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Friday, 11 August, 2000, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
New York's imprisoned mothers
By Rosie Goldsmith
Nadine Pecora and I chat about her children, her mother and her home back in Brooklyn. Nicholas, her eldest at 11, has just graduated successfully from his junior school, although he almost didn't: he's been depressed and listless.
Nadine is a loving mother to Nick, 4-year-old James and 18-month old Jadine. The problem is that she has to do all her mothering from behind bars; she and I are sitting opposite each other in prison. She is half-way through a sentence of 10 years to life for dealing drugs.
"I feel like I'm on another planet. Just feel like they've dropped me off and I've been abandoned" she says. She is in Albion Correctional Facility in northern New York State, up near Niagara Falls on the Canadian border.
Albion is too far away for her mother, Doreen - who looks after the three kids - and definitely too far for the kids, to make regular visits from the family home in Brooklyn. Nadine hasn't seen her children in nine months.
They are just some of the 2 million people behind bars in the U.S., which locks up more people than any other country. New York State alone - with 18 million people - incarcerates as many women as the whole of the United Kingdom with its population of 56 million. New York's 3,500 imprisoned women leave 10,000 children behind them - either in foster care, or as in Nadine's case, to be brought up by relatives.
The number of incarcerated women has doubled in a decade, as a result of mandatory sentencing and tough drug laws
Before making the long trip to visit Nadine I spent the day with her family in Brooklyn. There are photos of Nadine and her children stuck on the fridge door.
Doreen shows me the anguished poems Nadine writes to her. "She was never in trouble. This was her first offence," Doreen says. "She didn't commit a violent crime, and you got murderers and rapists that are out in 2 or 3 years."
Albion has some family projects and therapy sessions but it has a reputation for austerity and toughness. Mothers there try to keep in touch with their children through long letters, pricey reverse-charge calls and rare visits.
But the reality is that is tough to maintain family bonds. "Your whole family is incarcerated when a woman leaves, because she's more than likely the backbone of the family," says Precious Bedell, recently released after 19 years in prison, and now a coordinator for a prisoners' rights group, the Osborne Association.
"Women," he says, "because of the enormous freedoms in this country, and this state in particular, and because of the enormous economic growth, have become much more involved in crime." He adds that although many imprisoned women may have children, that does not mean they were good mothers.
Being tough on crime has proved politically popular. However there is a small but growing movement for change. As the numbers of incarcerated mothers have risen, so has the number of activists and charities trying to deal with the problem.
I met some of them: child welfare specialists, lawyers, drugs counsellors, psychotherapists and a group of Catholic nuns running a project called Hour Children. They provide a full service: children's homes, family sessions in prisons, help for families when mothers are released, and much more.
These groups have tiny budgets and can only help a few families. Yet Sister Celia of Hour Children says helping even one woman has a ripple effect - benefiting their entire family and society too.
The concern is that when mothers are in prison, their children are more likely to themselves become criminals, creating a new generation of inmates.
Also, research has shown that if women are given more contact with their children they themselves are less likely to reoffend when they are released. But a new federal law could prevent this entirely.
Since most women in New York prisons are held for more than 15 months, many could be cut off from their children forever, according to Martha Raimon of the Women's Prison Association.
Nadine Pecora is lucky. She has her mum. Thanks to Doreen the children are loved and well looked after and will be there waiting for her when she's freed. But there are still at least 5 years to go.
Doreen says it's a struggle. She and the kids live on $184 social welfare a fortnight. She is doing this for the children, for Nadine. "She misses them," Doreen says. "She had them for a while and then they were taken away."
Also in this edition of Crossing Continents, inside the "Boston Miracle" of Paul Evans, the city's much-admired police chief, and a visit to the court where the judge, jury and advocates are all teenagers.
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