“A Nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” — Cheyenne proverb
Shakopee Women’s Prison houses approximately 640 women. For argument’s sake, let’s say each woman has two children. The state ends up paying for the woman’s incarceration and her children’s foster care. I don’t know the monetary costs, but I do know the emotional costs of mothers who are separated from their children. Both the mother and the children are tossed into the longterm effects of ‘ambiguous grief ’ — the grieving of someone who is still alive.
That’s the kind of grief that can lead to depression, addiction, and suicide. This cycle of unresolved trauma continues, generation after generation.
The trauma continues after women are released from prison. They find few supports. Many have trouble finding jobs, which makes housing hard to secure, which makes it difficult for them to be reunited with their children. The stress runs deep.
This is the cycle of our justice system. Currently I visit county jails through the Women’s Writing Program. It is a two-week program. For two hours a day, my colleague Diego Vazquez Jr. and I teach poetry to incarcerated women.
The end result each time is a published book of the women’s writing.
The program began in county jails with the idea to give women an opportunity to explore their creativity, to give them an outlet for their emotions.
If it gives even one woman the opportunity to glimpse herself as something more than an incarcerated woman — to see a future beyond the jail — it can be a stop gap against future incarceration.
I enjoy the work, yet for me it is akin to throwing thread to a drowning person in the river; what they need is a rope and a raft with lifeguards ready.
Women write beautiful verses, share heart-wrenching stories, and swear ‘this is the last time.’ We believe them. It gives us the hope that we need to keep doing the work. For the women, the class is a break from the monotony of cell time. They read and share their work with each other. Through tears and laughter, they get to know each other on a different level than jail time normally allows.
After they are released, we offer them the opportunity to read their poetry at local venues. It is a beautiful sight to see women arrive with their partners, most with children in tow and many with babies in strollers. The women are dressed up, and take the stage as if they own it. For this moment, everything is theirs. We hope it is enough to keep them out of jail and moving forward.
Is it enough? In this political climate, with this current war on women we are living in, what would be enough? I do know that these women — the ones who write, who try, who risk being vulnerable — have come from lives that have tempered them into women of steel. Many of them will take what chance they can, with whatever break they are given, to change our shared world into a more human place.
Read about how a committee of the Minnesota Department of Health is attempting to assess the role of counties in preventing and mitigating the effects of parental incarceration on children.
An open prison was developed in Chino, California, in 1941. Read more about the concept. Details: “When America Had an Open Prison,” The Conversation, June 14, 2019