During a time of the year when we celebrate mothers and the contribution women provide to the strength, health and well-being of our children and communities, thousands of mothers remain separated from their children due to long prison sentences for minor participation in drug sales or possession of drugs.
Many of these women are first-time non-violent offenders. They are victims of mandatory minimum sentences averaging 10 years, and a war on drugs that has been targeted at black communities and other communities of color and is responsible for the removal of large numbers of mothers from the lives of their children for unconscionably long periods of time.
On Friday at a Town Hall Meeting in Baltimore organized by the Institute of the Black World, (www.ibw21.org) I will join with mothers like myself from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Washington, D.C. to remember our imprisoned sisters and, in so doing, create a heightened public awareness of the destructive impact of the War on Drugs on black women and children.
We will also come together to discuss strategies to end the epidemic of violence and murder of young black men in our communities, to stop the awful fratricide that daily robs the lives of our sons, our nephews, our young brothers.
Seventy percent of currently incarcerated women were the primary caregivers of their children prior to their incarceration and within women's prisons the pain and sadness of women who have been torn from the lives of their children hangs heavily in the air this weekend.
Many of these women have not seen their children for years due to the prohibitive costs associated with traveling great distances to far away prisons. It is also not unusual for multiple generations of women in the same family to be incarcerated at the same time for drug offenses, essentially removing all of the trusted women from the lives of the children left behind.
For the children of these incarcerated women this separation is overwhelming. The dramatic and rapid increase in the incarceration of black woman has had a dangerously destabilizing impact on our children and our communities at large. The emotional and psychological trauma is taking a heavy toll as is evident in the rising violence among our youth.
The organization that I am proud to lead, Families for Justice as Healing, is a criminal justice reform, legislative advocacy organization. We advocate for community wellness alternatives to incarceration. Our organization was started within the federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut and our members are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. We understand first hand the immediate need for collaborative action toward healing solutions. We have joined our voices as one; grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and wives, speaking up to end the further loss of our sons and daughters to violence and a criminal justice system that has left justice out of the equation far too long for our communities.
Prisons are dehumanizing environments and will never serve a role in society as places of healing. A shift is necessary from policies that criminalize poverty to ones that provide resources for healing from laws and practices that continue to perpetuate a permanent underclass. We have come together as formerly incarcerated women to fill the missing seat at the policy-making table, to raise public awareness and to create change.
On April 23, 2014, the Justice Department announced its initiative to encourage federal incarcerated people to petition to have their sentences commuted, or reduced, by the President of the United States. In so doing the Justice Department has also created criteria, the most difficult being a requirement that those being considered have already served ten years.
We continue to raise awareness and hope that as a country we can move beyond the horrible thought that 10 years is a "reasonable" time to keep a mother separated from her child for a non-violent drug offense.
To further ventilate this issue, we are organizing the national FREE HER rally on June 21, 2014 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., -- an action that aims to bring together thousands of women and supporters of incarcerated mothers throughout the country.
At that rally we hope to shed light on the dangerous and rapid increase in the incarceration rates of women, and disproportionately black women, in the United States. And, we will ask President Obama to commute the sentences of women locked up in the federal system who are serving drug sentences and send them home to their children and their families. The time for healing has arrived.
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