Mothers who had unsuccessfully fought to retain custody of their children assisted other mothers with their cases, drawing on the knowledge and experience they gained. In Michigan, mother Kebby Warner used the knowledge that she’d gained to help another woman with her paperwork, even though she was devastated after losing custody of her own daughter. With Warner’s assistance, that mother was able to keep legal custody of her child.

Once out of prison, many formerly incarcerated mothers continue to organize for their right to parent. In New York, formerly incarcerated mothers and advocates involved with the Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison organized and spoke out against the brief timelines imposed by the legislation and its impact on family unification. After years of education and advocacy, the women launched an intensified campaign in 2009. Formerly incarcerated mothers, and sometimes their children, spoke with media about the impact of the bill. They also joined advocates for a series of lobby days in Albany to convince legislators in person that a revision to the bill was necessary to avoid destroying families. Mothers behind bars also helped push the revision by writing letters describing their experiences of parenting from prison.

One mother described the pain of losing her children. “As the clock ticked away, I remained in constant fear wondering which monthly visit would be our last,” she wrote. “I was told that if I agreed to a conditional surrender agreement then I would be allowed limited communication (cards, letters and photos) with my sons. Sadly, these stipulations were never honored… I love my sons! I want what I was promised, when I acted in good faith, and signed my agreement!”

In 2010, their efforts paid off. New York State passed the ASFA Expanded Discretion Act, which gives foster care workers the discretion to refrain from beginning termination proceedings if parental incarceration, participation in a drug treatment program or prior incarceration is the reason for a child’s foster care placement.

In 2012, inspired by the ASFA Expanded Discretion Act, formerly incarcerated parents in Washington state launched their own campaign for a Children of Incarcerated Parents bill, which would allow courts the discretion to delay the termination of parental rights if the parent’s incarceration or prior incarceration was a significant factor for the child’s continued stay in the foster care system. Last year, just days before Mothers’ Day, the governor signed the bill into law.

After nearly 11 years in prison, Yraida Guanipa was released and reunited with her family. But she has not forgotten the women she left behind, and she continues to speak out against deplorable prison conditions and the devastation incarceration wreaks on families. She has built the Yraida Guanipa Institute to work with mothers returning home from prison and teenagers most vulnerable to criminalization. “I believe that if you passed through that experience and you survived, you need to help others through it,” she said recently. “When I talk to other mothers, they say they want to follow me in that role. They’re becoming more aware of what they can do and how important it is to speak out.”

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