by Brittany K. Barnett, Founder & President of Girls Embracing Mothers
I remember the day I graduated with a master’s degree in accounting as clearly as the day it happened. I proudly walked across the stage, at twenty-two years old, ready to start the next chapter of my life, with a high-paying job waiting for me. But deep down, there was a gaping hole in my chest.
Because for the first time in my life, my mother didn’t attend my graduation.
While I walked the stage in my cap and gown, my mother was on a hard cot in a concrete prison cell, being referred to only as Inmate #1374671.
My mother went to jail for the first time when I was in tenth grade. She was battling a severe drug addiction. Instead of being sent to prison, she needed treatment, rehabilitation.
Women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population in the United States. It has increased more than 700% between 1980 and 2019, and in Texas, specifically, 81% of women in Texas prisons are mothers.
When I started Girls Embracing Mothers (GEM), I did it because I remember vividly what it was like losing my mother to the prison system. And how torn I felt at the situation. GEM is an organization whose mission is to change that. Our focus is to empower girls with mothers in prison to break the cycle of incarceration and lead successful lives with vision and purpose.
BREAKING THE CYCLE, BUILDING THE BOND
I knew from firsthand experience that the suffering of children with parents in prison is unspeakable, and the threat of lasting damage from that trauma – emotional, social, personal – is very real. Through GEM, we create space for intergenerational healing for girls and their incarcerated mothers.
Every month, GEM takes girls on the 4.5-hour drive from Dallas, TX to the women’s prisons in Gatesville, TX for an enhanced 4-hour visitation with their mothers. GEM offers “more than just a visit,” by facilitating workshops and discussions between mothers and daughters that are transparent and nurturing, revolving around critical life issues while building the mother-daughter bond.
Through our partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, GEM is allowed to bring supplies for creative arts therapy and food for the girls to further bond with their mothers over a shared meal. Our visits take place in an intimate classroom setting which provides an opportunity for them to have natural and nurturing interactions.
Without GEM, many girls would be unable to see their mothers often—if at all.
No one emerges from the indignity of incarceration unscathed. My mother, sister, and I felt the deep devastation caused by incarceration. My mother suffered a drug addiction. Instead of treatment, she was punished. We punish addiction in this country, treating it as a moral flaw instead of an illness. Prison does not bring redemption, and it does not cure or treat addiction. That enormous victory belongs to my mother, not the system that tried to break her spirit. My mother got sober despite the suffering she endured in prison, not because of it.
This country’s criminal justice system is flawed in its design and must be completely transformed. To transform the system, we must completely reimagine what justice looks like.
Growing up with an incarcerated parent is a traumatic event that can have lasting effects on a child’s health and wellbeing. By creating a social safety net where our systems and agencies respond to issues such as trauma and the need for healing, we help to ensure that future barriers to success are mitigated.
It is critical that girls and women directly impacted by maternal incarceration are empowered and at the center of any movement and work surrounding them. Public education and changing the narrative around incarceration is key to creating change. In order to build safer and healthier communities, we must ensure that all people are seen and their stories heard. We must shift the paradigm and change the narrative to emphasize the humanity of all people.
Often their voices are missing from the conversation of transforming the justice system; their diverse stories and perspectives ignored. However, the human element is critical to driving impactful change.
Brittany K. Barnett is an attorney and entrepreneur. She has devoted her life to helping transform the criminal justice system. She is dedicated to empowering women and girls impacted by maternal incarceration. She has won freedom for numerous people unjustly sentenced – including seven clients who received executive clemency from President Barack Obama. Brittany is founder of several nonprofits and social enterprises, including the Buried Alive Project and Girls Embracing Mothers. She is also the author of A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom.
Photo Credit: Girls Embracing Mothers