A New Mother’s Day Tradition: Fighting for Moms Behind Bars

This weekend marked a surge of actions in the growing movement to support--and to free--incarcerated mothers.

Elizabeth Adetiba

On May 13, Prison abolition organizers gathered near Cook County Jail in Chicago to rally awareness and support for incarcerated mothers on Mother's Day. (Elizabeth Adetiba)

On a warm and sun­ny Sat­ur­day after­noon, chil­dren chased each oth­er in a grassy field while a crowd of 60 sang the cho­rus of Ella’s Song,” by Sweet Hon­ey in the Rock: We who believe in free­dom can­not rest until it comes.” Cars honked in recog­ni­tion as they passed. But what may have appeared to be sim­ply a Mother’s Day-week­end pic­nic was actu­al­ly a vig­il in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the many moth­ers locked up just steps away in the Cook Coun­ty Jail.

One in nine Black children have had a parent incarcerated at some point during childhood.

For­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed moth­er Mon­i­ca Cos­by, now an orga­niz­er with the Moms Unit­ed Against Vio­lence and Incar­cer­a­tion col­lec­tive, told the crowd what it was like to spend over 15 years sep­a­rat­ed from her daughters.

Years would go by where I would­n’t be able to talk to [my fam­i­ly] on the phone because it was so expen­sive,” an emo­tion­al Cos­by said. That’s what hap­pens when peo­ple wind up in prison. It destroys fam­i­lies. My fam­i­ly is still recov­er­ing — I’m still recov­er­ing, and I’ve been out here for about a year and a half.”

Cos­by lat­er told In These Times that after speak­ing at last year’s ral­ly, she didn’t think she could par­tic­i­pate again. Being so close to the jail brought back painful memories.

But she steeled her­self and came this Sat­ur­day, because, as she says, I believe in the work we do as a com­mu­ni­ty. … I want the women inside to know. … I need­ed to know while I was in prison that this was hap­pen­ing out here.”

One moth­er behind bars wrote to tell the group what the ral­ly meant to her. Paris Knox is a young Black woman who was sen­tenced to 40 years in prison for killing an abu­sive part­ner. Her case is cur­rent­ly on appeal.

Knox’s moth­er, Deb­bie Buntin, deliv­ered a touch­ing let­ter from her Paris, who thanked every­one for their sup­port. After­ward, the crowd chant­ed We love you! We love you!” in sup­port of both moth­er and daughter.

Doris John­son, a vol­un­teer with Cabri­ni Green Legal Aid, which offers free legal ser­vices to low-income Chicagoans, says she was moved to attend due to her own expe­ri­ences of hav­ing loved ones behind bars. I have a god­son that’s incar­cer­at­ed, and my boys was incar­cer­at­ed when they was younger,” she explained. It’s real­ly a burden…sometimes they got accused of things that they did­n’t do. … I just want to do what I can to help [oth­ers].”

That sen­ti­ment was shared all over the coun­try this Mother’s Day week­end, as the cam­paign to #BailOut­Black­Ma­mas took root in about 20 cities. Orig­i­nal­ly orga­nized by SONG–South­ern­ers on New Ground, a region­al queer lib­er­a­tion orga­ni­za­tion — to take effect on Mother’s Day 2017, the group’s goal was to bail out as many Black mamas as pos­si­ble.” At least 50 moth­ers have been bailed out so far.

The female incar­cer­a­tion rate has sky­rock­et­ed over the past 35 years, at a rate of 700 per­cent between 1980 and 2014. Although that is pri­mar­i­ly due to an increase in the impris­on­ment of white women, Black and Lat­inx woman remain dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly incar­cer­at­ed, at two and 1.2 times the rate of white women, respec­tive­ly. As SONG orga­niz­er Mary Hooks not­ed in an inter­view with Democ­ra­cy Now! on Fri­day, one in nine Black chil­dren have had a par­ent incar­cer­at­ed at some point dur­ing childhood.

Our goal is to be able to free our peo­ple from these cages, using the tra­di­tions from our ances­tors that bought each other’s col­lec­tive free­dom,” Hooks said. 

Through­out the week­end, social media was flood­ed with pic­tures and videos of bailed-out moth­ers reunit­ing with their fam­i­lies, from Durham, N.C. to Atlanta. Efforts in Chica­go were cen­tered around Saturday’s vig­il and Sunday’s Reuni­fi­ca­tion Ride” — a com­mu­ni­ty-orga­nized bus­ing pro­gram that trans­ports chil­dren to their incar­cer­at­ed moth­ers for hol­i­day visits.

The pro­gram was ini­tial­ly fund­ed by the state of Illi­nois, but due to the state bud­get impasse, fund­ing for the pro­gram has been halt­ed. Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers have tak­en it upon them­selves to crowd­fund bus­es to help ensure that, at the very least, moth­ers and their chil­dren can be togeth­er on hol­i­days like Mother’s Day, when it might be even more dif­fi­cult to be with­out each other.

For Cos­by, the need to help kids vis­it incar­cer­at­ed moth­ers can­not be over­stat­ed. Due to dis­tance and cost, Cosby’s inter­ac­tions with her chil­dren were few and far between.

While I was inside [Cook Coun­ty Jail], I saw my daugh­ters almost every week,” she explains. It was through plexi-glass, but at least I got to see them. When I went to prison, I nev­er saw them again. From 1998 to 2015 I saw my old­est daugh­ter one time, and that was August 25, 2013. It was prob­a­bly the most awe­some day. The next most awe­some day was the day that I got out of prison.”

Impor­tant­ly, the #FreeOur­Moms cam­paign in Chica­go doesn’t stop at con­nect­ing bio­log­i­cal moth­ers with their bio­log­i­cal chil­dren. LaSa­ia Wade of the Black Trans Gen­der-Non­con­form­ing Col­lec­tive remind­ed the crowd of the need for an expand­ed under­stand­ing of moth­er­hood. Not all moth­ers are those who give birth, par­tic­u­lar­ly for those with­in the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty, and not all moth­ers are women. Trans men, for exam­ple, can give birth to chil­dren while not tak­ing the label of moth­er.’ And for many gen­der-non­con­form­ing youth who have estranged rela­tion­ships with their bio­log­i­cal par­ents, old­er trans women take up the moth­er­ing role.

As the vig­il came to a close, a ban­ner fea­tur­ing a quote from Assa­ta Shakur blew in the back­ground, remind­ing all who were present that orga­niz­ers’ over­ar­ch­ing goal of abo­li­tion was not out of the realm of possibility:

A wall is just a wall and noth­ing more at all. It can be bro­ken down.

Eliz­a­beth Adeti­ba is free­lance writer based in New York. Her writ­ing has appeared in The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Fusion, The Black Youth Project, and SB Nation.
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