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Estimates show that over five million children in the U.S. have had an incarcerated parent. As the number of women in American prison soars, little is known about the impact on children they leave behind. Amna Nawaz went to Texas to meet the children and report on how an organization, Girls Embracing Mothers, is connecting girls and their mothers. It’s part of our "Searching for Justice" series.
Estimates show that more than five million children in the U.S. have had an incarcerated parent. As the number of women behind bars in America soars, little is known about the impact on the children women leave behind.
Amna Nawaz went to Texas to meet some of those children and report on how one organization is keeping young girls connected with their mothers.
It's part of our ongoing series Searching For Justice.
How was your day, mom?
It was good. How was yours?
It was good.
For one hour every month…
Later, you better show me your outfit, OK?
… this is 12-year-old Lila Edwards' only contact with her mom, Lena Acosta (ph).
You look beautiful today.
Thank you, momma.
You always look beautiful.
Thank you. You too, mom.
Lila was only 2 in 2011 when her mom was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder. Lila now lives in Dallas with her grandparents and nine other family members. Her mom's prison is two hours away in Gatesville, Texas.
She hasn't been able to visit at all during the pandemic.
Do when you're going to see her next?
Is that hard to think about sometimes?
Staying connected over video calls is hard, but on this day, Lila was all smiles.
Excited to talk about a unique camp she's been attending for the last few years.
I'm really excited.
Amna Nawaz How long ago did you start packing?
Two weeks ago.
Why are you so excited for camp?
Because it's really fun over there.
Organized by the nonprofit Girls Embracing Mothers, or GEM, the camp brings together about 20 girls, all of whom have mothers that are either currently or formerly incarcerated.
Brittany K. Barnett:
Children with incarcerated parents are among the most at-risk, yet least visible populations of children.
Brittany Barnett is an attorney in Dallas and the founder of GEM. Her own mother spent two-and-a-half years in the Texas state prison system on drug charges.
What are these girls missing while their mothers are in prison that you're trying to help them get?
Love, empowerment, encouragement. I remember visiting my mom for the first time in prison and not being able to touch her, because we had a visit through the glass, and just being devastated of my mom being so close, yet so far away.
Across the country, women make up the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population. Over the last 40 years, the number of women behind bars has skyrocketed by more than 700 percent.
In Texas, which locks up more women than any other state, roughly 80 percent of female inmates are mothers. Barnett says, despite those numbers, very little is known about the children of incarcerated mothers.
We don't hear a lot about them. There's a lack of data. And even the number of children who have a parent incarcerated in Texas, we don't know.
I don't understand how this country can invest $80 billion a year in incarceration, and not track the outcomes and the data and the collateral consequences of mass incarceration, which are children.
Welcome to GEM Camp!
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
The GEM Camp is a refuge held in the woods just outside of Dallas. The goal, Barnett says, is to show these girls, some as young as 7, that they're not alone.
I'm going into fourth grade, and I have been in GEMs, I think, since was about 6.
Hi. I'm Zoe. I'm 14 and I'm going into the 10th grade.
Experts say this kind of support is crucial to breaking the cycle of incarceration. Children with incarcerated parents are at greater risk of dropping out of school, of experiencing mental health issues, and homelessness, all factors that also put them at greater risk of being incarcerated themselves.
But every year, for three summer days, this camp is their home. In many ways, the camp is like any other summer camp. The girls bunk in cabins. They do trust-building exercises. They go swimming. And, of course, there's a campfire and s'mores.
But when I sat down with a group of girls, they shared what this camp family really means to them.
I have been in GEMs for three or four years.
Emma Stubblefield is 17. When her mom went to prison five years ago, the GEM program kept them connected with regular visits pre-pandemic. Her mother was released in 2019.
We were really close. And then she went to prison and it just kind of like fell apart. And then, with GEMs, I was able to like get back with her. And now we're really, really close.
This is Chloe Kerr. She's 14.
How old were you when your mom went to prison?
You were 3. And how long was she inside?
She was in until I was 12.
On the outside, like, when you tell people that your mom's in jail, they automatically think that she's a bad person. But everybody here understands.
What do they understand?
That just because you did something bad doesn't mean you're a bad person.
The counselors here understand too. They're all volunteers, and many were formerly incarcerated, including Brittany's mom, Evelyn Fulbright, now a nurse at a drug rehabilitation center.
She was released nearly 13 years ago, in 2008. But, to this day, she still remembers the inmate number given to her by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
A bittersweet number, 1374671.
But no matter what my TDC number was, I was still a mom. And it's great to have support. It's great to not feel alone.
And we watch these girls when they come into the program, when they meet other little girls that are going through the same thing. We watch them not be so timid or shy or ashamed.
Today, Sharanda Jones runs the camp kitchen. She's been volunteering here since she was released more than five years ago, after serving 16 years of a life sentence for a drug conspiracy conviction.
It makes me think about my daughter and the times that I was gone, because, when I left, she was 8.
So that's a different feeling, these little girls. And a lot of time, when you are at school, you're ashamed. You're not talking about this. So, to bring them together like this and make it complete for them, like, understanding each other, makes my day.
She's free now because Barnett fought for her, advocating for six years to get her released, until President Barack Obama granted Jones clemency in 2015.
Barnett documented that fight in her memoir last year,"A Knock at Midnight." In total, Barnett has helped free more than 30 of her clients facing life sentences for drug crimes.
I see her, and I have such a mixed batch of emotions and just happiness that she's free, sadness to even think that the laws of this country would allow her to be sentenced to life and to think about what that means.
Sharanda Jones was serving the same amount of time in prison as the Unabomber. What sense does that make?
The camp is a source of comfort for the girls, but counselors push them to consider what they're really capable of.
Over an hour after her first attempt at archery, Lila learns what she can do.
And 17-year-old Natalie Elizardo pens her first lines of poetry ever.
I am strong, I am not an object to be locked away, but a woman who pushes through these challenges and comes out stronger. I am my mother's daughter. I am Natalie.
Natalie's mother, Sonya Lopez (ph), served six months in prison and was released in 2016, just two months before she passed away.
Well, my mom went through a lot of things raising us. She raised five kids alone. So she really had to find strength in herself to be able to take care of us.
And she passed that down to you?
You know that about yourself?
Does it feel good to write this on paper and say that?
Yes. I have been through, like, a lot of hard things in my life, so I like to believe that I'm stronger than before I had to go through them.
Barnett knows the camp is an escape. After three days here, the girls go home, and the struggle to stay connected to their mothers continues.
We can only do what we can to help reduce the trauma that is a result of maternal incarceration. And the bond and the love between the mothers and daughters in our program is unconditional.
You know, they are our mommas. They are much more than a seven-digit prison number assigned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
All right, big hug, big hug, big hug.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Dallas.
Watch the Full Episode
Amna Nawaz serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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