Ashleigh Carter remembers when Asia was three, “stum” was thumb and “Elmo” was elbow. Those words echoed painfully and endearingly in Carter’s head over the nearly four years she was separated from her little girl.
“All I knew is that I was helpless and couldn’t be there for her,” confided Carter, 33. “If something is going wrong, you try to console her by saying that it will be alright. But really, all you can do is listen. You bring a child into the world and there’s nothing you can do to protect her.”
Carter, incarcerated on drug sentencing charges, was living in Memphis at the time of her sentencing. Her odyssey behind bars would transport her to federal facilities in Illinois, Minnesota and finally to a detention center in Los Angeles.
Through it all, she maintained contact with Asia who was cared for by her mother. “I was one of the lucky ones,” says Carter. “Many women lose their children to the system and may never be in touch during their entire time in prison.”
Constant movement in the federal system also imposes a burden on the already frayed family unit, dismantling familial ties because of distance and economics. Often impoverish or of limited economic means, families of incarcerated women are unable to visit when their loved ones are transferred, sometimes to remote locations or cross-country. Especially when held in the far-flung federal system, one visit could cost more than $1,000.
The crumbling of the economic, emotional and physical network so critical to women – often the major breadwinner and glue of the family – has reverberating effects beyond her period of physical incarceration.
Ashleigh Carter is among the first cohort of JustUS Voices Storytelling for Change. Our multimedia initiative shines a spotlight on the unique and unspoken realities of incarcerated women by giving voice to those directly affected.
Recent data indicate that more than 5 million children have a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. While research speaks to the number of kids with an incarcerated father (between 1980 and 2000 the number has risen 500 percent), estimates are not available on children with a mother locked up.
As the national discourse on mass incarceration expands to wider and unlikely spaces, the dimensions of gender is mostly silent, despite the proliferation of women in the prison system.
Over the past 25 years, the number of incarcerated women has increased 700 percent, reaping unimagined damage upon children, families and the structures of safe and healthy communities.
Asia, almost 11, was reunited with her mother in 2014. Tall and lanky with a thick ponytail and a quick smile, she wants to be an equestrian trainer. She derives special joy from riding. “You have to be really positive to ride correctly. Horses keep me focused and calm,” Asia explains.
On the Saturday before Mother’s Day Asia was among the guests at the Los Angeles launch of JustUS Voices which included a “Living Library.” The hour-long encounter allowed visitors to “check out” stories of Ashleigh Carter and eight other women who shared their lived experience during and after incarceration.
The low-tech, high-touch encounters included rotating movement of story-seekers from one small café table to the next in 15-minute intervals. The small bites of engagement are a kind of speed dating designed to inform and enlighten about the lived experiences of formerly incarcerated women who moderated the conversations as the “human books.”
Asia, like all the Living Library visitors, moved effortlessly and eagerly to the women “Voices”, asking questions and intently listening to their stories.
From personal testimonials, insights and understanding are sparked on a human level that foster healing, awareness and the first threads of policy change.
“It was nice talking to people like my Mom,” reflected Asia. “It is good they don’t have to do everything on their own.”
The author is co-founder of the newly launched initiative JustUS Voices Storytelling for Change.