A Thanksgiving call for help from a mother in prison

    This Thanksgiving, don't forget about the millions of people who are not only locked away from their families, but may also lose them permanently.
    Our Souls, for Strong Families by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (MamasDay.org)
    Our Souls, for Strong Families by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (MamasDay.org)

    I write about women in prison. I also publish a zine called Tenacious: Art & Writings by Women in Prison. This means that, at any given time, I’m in touch with at least a dozen women incarcerated across the nation. I hear and read stories that are infuriating and others that are heartbreaking.

    As people make plans to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with family or other loved ones, whether or not they have a strong critique of the holiday’s colonial origins, I wanted to share one such heartbreaking story — and a call for help.

    Mary Fish is imprisoned in Oklahoma. She also writes regularly for Tenacious. Over the summer, she tracked down and interviewed seven different women who were pregnant and gave birth while behind bars. She also interviewed Aileen, whose ability to mother is threatened by her incarceration.

    Recently, Mary wrote me a letter asking for help on Aileen’s behalf. Aileen, a mother of six and a member of the Kickapoo Nation, is serving a seven-year sentence at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, which is ironically located on Kickapoo Road in McLoud, Okla.

    Oklahoma has a Truth in Sentencing law that requires people to serve 85 percent of their sentence before they can be considered for early release (including parole). That means that Aileen has to serve nearly six years of her sentence before she can even apply for early release. In the meantime, her children are in foster care. She has not seen them since they were taken from her on September 19, 2013, nor has she had direct contact with them.

    “Right now I contact my kids through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services social worker that is assigned to my case,” she told Mary. “The case worker gives my messages to the foster parents and they in turn give my messages to my children.” Although the foster family and children are approved to be on her visiting list, they have yet to visit her.

    The history of the United States includes a long history of Native and indigenous children being taken from their parents, placed in boarding schools and/or adopted by other families. It’s a history of forced assimilation and the killing of many cultures, languages and heritages. In the 1970s, 25-35 percent of children were removed from their families and placed in non-Native households.

    The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to stem the alarming number of children removed (and the accompanying loss of culture). It allows a tribe exclusive jurisdiction over a Native child on tribal lands, including reservations. It has concurrent jurisdiction in custody cases of Native children who do not live on tribal lands (such as a child who was born off the reservation and whose parents don’t live on the reservation).

    Now, the United States has a different way of removing children from their families and communities. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act was passed in 1997 with the goal of “freeing” children for adoption, who otherwise might spend years in foster care. The act, commonly known as ASFA among child welfare advocates, requires that the state start proceedings to terminate parental rights if a child has spent 15 of the past 22 months in foster care. This termination is permanent. Only a handful of states make exceptions if the child is in foster care because of parental imprisonment — and in two of those cases, this was after a long hard fight by formerly incarcerated parents and other advocates.

    In June 2014, nine months after she last saw her children, Aileen was served termination papers. Since then, she’s been back and forth to family court. She had another court date this month. Aileen, like so many parents behind bars, doesn’t want to lose her children. But there are very limited options for a mother in prison, especially in a state with few resources for incarcerated people.

    “I contacted [the Kickapoo Nation],” she told Mary, “but the tribe basically [wants] me to give them up and I’m not wanting that. No mother in their right mind will give up their kids. I don’t have any family that meets the requirements for my kids — so, worst case scenario, they’ll be put in foster care and be adopted out.”

    Aileen has had a public defender assigned to her family court case, but says that she only sees him when she is in court and has not been able to speak with him outside of court. Although the prison has a law library, neither she nor Mary have been able to find information on the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act or custody law, leaving Aileen (and any other mothers at Mabel Bassett) clueless about their rights or available resources.

    If Aileen were incarcerated in New York State, California or Washington, she would have the support of advocacy groups that help mothers behind bars navigate this ordeal. But she’s in Oklahoma, which seems to lack the same number of available resources for people in prison.

    “I just feel so powerless in here because I can’t get help with my kids,” Aileen said.

    While Mary has taken the time to reach out, connect me with Aileen and try to find her some much-needed resources, there seems to be little that the women inside can do to help organize around the issue if they themselves don’t know what the timeline is, how to find out, what rights they’re supposed to have, and what recourse they have if these rights are violated.

    When Mary visited the prison law library to find information on ASFA’s timeline, she said, “I could not find anything due to the mold damage on the screen of the law computer. I also asked the library technician if she could find me some information about the mandates and Oklahoma statutes, but was unable to acquire any information at all.”

    She said that another woman, who gave birth while in prison during her 10-year sentence, has also searched and told her that everything she found was 10 years old. Given the dearth of relevant information, the women ask other women who have recently returned from court what they have heard.

    Why isn’t there organizing to support parents imprisoned in Oklahoma? And, given that Oklahoma has the highest rate of women’s incarceration in the entire country, where is the organizing to support women behind bars and to halt this rate of imprisonment? For those organizing to abolish prisons, how can we incorporate the very real and pressing needs of people like Aileen, into our current organizing work?

    I don’t have answers to any of these questions. I’ve been asking if anyone has any idea about resources. Rachel Roth, an amazing organizer around the intersections of reproductive justice and incarceration, has given me a few leads of Oklahoma organizations that may help, all of which I’ve e-mailed. So far, two advocates and one organization have responded. The advocates have both offered to contact other reproductive justice advocates and see what they can do. The organization, the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, is also willing to help but needs more information than Mary’s letter provided.

    I’m writing a letter to Aileen (and another to Mary) now to put her directly in touch with the coalition, but going through this process reminds me of all the other mothers who don’t have a friend like Mary. If they are in touch with a person on the outside, that person may not be plugged into networks able to offer help. Incarcerated mothers’ ability to not lose their children permanently shouldn’t depend on such turns of luck. Supporting their efforts to keep their families intact — whether by offering individual support services or changing legislation — should be part of the work that we, as abolitionists, do to chip away at this mammoth beast of the prison nation. But, all too often, it’s not. So, who knows how many parents like Aileen face having their families torn apart every day?

    This is the time of year we’re supposed to spend with our loved ones. But whether we disapprove of the holiday’s roots or celebrate uncritically, many of us will still spend time with our families (whether biological, chosen or a mix of both). When we do so, let’s not forget about the millions of people who not only are locked away from their families, but may also be facing losing them permanently.

    If you know of any resources (organizations or individual advocates) that might be able to help her, please get in touch. Or, if you prefer to be in touch with Aileen directly, you can write her at the following address (just be sure to write her full name and state identification number on the envelope because the prison will not deliver mail to her otherwise):

    Aileen Silverhorn
    Mabel Bassett Correctional Center
    29501 Kickapoo Rd
    McLoud, OK 74851

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