New report: women pay price for incarcerated family members

Azadeh Zohrabi, national campaigner for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, initiating the event.

Azadeh Zohrabi, national campaigner for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, initiating the event.

“Can I tell my kids it’s going to be all right to go with their dad?” Misty Rojo remembers pleading with the officer as she sat in the back of a police car, while law enforcement agents took her children to Child Protective Services in the middle of the night. “No,” she recalls the officer saying. “You don’t even deserve to be a mother, and you’re going to get a life sentence.” Rojo, who was later convicted for attempted murder when committing a home invasion, began her 10-year sentence when her sons were ages 1, 2, 4 and 5.

Esi Mathis remembers returning home to receive a phone call from a friend saying a S.W.A.T. team had cordoned off her neighborhood, and that one of Mathis’ family members had been arrested for running a drug ring. Her 17-year-old son was also arrested and charged for a non-violent drug offense. “It was the craziest day of my life,” says Mathis.

Terry Farley served 37 years, 11 months, and 14 days in an array of prisons: two stints in San Quentin, two in Tracy, one in Soledad, and two in Folsom. “It was a predatory environment,” said Farley. “The rules of Darwinism, survival of the fittest came into play.”

These three activists from across the nation joined one another on September 15 for a panel discussion at the Impact Hub in Oakland, coinciding with the release of a survey on life after prison conducted by a consortium of 20 community groups. The report, titled “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” highlights the struggles of those who live a life defined by the American incarceration system. Organizers say the report helps show the reality of economic debt for families of incarcerated people, the importance of supportive families in preventing recidivism, the hardships of securing housing and employment, and the heavy financial burden placed on women on the outside who try to stay connected to loved ones behind bars.

Researchers from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, Research Action Design and other community-based organizations from across the country, collected surveys from 712 formerly incarcerated people, 368 family members of formerly incarcerated people, 27 employers who differ on employing the formerly incarcerated, and 34 focus groups across 14 states. “We wanted the evidence to back up what we saw happening in our own communities,” said Alicia Walters, the movement-building director at Forward Together. “Vulnerable families, and the women who sustain them, are really dragged into deeper poverty, stress, and strain when any of their loved ones are incarcerated.”

According to the report, “The average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees alone was $13,607.” The writers conclude that this strain leaves women with an incarcerated family member saddled not only with becoming the sole economic provider, but the responsibility of caring for children while dealing with the continually compounding costs of commissary needs, expensive phone calls, and funds for travel, often for cross-country visits. According to the report, the last two factors were found to drive “more than one-in-three survey participants into debt to cover phone and visitation costs—87 percent of which were paid by women.”

In total, the report’s writers concluded, in “63 percent of cases, family members on the outside were primarily responsible for court related costs associated with conviction. Of these family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83 percent were women.”

“Regardless of the gender of the person who’s inside, whether they’re a man, a woman, a transgendered person, it’s women who are caring for them on the outside,” said Walters. She said she felt it was important for this report to garner public recognition of women’s struggles. “Their work is not invisible, their lives are not invisible, they can let go of the shame, and stigma, and isolation,” she said.

“The reports shows that it’s our families and our communities that have paid the price for one woman’s, or one man’s, mistakes of getting involved in the criminal justice system,” said Darris Young, a community organizer with the Ella Baker Center and the event’s panel moderator. “African American women were overwhelmingly impacted on the family side.”

Nearly 200 people crowded the event hall to hear personal testimony exemplifying the report’s findings. Organization leaders and activists such as Rojo, Mathis, and Farley shared their struggles with a responsive audience.

“I ran up my credit card bill,” said Mathis, whose son was relocated from Florida to a prison in Georgia before another transfer to California. Refusing to lose contact with him, Mathis traveled whenever financially possible from her home in North Carolina to visit him. “I would charge airline tickets, hotel stays, and rental cars. I’m talking thousands of dollars in credit card debt. I’m still paying credit card debt,” she said.

“Woman have been bearing the brunt of this forever—the report is not news to us,” she continued. “The report makes our experiences real to the public. It makes our experiences, our sacrifices, and our financial, emotional, psychological, mental pain concrete. That’s really what this report does; we’ve known this all along.”

The emotional toll for children and parents separated from each other was another key topic discussed in the report. “It was very difficult to hold my head up, to go to work everyday, and go through the motions, and try to have some semblance of normalcy,” recalls Mathis. “My stress level was through the roof. I remember going through a period of my hair falling out because of the stress. It was affecting my appetite. I lost weight. I cried everyday for a very, very long time.”

Rojo, now a campaign and policy director at Justice Now, remembers a similar trauma when one of her sons was convicted several years after her own release. As a mother and formerly incarcerated person, Rojo feared for her son’s physical safety. Not knowing where he had been moved, how the corrections officers were treating him, or how other inmates would react to his gang tattoos, Rojo felt powerless, as she was unable to protect her son from the reality she knew he was entering. “There was suddenly a hole, and it was just this person was gone, and I had no way to touch him, feel him, talk to him, or know anything about him,” she said.

The panel also addressed recidivism, or a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, with panelists saying that family involvement and community support is key to preventing a person’s return to prison. “Those that come home to family members, those are the people who succeed, because those are the ones that come home to people who love and accept them exactly how they are, and have from even before they left,” Rojo said.

Family support is also essential due to the difficulties of finding housing after being incarcerated, the report’s writers concluded, finding that “58 percent of formerly incarcerated participants were currently living with family members,” and that “79 percent of participants were either ineligible for, or denied housing because of their own or a loved one’s conviction history.”

For Walters, the definition of “family” is really important in this context. “Four out of five families do not look like the nuclear, picket-fence family that is a part of some American myth,” she said. “In fact, our families are beyond blood relations, they’re chosen, and they’re extended.” This frame of mind Walters says, “really matters for trans people, and trans people of color in particular, who are disproportionately criminalized.”

After nearly three hours, the event at the Impact Hub began to wind down. Children and parents went home, and the crowd began thinning as organization members were left shaking hands and hugging old friends. Organizer Darris Young lingered near a group of volunteers cleaning up the kitchen. As a formerly incarcerated person who participated in the surveys and collected data, Young says, “This report will build momentum to help pass reforming legislature pointed at ridding the systemic imbalances that have led to African American, and Latino communities from overrepresented in the criminal justice system.”

He also said he felt empowered by being a part of the report’s creation. “When I first opened the report, I felt a sense that I was a part of accomplishing something,” he said. “It was really eye-opening.”

The complete report is available for download at whopaysreport.org

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