We could hear the excited chatter as their steps grew closer.
The children, ranging in ages from infant to elementary school, dressed in their best–little girls with purple and white dresses and bows in their hair, little boys in sweaters and vests, grew antsy as we waited for the door to open.
They jumped up and down excitedly, playing with each other in that large room with the 1970’s era plastic folding chairs, beat up old tables, and faded orange walls.
Their moms were coming down the hall.
When the door opened an explosion of laughter, kisses, and exclamations of “you look so big” and “you got a new tooth” filled the room.
I was in the family visiting area for mothers incarcerated at Rikers Island.
Despite that cold, windowless place, the boisterous energy that took over was palpable.
The first time I went to Rikers, New York’s largest correctional facility, I carried a precious baby boy on my hip. Correction officers patted me down and used a body scanner while I cradled seven-month old Jessie*, who clung tightly to my chest.
As a clinician specializing in family trauma, I was bringing Jessie to his mandated monthly visit with his mother, who was awaiting trial for drug trafficking charges. Jessie had been in foster care since he was born due to his parents’ substance abuse and selling narcotics.
Every third Friday we traveled to Child Protective Services, and boarded a large blue van that took us and other clinicians and children on the hour-long drive to Rikers.
Throughout the year I worked with Jessie, I saw the ways in which these mothers, some awaiting trial, others already convicted, tried to maintain their connection to their children.
Despite the circumstances, decisions, mistakes or addiction that now compromised their ability to parent, motherhood didn’t begin and end at those prison doors.
“You’re getting big!” Jessie’s mother, Kelly*, exclaimed when she saw him. Her hair pulled into a tight ponytail and a bright smile on her face, a stark contrast to the dreary grey prison uniform.
Sometimes, Jessie clung tightly to me when I went to place him in his mother’s arms. From a child’s perspective it was understandable. He saw me weekly and children often attach to who they see most. Kelly never said a word, but I saw her nearly imperceptible flinch when he hesitated to let go.
One of the greatest challenges for incarcerated mothers is seeing their children regularly. Some children were in foster care, others with family, but these moms often shared that the waiting in between visits was daunting.
When I first began taking Jessie to see his mom, people often reacted incredulously, “They want you to take a child to a visit in prison?’
But in many cases these visits (which are now being done in many states through different programs), served an important role for these mothers and children.
Since their moms were not with them on a daily basis, this was a way to maintain their connection and try to mitigate some of the trauma of being separated.
There are definitely exceptions where visits would not be in the best interest of a child (parents who are incarcerated for abusing their children or other violent crimes) and a visit could cause more trauma, but for many of the mothers at Rikers who were jailed on various drug charges, this time with their children was a way to keep some type of continuity in their lives.
“I count the days till the next visit,” Kelly often said, but for those without mandated visits, the frequency depended on family members, who often lived far away and may not be able to get off of work or afford the long trip.
“Before today, it’s been two months since I saw my son. My mom can’t take time off of work to get up here, it’s a long commute. I call collect every few weeks, but even that has become too expensive,” said one of the mothers sitting with Kelly as others nodded in agreement.
Case conferences were held with Kelly at Rikers, discussing Jessie’s placement and her case, but the unknown over what the future held weighed heavily. The uncertainty of her trial and worries of being sent to another prison, even further away, if she was convicted, were constant.
The stigma of being unable to care for their children was felt deeply by these mothers as they recounted missed birthdays, graduations and other milestones, but despite how dire their circumstances were, the moms at these visits formed a group, a sisterhood of sorts.
Many expressed anxiety over the future, shame in not being with their kids, frustration over circumstances surrounding their case and gratitude for those caring for their children.
But mostly, they spoke of regret over missed time with their loved ones– their children won’t stop growing, childhood can’t be paused.
Many of these mothers shared that visits, letters, and phone calls also helped them get through their incarceration, work to get sober, and to make changes in their lives.
Meghann Perry, a previously incarcerated mother, who has now been sober for seven years and was able to regain custody of her daughter, said, “When I was bouncing in and out of jail and treatment programs, I desperately wanted to keep in touch with her. She was a reason to try, a reason to get better and stay out of prison. The letters, phone calls and occasional visit, even though they made me sad, they also kept me going. If I hadn’t had the hope of being in her life again I’m not sure I would have fought so hard to stay out of prison.”
Goodbyes were always the hardest. When the visits came to an end and we heard the loud reminder “line up for the van” there was always a flurry of hugs, kisses and tears. Moms cramming in last minute directions (“study hard in school, behave for grandma”) while they watched their children walk away.
As we drove out of the prison complex, the guard towers disappearing behind us, the children were usually tired. Once, Jessie had a hard time settling down. His fussiness turned to cries, then screams as I tried to calm him.
The driver suddenly pulled over telling me “we need to stop for a minute and take him out.” I immediately unsnapped his carseat, holding him in my arms, his hot tears touching my cheek as he nestled into my neck and I thought of his mother and moments like these where she couldn’t be there to comfort him.
On my last visit, before I left to work in a different program, a prison staff member took pictures of the mothers and children.
The camera was an old-school Polaroid that developed pictures instantly so the moms could keep them after the visit.
Mothers began fixing their children’s clothes and hair–coaching them to “look right here,” to get the perfect shot.
Jessie sat on his mother’s lap, I helped her fix his outfit and position him so he looked right at the camera. When I got up to leave, she touched my arm and smiled, “Stay, take some pictures with us.”
We posed for pictures, laughing when they printed out. The best one came last, with little Jessie in between us smiling.
That picture is still sitting in my photo album.
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.