A week before Mother’s Day, formerly incarcerated moms and their allies stood in solidarity with women in jails and prisons and talked about the lasting effects of incarceration.
“This, us being here and demonstrating that kind of solidarity that only a few of us ever saw during the time that I was [incarcerated] means more than I can [express],” said Monica Cosby. Monica said she didn’t see her family from 1998–2015 when she was at the Illinois Department of Corrections because they couldn’t afford to visit her. “It was the solidarity with the women I had inside that helped me to survive, right, and it was solidarity from people out here. And certainly, it’s not over once we get out.”
Cosby, who is now an organizer at Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, addressed more than 100 people who gathered on a glowing spring morning under a bare tree in front of Cook County Department of Corrections. The Incarcerated Mother’s Day Vigil, as it is called, is an annual event that is now on its sixth year. The event features spoken word, poetry performances and shared stories about personal experiences within the criminal justice system. Despite its name, organizers said they were “honoring caregiving in the broadest sense today.”
The Illinois Department of Corrections had a total of 2,349 female inmates and 38,523 male inmates on June 30, 2018, according to the department’s data. Almost 34 percent of the women and 5.2 percent of the men were Black. Nationally, “the number of women in prison has been increasing at twice the rate of growth for men since 1980,” according to a study by The Sentencing Project that was published in June 2018. Black women had the fourth highest rate of imprisonment in 2016, at 96 per 100,000, which is fourth to Black men, Latino men and White men, respectively.
“I have a deep concern about what goes on with Black women … who seem to be under assault in many ways. This is one of them: over-incarceration,” said Beverly Reed Scott, who attended the event. “And I wanted to come out and participate, to donate and to speak up and speak out about it because if we don’t, then we’ll, you know, you keep doing what you doing. You keep getting what you [are] getting, right?”
And a huge part of the reason people were out there was because they wanted change, better support for the formerly incarcerated and an end to the system, which people said impacts family members and trickles down to younger generations.
“I’ve been home 18 years. I’ve been doing this work for 17 years, and it doesn’t end because the harm doesn’t end,” said Celia Colon, who said she “grew up in prison” after being incarcerated when she was 18. Colon now heads an organization called Giving Others Dreams, which facilitates mental health workshops within the Cook County Jail and inside the Juvenile Detention Center. “Right now, one thing that I share my voice about is the generational harm that we don’t talk about.”
Colon knows exactly what generational harm looks like because it affects her family. Now a mother of four, Colon said her child is being bullied because of her criminal history.
“I just got a letter [on] April 1 that I am banned and blocked from chaperoning or participating [in my kid’s school]. I’m banned from being a parent by someone who doesn’t know me, who is judging the 18-year-old me, right, and not the 43-year-old me,” she said. “So, then this creates a whole other harm to my child because who’s to say that I even shared this journey with her, right, because she didn’t even exist when I committed my crime.”
Studies have shown that incarceration impacts children in different ways. Researchsuggests that having an incarcerated parent puts a child’s emotional, physical and mental well-being at risk.
Jada Lesure, 19, delivered a message on behalf of her mother who is behind bars. She said having her mother in the system took a toll on her, but it also strengthened her.
“It’s been a long journey, but I say it didn’t break me,” Lesure said. “It made me. It made me more mature. It made me the person who I am today. I mean it made me who I am today because I’ve been on my own for a long time, man.”
At the vigil, people arranged flowers while a child gave out packets of wildflower seeds that had the faces of incarcerated women on them. Other people stood at corners and near the entrance of the jail and distributed bouquets to women who were exiting the building. There were signs that read “Free our mothers” and bags of toiletries were laying on the grass.
In addition to the performances, people showed support to incarcerated women by donating soap, sanitary pads and other necessities. Those toiletries will be donated to Logan Correctional Center, Decatur Correctional Center, re-entry facilities and work release centers, Cosby said.
“It gives hope; This kind of solidarity is needed,” Cosby said. “It shouldn’t be a necessary thing to do, but it is.”