As we know from the fable of the Monkey’s Paw and other folklore, to have one’s wishes granted can be a terrible thing. Imagine a little girl all dressed up, dreaming about her future, thinking, “I wish I can be in the movies some day.” Imagine her ten or fifteen years later, captured on film in a way she never expected, in a nightmare story that proves how you really, really must be careful what you wish for. Too many former little girls now appear in documentary films about imprisoned women.
Most are there for non-violent offenses, as a direct result of mandatory sentencing laws, which stem from the Insane War on Some Drugs. A mother lets a kid borrow the car and sleep on the couch, which translates into letting her vehicle be used in the commission of a criminal act and harboring a fugitive. Or it might be a man who gets her in trouble, even when she doesn’t have a clue about what he’s up to. Answering the telephone can get a person sent away for being accessory to a crime. A woman is susceptible to having her place used to store contraband, and to having drugs planted there by creative law enforcers.
A woman can be held accountable for the actions of anyone she lives with, visits, opens the door to, or even just talks with. Because the laws are so broad and all-encompassing, first-time and minor infractions are inflated into conspiracy. Theoretically, 3,000 people could be convicted for a single drug transaction if they all happened to be in the room when it went down, because even if they never touch the product, each person is responsible for the full quantity involved.
When a pregnant woman’s life falls apart to the extent of incarceration, chances are it was a high-risk pregnancy already. In most states, inmates are not tested for diseases like AIDS that can be passed on to a baby, and don’t even get regular prenatal exams. What they do get is an experience of labor and birth that includes shackles and handcuffs throughout.
Children shouldn’t pick up the phone and hear, “This call is from an inmate.” No kid should have to be writing commendation letters to a judge to try and get Mom out of the Big House. Of the women in prison, more than three-quarters are mothers. The median sentence served by a woman is 60 months. Even if there are relatives, they don’t always have the space or the budget to take in extra kids. If a child spends 15 months in foster care, parental rights can be terminated. Kids are lost to the system and set on paths that guarantee their membership in the next generation of captives. How many women, at a cost of more than $40,000 per year per inmate, are amputated from their families, to devastating effect, while the entire social fabric unravels?
For an ex-convict mother, even if she hasn’t lost the kids, the outlook is grim – no public housing and no food stamps, no job and, if she dares to aspire that high, no financial aid toward education. Women compare this situation to being branded for life. Branded not according to the new meaning, of becoming an identifiable product, but in the old-fashioned sense of being scarred with an ineradicable mark that means eternal alienation from society.
Because of the heavy permanent consequences that threaten entire families, women caught in the legal crossfire become human bargaining chips. Danny says, “The feds will charge a whole neighborhood, take away a hundred people or more. Sometimes you’ll see three generations of a family sitting in MDC-LA, either without bail or on bail set impossibly high, all part of a ‘gang case.’ Meanwhile, their houses are being burglarized by neighbors and former friends.”
Women are pressured to either become government witnesses or never see the kids again until they’re grownups. Men will quickly agree to plead guilty to anything the government desires, in order to get the wives/mothers/grandmothers cut loose, or at least shorter sentences. If you think money and dope are powerful incentives, wait until you’ve seen the strength of motherly love. Imagine the anguish in the heart of any woman caught in this trap, faced with a choice between talking and keeping silent, between betraying other loved ones and losing her kids. This sucks, because families and friends really need to depend on each other. The cynical manipulation of personal ties is a particularly ugly offshoot of the snitch culture, with the attendant erosion of trust and destruction of community.