She’s still a mom, even behind bars

Prison advocates want to foster better relationships between incarcerated mothers and their kids

Mona Graves spends time with her sons Travis (left) and Justin at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York.
Courtesy of Mothers of Bedford/2011

When Mona Graves was handed a sentence of 20 years to life for being high in the passenger seat of a car her boyfriend drove in a fatal hit-and-run, her biggest fear was that she would be cut out of her children’s lives forever. Her elder son was just a toddler at the time of her arrest, and her younger one was born in prison. But 24 years later, when Graves was released from Bedford Hill Correctional Facility, a maximum-security women’s prison in New York, her two grown-up sons waited outside its gates to take their mother home.

“They were the only ones there, and that was how I wanted it,” she said in her unmistakable Long Island accent. “Their love kept me going all those years locked up. I wouldn’t have survived it without them.”

It’s not easy to maintain an active role in a child’s life when you spend more than two decades behind bars, but Graves’ story, which was featured in the recent documentary “Mothers of Bedford,” proves that under the right circumstances it can be done. 

At Bedford, kids can spend entire days with their moms in a family-friendly room, with no limit on the number of hugs that may be exchanged. The mothers receive parenting classes, the kids receive counseling, and between visits, both parties can stay in touch through frequent phone calls, letters and audio recordings. 

But the Bedford program and the outcomes it produces are an exception. It’s far more common for maternal relationships to be severely damaged — sometimes irreparably — when a woman is sent to prison, even if her sentence is just a few years. This is something prisoner advocates around the country are working hard to change. 

The female prison population has increased by more than 800 percent in the past three decades, according to the Women’s Prison Association (WPA), a New York–based advocacy group. Since approximately 75 percent of incarcerated women are mothers, the number of children with a mom behind bars has also grown exponentially. In 2008 the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported nearly 150,000 U.S. minors with a mother in prison.

If we really want to help these children, said Georgia Lerner, executive director of the WPA, “we should not be locking up so many of their mothers in the first place.” 

At the very least, when we do send women to prison, we should ensure that their children are not being unnecessarily punished along with them.

Georgia Lerner

Executive director, Women’s Prison Association

The Bedford Hills women's prison has become a model for how to keep incarcerated moms involved in their children's lives.
Seth Wenig / AP

The vast majority of female prisoners are nonviolent offenders guilty of crimes related to poverty and drug addiction. The WPA has developed an alternative-to-incarceration program, Justice Home, designed to help women address the underlying issues that led them to commit their crimes rather than simply punish them.

But prison time is still the default for most offenders.

“At the very least, when we do send women to prison,” Lerner said, “we should ensure that their children are not being unnecessarily punished along with them.”

Research points to very negative outcomes for children who lose contact with their incarcerated mothers. Yet advocates say most corrections departments do little to facilitate meaningful visits between mothers and children. According to a 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children,” more than half the moms in prisons across the country said they didn’t receive a single visit from their children while they were locked up. For the minority who do see their kids, those visits are often short and stressful for both mother and child.

This Mother’s Day, a group in California, Get On the Bus, took 18 busloads of children to Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and California Institution for Women (CIW) to visit their moms. The children boarded as early as 3 a.m. to arrive in time for visiting hours. The long distances and the costs involved make frequent visits all but impossible.

“We started Get On the Bus because the visiting rooms in California’s women’s prisons were empty,” said Karen Van de Laat, the program’s coordinator. “For many of the children we take with us, it will be their first and only time seeing their mother since her incarceration began.”

When the limitations on physical contact are too severe, mothers sometimes forgo frequent visits to avoid traumatizing their children. With tears in her eyes, Bridgette Gibbs, a formerly incarcerated mother of four, recalled the painful visits she had with her two youngest children during the three years she was locked up in Westchester County, New York, for a drug offense. She said she was allowed to hug her girls once at the beginning of each visit. The rest of their brief time together, they had to sit across from each other at a wide table, with no touching permitted. “When it came time for them to leave, my youngest daughter would get hysterical, and I couldn’t even pick her up to calm her,” she said.

Gibbs’ children continued to visit despite the trauma. “We just needed to see each other,” she said.

But many women choose not to see their children, not realizing that they risk losing their parental rights if they fail to maintain regular contact with them. The average sentence for women in prison is two years. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, foster agencies can file to terminate parental rights after 15 months. The termination is permanent.

Some corrections departments are beginning to see the value of helping mothers maintain meaningful contact with their children. Barbara Blanchard-Lewis, a former director of the Bedford Children’s Center, now consults with other prison systems to help them improve their visiting policies.

“The Bedford program is completely unique,” she said. “It’s the culmination of a 40-year effort, but it’s a wonderful model for other prisons to pick and choose different aspects to replicate.”

She said making visiting rooms more family-friendly, removing barriers to contact, providing toys and books for kids and extending visiting hours can be easily adopted by other prisons with minimal cost. 

The Get On the Bus organizers have experienced increased demand for their services, not just by families wanting to visit their loved ones but also by the California Department of Corrections (CDCR).

“When they noticed the behavior and morale among prisoners was so much better after the visits, they started to see the validity of what we were doing,” said Van de Laat. “Now we have a waiting list of prisons asking us to come to them.”

The CDCR has also started its own program, the Chowchilla Family Express, which runs a free weekly bus to the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. The service is fully funded by the CDCR. According to Van de Laat, the buses fill up as soon as the schedule is printed. 

“The kids don’t care what their mothers have done,” she said. “They just want to be with their moms.”

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