Families divided by high rate of women in Kentucky prisons

By Leah Brown

Mary Thomas-Spears sits cross-legged on her family room floor with an American Spirit cigarette in one hand and a black lighter in the other. The sunlight peaks through the window illuminating her aged face. She holds her cigarette between her first two fingers, ignites the tip, then takes a deep inhale while she tries to recall the last time she talked to her son. It’s been almost five months, she says as tears begin to fill her eyes.

For much of her son’s life, she was in and out of jail. She dropped out of college at the University of Arkansas when she became pregnant by her husband at the time. On her 23 birthday, she filed for divorce after he left home and never returned. She moved back to Kentucky where she grew up, and her son never saw much of his dad since. Thomas-Spears tried to make up for her son’s dad not being around. She helped coach his little-league baseball team, but then was removed after she was arrested for possession of marijuana. This situation became common for her son, especially after he watched his mom get arrested when he was 8 years old.

Thomas-Spears reaches to a bookshelf behind her. The shelves are piled with books, figurines of bears, ships and dolls, while a guitar leans up against it. She turns back around holding a picture of her son. He mailed it to her from prison. He stood in the picture with his arms crossed revealing some of his tattoos and was dressed in light brown pants and a t-shirt. “I can’t believe the way he looks,” she says. “Tattoos all over him. I don’t even know this kid. I don’t know him anymore.”  The tears that had filled her eyes slowly start to trickle down to her nose and roll off her cheeks. “My son was afraid of needles,” she says. “Now he’s shooting needles in his arm.”

While raising her son, Thomas-Spears went to jail for multiple charges including second degree assault, possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Her son came and visited her in the Warren County Jail a few times, but she didn’t like for him to see her like that. Whenever she would get sent off to jail, he went to stay with her parents.  At one point when she went to jail right before her son turned 18, she put him in her parent’s temporary custody. Her parents ended up losing custody of her son while she was away and he was put into foster care. Thomas-Spears believes that had he been brought up differently, he probably wouldn’t be in prison right now.

She blames herself for some of the troubles her son, now 28 years old, faced throughout his life as he currently sits in Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky for manufacturing methamphetamine four years ago. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“I blame myself a lot,” Thomas-Spears said. “Even though I’ve tried everything to prevent it. Yeah I blame myself. I was a fucked up mess. I didn’t have a clue how to be a parent.”

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Kentucky has the third highest female incarceration rate in the U.S. following Oklahoma and Idaho, according to a study released in 2014 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The rate has increased since 2004 from 68 per 100,000 to now 108. While the reason for a high incarceration rate of women, many of them mothers, varies from state to state the impact extends beyond women to their families, futures and communities as well.

“What we’ve seen, especially since the early 90’s, is there’s been a pretty big explosion in federal and state prison populations, and county jails too,” Greg Newburn, State Policy Director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums said.

For the past 20 years, female incarceration has been growing across the United States, making the U.S. the leading country with the highest incarceration rate. While there are more men in prison and the rate of male incarceration is higher than that of females, the growth rate of female incarceration has surpassed that of males. However, the growth rate of male incarceration has skyrocketed as well. As of 2008, two-thirds of mothers in state prisons prior to their incarceration lived with their children, many in single-parent households, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. When a mother is incarcerated, it is a double sentence: for her and her children.

“When you incarcerate a woman, you’re also impacting, directly and greatly, the lives of their children,” said Andrea James, Justice as Healing founder, who has also been incarcerated.

Many women are incarcerated because of untreated trauma–mainly from their childhood. When left untreated, it can cause them to become engaged in the criminal justice system, James said.

“A lot of people think, for instance, that when you send people to prison–they and the people who are connected to them–their lives automatically get better and that’s not true for the most part,” James said. “That’s completely false and the opposite usually happens.”

However, rather than developing programs for rehabilitation or counseling, some states choose incarceration as the answer to issues such as drug addiction rather than dealing with the underlying problem.

“Unfortunately I think that Kentucky in general doesn’t have the plans in place to deal with the problems we have,” said Amy Staples, Post-Conviction Branch Manager Department of Public Advocacy.

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For the majority of her incarceration, Leslie, a mother of two, was placed in a prison near her children. She was incarcerated in a county jail and three women’s prisons, Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women, Ross- Cash Center and Western Kentucky Correctional Complex, for a total of nine years for a crime she wishes to keep disclosed. Leslie is a pseudonym because she asked that her real name not be used. She describes her experience in prison as different from the norm, for multiple reasons. Unlike many prisoners, since her first prison placement was close to her children, they came to visit her every single weekend. After she was relocated, their visits became less frequent.  

