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Mothers in the prison system
By Michelle, Prisoner of the Drug War

I have just finished my second year in federal prison, guilty of the greatest crime of all: I had no information to barter for my freedom, and so I was of no use to the government.

Out of the 300 women in this prison, 80% have stories similar to mine: first-time, nonviolent, low-level drug offenders, and the innocent. I've met women who have been sentenced to five years for what the government calls 'improper use of the telephone'; answering the phone for what later turned out to be a drug sale; not being involved beyond answering their own phone. I don't think I've met any high-level dealers, or "Queenpins" in this prison. My cellmates are 45, 50, and 58 years old: gentle, educated, talented ladies. Sweet gray-haired grandmas are doing 14 years for tenuous connections to `drug conspiracies'. It's all so pointless and tragic.

When my nightmare began, I expected to encounter hardened prison women and vicious criminals. Instead, I've met daughters, mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers. I've met women of great strength and courage, dignity and grace. There are women here who refuse to have their spirits crushed despite the loss of their freedom.

Would it surprise you to learn that 75% of the women in the prison system are nonviolent, first time offenders, and by far the great majority are mothers. I know a woman who came to prison pregnant, and was still bubbling with excitement over her forthcoming baby. When she was eight months pregnant, she was placed in cuffs and leg irons and transported cross country in a bus. Her baby did not survive.

Our children suffer greatly within this unthinking frenzy of mass incarceration. How do you explain to a 2-year-old that mommy won't be around for a long, long time? What does this trauma do to the emotional well being of an innocent child? How do you explain that white-haired aristocrats in Washington have decided an exploding prison system is the only answer to every social ill?

This madness touches us all. Mothers like myself are kept so far from home that our children can never visit. Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings and birthdays come and go as we miss out on the first loose tooth, first steps, first words, first day of school, first slumber party and first school dance. We live our lives through photographs, but photos can never come close to being really there for our children.

On visitation day, I see mothers and grandmothers holding and rocking and feeding their babies, only to have to tearfully let them go after a few short hours. It's hard enough on us moms, but what damage does this do to our kids? Children with one or both parents in prison have a greater chance of ending up in prison themselves one day. Where is justice and what purpose is there in such harsh punnishment for drug law violations?

I made a tragic but all-too-easy mistake, befriending the wrong people and being at the wrong place at the worst time. I have found myself in federal prison and now my life, the lives of my family and most importantly, my little boy, will never, will ever be the same.

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