Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis
Jack Slowriver, May 21, 2007
On May 11, 2007, Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM)
Denise Acevedo, a member of Visible Voices, a weekly women’s peer support group operated by CLAIM, is the mother of one such child. Speaking at the rally, she said, “My daughter was an ‘A’ student, but due to our separation she’s doing poorly in school now. She completely shut down and she’s been rebelling. I regret missing opportunities to be there for her during important times in her life. If the Illinois Department of Corrections had alternative sentencing to provide treatment and keep mothers and children together, I’d have a better relationship with my kids. My whole outlook on life would be different,” Acevedo said to the crowd.
Other formerly incarcerated women also spoke out about the destruction of their families and the ways in which the United State’s overemphasis on incarceration is not working as a solution to social problems. Poverty, drug addiction, violence against women, and racism (social problems that underlie much of crime) will not be ever be solved by locking people up. Yet, the numbers of people incarcerated keeps growing. According to CLAIM’s website, the number of women in Illinois state prisons has quadrupled in the last 15 years and 82.5 percent of these women are also mothers.
Before Mother’s Day became another opportunity to sell Hallmark cards, suffragette Julia Ward Howe encouraged that it be used to protest war and encourage peace. Nowadays, when war is mentioned, attention usually turns to the war and ongoing occupation of Iraq. In fact, the United States is waging war both abroad and domestically. President Johnson initiated the first domestic war in the mid-1960s. He called it the "war on poverty." Finding it difficult or perhaps untenable to eliminate poverty, that project morphed into the "war on drugs".
As each of the speakers at the CLAIM rally shared their personal stories, it became clear that the "war on drugs" is really a "war on poor families", and one that is most often waged in urban communities of color.
Throughout the rally, people circulated with clipboards and a petition to Illinois politicians urging them to change state policies towards incarcerated mothers. The crowd numbered about fifty at its peak. Many others stopped for a moment and then continued on to wherever they were going on that Friday afternoon.
It felt like hundreds more people should be there. At rallies like these it always does. Sometimes it’s hard to turn people out for a rally about an endemic social problem. It feels too big and my the passersby don’t have time to hear about a petition. Or maybe they think that mass incarceration isn’t their problem.
Nonetheless, it’s important to keep speaking truth, to keep shouting rage into the microphone. It’s important to keep making noise because someone might hear; someone might even be listening for to the message.
You can get more information about women imprisoned in Illinois at www.claim-il.org.
Photograph by Jack Slowriver: A group called “Sisters Rising” performed poetry and spoken word about their experiences with incarceration, violence, addiction, and healing.