When her daughter would come to visit, Leslie couldn’t comb or braid her daughter’s hair like she could at home. When her son would come to visit, she couldn’t wrap him up in her arms like she had been longing to do. Her kids were ages 15 and 12 when she went to prison. Before entering the room where they could finally embrace their mother, they were patted down by security guards. They sat at a table across from her while guards in the room watched over them.  No kisses. No touching. No privacy. One hug entering the room and one hug exiting the room was all that was allowed.

“You couldn’t have them sit in your lap or anything like that,” she said.  

Even though Leslie was fortunate to have family close by, that still didn’t make up for the moments happening in her family’s life she didn’t get to experience. Sixteenth birthdays, proms, boyfriend and girlfriends, high school graduations, college graduations, and her daughter’s engagement are only a few of the major milestones Leslie had to miss out on as her teenagers grew into young adults.

“Those are the things that you’ll never be able to recapture, and it’s not only hurting me, it’s devastating them beyond belief,” she said.  

Along with missing out on the good times in her family’s life, she also couldn’t be there for their bad times either–from the little moments to the big. She couldn’t make her kids soup while they lie sick in bed. She couldn’t take her kids to the hospital after they had broken a bone. She couldn’t help her kids memorize note cards as they studied all night for a test. Her children dealt with bigger issues too as they got older that she wishes she could have been there for. While away in prison, her son became addicted to drugs and went to rehab, twice.

“I wasn’t here for that,” she said as her voice started to crack while she fought to hold back tears. “And I wonder if I was, if I could have prevented the addiction. I feel like he turned to drugs as a way to cope with this whole situation and had it never happened, maybe he wouldn’t still be struggling with addiction.”

Before Leslie’s daughter turned 18 and was able to take custody of her little brother, Leslie’s parents were able to take care of them while she was away. However that’s not always an option when parents get sent away to prison. Leslie had a close friend in prison who had five children-all of whom were sent to foster care. Just a few months ago, her friend lost all five of her children after they were adopted out of the foster care system. They were separated and sent to three different homes.  

Although Leslie’s children were not forced into foster case, her parents faced hardships of their own as they took care of their grandkids, paid for phone calls and helped provide their daughter with the funds she needed while in prison. She spoke to her kids every single day on the phone while she was incarcerated. During those precious minutes, she and her kids would say everything they could think to share . She and her children cherished the little time they could hear each other’s voices. Most women in prison do not have the luxury of talking to their loved ones on the phone everyday, especially when that money can be spent elsewhere, such as items in the commissary.

“My parents spent their lifesavings on my attorney,” she said.  “The financial hardships on family is unbearable.”

When mothers lose custody of their children, they essentially lose a part of their identity as well. Being a mother is a respected and idolized figure in society. When mothers aren’t able to fulfill their role, this can cause a significant amount of psychological distress.

In 2011-12, 135,000 children in Kentucky, or 13 percent, had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives according to a report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  That is the highest percentage in the nation.  According to her research, Kathi Harp an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky in the College of Public Health said the best outcome for children is to be raised by one of their parents in a healthy environment.

However, that’s not always an option when a mother is incarcerated. A majority of women who are incarcerated are single mothers. Their children do not always have the option of living with their father while their mom is away so they are either sent to stay with their grandparents, other relatives, or put into foster care.

“When women are incarcerated, they can’t care for their children so they risk losing permanent custody,” Harp said.

Three colorful inflatables fill Thomas-Spears’ front yard: a slide, an obstacle course and a bouncy house. The sun’s getting ready to set as she finishes some last minute details to prepare for the big birthday party tomorrow and before her grandson comes over for the night. He is turning 7 years old. A car pulls up in her driveway, the passenger door opens and her grandson hops out with his eyes open wide. A smile spreads across his face as he darts toward the inflatables. He had no idea what his grandma had planned for him. She crawled up the slide with him and bounced all the way down.

She gets to see her grandson quite often especially since he lives around the corner from her house with his mother. Although he wasn’t able to see his dad for his birthday, he received a homemade card from him. The front had a picture of Tweety Bird colored with crayon and the inside had a hand written note and photograph. The note wishing him a happy birthday ended with “When daddy gets home I’ll make up for not being there, I promise…”

“I hope he means it this time,” she said. “Because his son can’t take much more of him not being there.”

Although Thomas-Spears rarely talks to her son, and their relationship has drifted apart over the years, she now puts all of her efforts into her relationship with her grandson.  She takes him hiking and fishing, watches him after school and makes crafts with him. She wasn’t always able to do those sorts of activities with her own son during his childhood. Thomas-Spears knows that her son’s incarceration will have a major impact on her grandson’s life, just as her incarceration did on her son’s life.

“My grandson don’t stand a chance,” she said.

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