For Tiheba Bain, being a mother to her two sons while she was imprisoned was nothing short of impossible. Parenting through written notes, collect calls, and too-short visitation hours, Bain — who served more than ten years in a federal prison after pleading guilty to a violent crime — missed watching her sons grow up.
"You can be torn between two worlds," she tells Bustle. "Because you're inside and you have to obey by the rules inside, and then you're outside trying to live a life as a parent and you really can't do both." Bain's sons were three and seven years old when she entered prison. "I made the choice to better myself inside," she says, "so when I come home, I can be a better parent and a better person outside."
"People don't understand that when you take away the primary parent from a child, that child goes into crisis as well."
Currently, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) isn't required to place inmates near their children, despite nearly 80 percent of women prisoners being mothers. As a result, 84 percent of parents in federal prisons are incarcerated more than 100 miles from their kids, according to a report from Rutger University's National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated. About 65 percent of women in U.S. prisons and jails have children under 18, with the majority of those women serving as the primary caretaker prior to incarceration.
Conditions for incarcerated mothers are so disturbing that four Democratic senators introduced legislation in July intended to reform how women are treated while incarcerated. The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, introduced by Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Richard Durbin of Illinois, is designed to reform how the federal prison system treats incarcerated women, from banning the shackling of pregnant women to placing inmates in facilities closer to their children.
In 2015, there were 111,495 women incarcerated in state or federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice. Most of them are non-violent, first-time offenders. And, they face unique challenges from the rest of the general population, such as higher rates of mental illness than male inmates and separation from their children — which can be especially detrimental for a child's well-being. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of children with a mother in prison more than doubled, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.
"It is a societal urgency that we try to keep those bonds strong."
"People don't understand that when you take away the primary parent from a child, that child goes into crisis as well," Booker tells Bustle. "Often they're taken care of by family members; they end up in foster care. If you have multiple children, they might be spread out to different places, and that's traumatic for the children. So, it is a societal urgency that we try to keep those bonds strong."
In addition to requiring the BOP to take children's location into account when choosing a facility for an inmate who is a parent, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act would also provide longer visitation hours, physical contact during visits, free phone calls so mothers can more easily call their children, parenting classes, and a pilot program for overnight visits.
"I've heard from so many women the indignity of having to make tough decisions: 'Am I going to scrape my pennies together to call my children ... or am I going to use my money for basic health care needs?'" Booker says. "My legislation says we should not be charging for those calls, we should not be charging for emails, we should not be charging for Skype calls and things like that, and we should be placing women closer to their children and facilitating more contact, not less."
"We are the forgotten behind those walls."
Booker says the legislation is based on dignity and providing rights to people stripped of their humanity. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, so we need to come together and understand, have a more courageous empathy now for women that are behind bars," he adds. He — and mothers who have been incarcerated — hope the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act will do just that.
"Video conferencing is great and we need that for people who are here and your family's here, but if you can place us closer to our families, that will give us a sense of humanization again," Bain says. "That will bring a sense of dignity and so forth, and I'm not forgotten. Because we are the forgotten behind those walls."