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Mothers leaving prison encounter uphill battle as they try reconnecting with family

Research has found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have lower recidivism rates. But for formerly incarcerated mothers, rebuilding relationships with their children can be incredibly challenging after they serve time behind bars. Amna Nawaz reports on two women trying to do just that as part of our "Searching for Justice" series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a given that strong family ties are critical, especially for mothers serving time in prison.

    Amna Nawaz has this story, part of our Searching For Justice series.

  • Melissa Trinidad:

    "I know you want a second chance, but I have given you 1,000."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is a letter from Melissa Trinidad's 17-year-old daughter.

  • Melissa Trinidad:

    "I will always love you. But I just can't, not now. You can't waltz back into my life and expect me — and expect to be my mom again."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    She received it soon after she was released from jail in September.

    Trinidad, a mother of three, is in recovery from heroin addiction. She says her problems began with prescription pain pills back in 2012.

  • Melissa Trinidad:

    Since then, I have been in recovery and then relapse, and in recovery and relapse. So, it's kind of been an up-and-downhill battle.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over those eight years, Trinidad has also been in and out jail, most recently serving 17 months for prescription fraud in Williamsburg, Virginia.

    Her three children, including her now estranged daughter, were placed with three separate relatives.

  • Melissa Trinidad:

    Me going to jail the very first time changed obviously my entire little family. I mean, it was broken up. Everybody was somewhere different. And it was traumatizing, especially for them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That trauma is becoming more common across America. Women make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population. An estimated 80 percent are mothers.

  • Brittany Barnett:

    On any given day in this country, over two million children have an incarcerated parent.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Brittany Barnett is a Dallas lawyer whose own mother spent two-and-a-half years in prison.

  • Brittany Barnett:

    I remember visiting my mom the first time and talking to her through the glass. And you're holding the phone to your ear. And I just remember pressing that phone so hard against my face, because I didn't want to miss the sound of my momma's voice.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Barnett founded a nonprofit called Girls Embracing Mothers to keep kids connected with incarcerated parents.

  • Brittany Barnett:

    I can attest from my personal experience, when one person goes to prison, the entire family goes to prison. But it's something different when it's your momma. It's a primal wound.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For 52-year-old Chalana McFarland, the wounds from missing her daughter Nia Cosby, are still fresh.

  • Chalana McFarland:

    It hurts even to this day that I wasn't able to be with her.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In 2005, McFarland, then an attorney, was convicted of mortgage fraud and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Cosby went to live with her grandparents. She was 4 years old.

  • Chalana McFarland:

    When she'd cry on the phone and say, "Mommy, I want to see you," I mean, my heart would just break. And there are a lot of ladies that decide that they would just rather not have the visit because it's just too hard.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What did you decide?

  • Chalana McFarland:

    I wanted every visit that I could have, because I have a 30-year sentence.

    And I can recall my daughter, when she got a little bit older — she may have been about 6. And she went up to the officer and she says: "Can we take my mommy to McDonald's for just a little while? I promise we will bring her right back."

    And the officer just told her: "No, sweetheart we can't let her go right now."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Cosby, too, has vivid memories of those visits.

  • Nia Cosby, Daughter:

    Whenever you go to visit, you're not allowed to, like, lay on them, snuggle them, cuddle them. You're allowed to, like, hug and, like, hold hands across the table. That's about it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    She's now 20 years old, a college sophomore, studying finance, and still struggles with the moments her mother missed.

  • Nia Cosby:

    I did dance. I played basketball. I did choir for many, many years. And I always wanted my mom to be able to see me do those things. I did want her to be a part of those things.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But last summer, an unexpected turn. As COVID-19 spread across the country, McFarland got word she was getting out.

  • Chalana McFarland:

    I have a number of respiratory issues that all make me extremely vulnerable to the virus.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In June of 2020, 15 years into her sentence, she was released to home confinement, and walked out of prison. Her daughter was outside waiting.

  • Nia Cosby:

    I saw the door open. And she walked out, and I just walked up to her and I just gave her the biggest hug.

  • Chalana McFarland:

    It just was probably the happiest moment of my life. I was just amazed. Just to see her and hug her and be able to touch her, it was wonderful.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Cosby studies and works in Tallahassee, Florida. McFarland was under home confinement outside Atlanta, monitored with an ankle bracelet.

  • Chalana McFarland:

    So, what else do you have to do today?

  • Nia Cosby:

    Oh, I feel like I have way more work.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, calls like this were often their only connection.

  • Chalana McFarland:

    We FaceTime nearly every day. And I'm always sending her pictures. Like, how does this makeup look, or do you like this outfit, or look at these shoes I bought. So, she's like my stylist now.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And on President Trump's final day in office, McFarland was among those granted clemency, so more in-person visits are now in the works.

    All these years later, the two have a lot to talk about.

  • Chalana McFarland:

    I feel the guilt and the pain and the shame of not having been there to raise my own daughter.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You feel guilty about that?

  • Chalana McFarland:

    Absolutely. She didn't deserve to have to serve the sentence with me.

  • Nia Cosby:

    We're not going to be able to go back in time and make up for those lost memories, but what we can do is build for the future.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Keeping that future stable, experts say, depends on rebuilding their bond. Research shows staying close with children helps reduce recidivism among incarcerated mothers.

  • Brittany Barnett:

    Many times women, mothers are the primary caregivers of children prior to their incarceration. And when that force is gone, it leaves a huge void.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Barnett says, especially for newly released mothers, the stakes are high.

  • Brittany Barnett:

    There are a lot of reentry hurdles that need to be overcome to ensure that mothers don't go back to prison and ensure that children are in stable environments, so that we can empower them and prevent a future generation of girls from entering the criminal legal system.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Melissa Trinidad is now living in a halfway house in Richmond, Virginia. She has a full-time job, and says she's been drug-free for more than a year-and-a-half.

  • Melissa Trinidad:

    Maybe we will get you a different alternative class next semester.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    She regularly visits with her 19-year-old son and Lexi (ph), her 12-year-old daughter. The rift with her older daughter remains.

    Five, 10 years from now, what do you think your family looks like?

  • Melissa Trinidad:

    I would like to have a relationship with all of my kids. I want them to be able to call me and tell me things and have a place for my kids to come, even if they're not living with me, just a place for them to come, and they know they're safe, because they haven't had that in a while with me, so…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Which is why she says she will keep working towards the life she couldn't give them before.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Heartbreaking.

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