On February 12, 2013, Our Children’s Place, a local nonprofit based in Chapel Hill, in partnership with Meredith College hosted the viewing of “Mothers of Bedford” and opened the discussion on prison reform. This riveting documentary by Jenifer McShane, follows the lives of five women as they try to be mothers to their children while incarcerated in a maximum security prison. Early on in the film, viewers are hit with some cold, hard facts: Women are the fastest growing population in today’s U.S. prisons. Furthermore, 80 percent of those women are mothers of school-aged children. While many parents find it difficult to be away from a child a week, imagine being separated for ten to twenty years?
After the film, we had a Q&A with Jenifer McShane, and the audience was eager to ask questions. McShane said that it was a 5 year process to make this film, because she had to keep going back and forth. When asked what her motivation was, McShane replied, “Sister Elaine’s work should be told. She is a mother, a visionary, and she has been doing it for decades. I went into the prison and this took over my life. It had to be told.”
The topic of privatizing prisons arose, and how it is scary to think prisons owners can make a profit from housing inmates. The viewer wanted to know McShane thoughts on this phenomenon. McShane stated she did agree that privatized prisons are a scary thought. McShane went on to say that the model used at Bedford Hills is hard to replicate, but she is convinced it can be done with supportive superintendents and communities. The curriculum was made at Bedford, but it can be shared to help spur prison reform in other states. One final question was asked which was directed to Melissa Radcliff, Executive Director of Our Children’s Place. An audience viewer asked, “Why North Carolina does not have this program implemented in our prisons”.
“Radcliff stated that this public forum is the start of the conversation. It has been noticed that people are not talking about it, so the public needs to help ask questions. Ask teachers if they know about the children in their class? Do they have parents in prison? Do they know what resources to offer? I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Radcliff, and I asked her if she saw N.C. implementing this model in the future? Also, did she find legislators hesitant and/or resistant to change? Yes, I do think we’ll have the opportunity to implement some new types of programs for children of incarcerated parents, both inside prisons and in the community, in the near future. With that in mind, our education and awareness efforts will need to be ongoing as will our work to gather research and data on how children are impacted when a parent goes to prison.”
The Children’s Center at Bedford Hills Correction Center in New York was initiated and led as the Director by Sister Elaine Roulet. The Children’s Center is a highly unique program that allows infants born while the mother is incarcerated, the ability to stay with the mother for up to one year. One of the five women in the film, Melissa, who is serving a two year sentence had her daughter, Emma, while in Bedford Hills. Therefore, she has been able to take advantage of the Nursery resources and keep Emma with her at all times.
This has given her the ability to see her daughter’s first achievements and create the natural bonding that is needed during this developmental stage. The Children’s Center not only houses a Nursery, but it also has a children’s playroom and a parenting center. The playroom is useful during visitation hours, so the children can feel that they have a more “normal” visit with their mother instead of sitting at a table with a guard.
The mothers are allowed to have a planned weekend with their children twice a month. However, if you have any infractions, you are not allowed to participate. For example, one mother, Tanika, had gum in her cell, and that is not allowed. She was not allowed to participate in her scheduled overnight / weekend visit. Tanika was also confined to her cell for 15 days, except for the 1 hour she was allowed outside. Even though she received this punishment, Tanika knew how disappointed her sons would be in not having their visit. One holiday that is widely celebrated at Bedford Hills is Mother’s Day.
The film shows Mona doing arts and crafts with children, fixing up the rooms, and decorating. Mona, while her sons are much older and she is a grandmother, has become the “honorary party coordinator” on the unit. It is no surprise to see Mona go all out for Mother’s Day. She has everything decorated, and she has created silhouettes of the moms to give to their children. All of the prisoners anxiously wait for everyone to get there because buses were sent out to pick up their families. Anneathia, who has a history of drug use and her mother is also a recovering addict, waits for her two daughters to arrive. She says, “Today you’re a mom, but tomorrow you go back to being an inmate.”
Rosa, mother of two boys, works in the Nursery while serving her sentence. Throughout the film, I noticed that Rosa’s oldest son, Joey who is only 10 years old, seemed very mature for his age. It could be seen in the way he talked and in his thought process. At one point, Joey was talking about what happened to him and his family, and how he was not going to let it stop his dreams. He said, “The past is the past, but the past also travels with you into the future.” You could hear murmurs and “wows” from the audience, as they were all thinking the same thing…. How profound to come from this innocent child.
In retrospect, N.C., along with many other prisons has a long road ahead of them to make things better for these children. I have personally worked in a Labor & Delivery unit for 10 years, and have seen how a prisoner comes in to have a baby, and then goes back to the prison without her baby, sometimes in tears. Everyone makes a mistake, and while there needs to be punishments and consequences, I feel that the children are not being considered or recognized. Therefore, their “sentence” is far worse than the mothers, because not having their mother during crucial stages of development has long lasting effects that can carry on past childhood. Joey, 10 years old, asked what “prison” was when he was younger, and he was told: “that is where the bad people that do bad things go”!
Joey’s reply: “Where do the good people that do bad things go?”
Photo Credit: Our Children’s Place Website