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Family Matters

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We would like to thank the Reader and Tori Marlan for the portrait of one woman's struggles to put her life together following prison ["Sins of the Mother," November 8]. Denise is typical of women in prison in that she has been physically and sexually abused and has a history of drug abuse. She was fortunate to have gotten a place in Gateway: 80 percent of female inmates in Illinois have substance-abuse histories, but only 7 percent can be served by addiction-treatment programs in prison, where drugs are readily available.

Denise was atypical in not having custody of her children at the time of her arrest. Eighty percent of the women in jails and prisons are mothers, and the majority are single mothers who had sole custody of their children at the time of their arrest. When fathers go to prison mothers are usually able to maintain the family intact. When mothers go to prison, children often end up in foster care. The effects of women's imprisonment on their families are profound. Children who are separated from their mothers due to imprisonment experience grief comparable to when a parent dies. They may blame themselves for the loss of their parent, and they often regress to earlier childhood behaviors. Some stop eating and drinking in an attempt to be reunited with the missing parent. Cook County Jail, where suspects are held awaiting trial, does not allow contact visits; children may only see their mothers through a plexiglass screen. And there are no prisons for women in the Chicago area. Illinois women sentenced to prison are sent to Dwight (near Joliet), Dixon, or Logan--all beyond the reach of those without private transportation. Inmates cannot receive phone calls and can make only collect calls at highly inflated rates. Thus even highly motivated parents have great difficulty maintaining regular contact with their children from behind bars. And as Denise's story illustrates, even after release from prison there can be many obstacles to reestablishing family connections.

The Illinois Department of Corrections is planning a ten-bed demonstration program to keep nonviolent female offenders in a secure facility in the community with their young children. The experience in other states which already have such programs proves that they are cost-effective and reduce repeat offenses while promoting accountability and responsibility. At the same time, ties to families, which have been shown to be the most important factor in reducing recidivism, can be maintained. Mothers not only take parenting classes, they have 24-hour-a-day supervised experience in child care. Meanwhile, the children do not suffer the trauma of extended separation from their mothers. We hope that this demonstration program is just the first step toward a system of justice which no longer punishes the children for their parents' crimes.

Kate Devine

Policy Coordinator

Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers

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