“Police should first ask, ‘Is there someone who can come get your kids?’” Stefanie Moore tells the packed audience of about 100 people assembled in the old Shaare Emeth Temple in St. Louis, Missouri. They are gathered on this last Friday in March to learn more about “women and reentry,” and by ‘reentry’ one means what happens after mothers serve their debt to society and rejoin the communities they once belonged to.
Moore is discussing what should happen in an ideal world when a mother or primary caretaker is arrested. Heads nod as those seated around circular conference tables take notes and listen. Those who are gathered to hear Moore, a case manager and family support specialist for the Center for Women in Transition, include social workers, college students, entrepreneurs, Missouri Department of Justice personnel, and women who have reintegrated back into society after serving their time, among others.
Women’s Incarceration at Record Levels in the United States
The “rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an Montgomery, Alabama organization committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States. Moreover, of the 2,879,000 women jailed in the U.S. each year, 80 percent are mothers and 150,000 of those women are pregnant, per the Prison Policy Initiative. The rising tide of women in prison has a devastating effect on families as women most often serve as the primary caregivers of children under the age of 18.
What makes the mass incarceration of women doubly damning is that children of the incarcerated are more likely to “engage in criminal activity, develop drug addictions, lag behind their peers academically, and suffer from behavioral issues attributed to attachment disorders.” In fact, infant mortality rates are almost 30 percent higher for those with an incarcerated parent.
While there are occasionally innovative programs in the United States which allow infants and young children to stay with their mothers who are incarcerated, such initiatives are the exception to the rule. Yet, around the world, many other countries such as Peru and Costa Rica see the child’s need to attach with an incarcerated mother and, in some instances such as Bolivia, with an incarcerated father as a human rights issue.
Locking Up Nonviolent Offenders
Study after study also shows women prisoners face different problems than men. According to the EJI, “Women are more likely to have a history of abuse, trauma, and mental health problems when they enter prison, but treatment is often inadequate or unavailable in prisons.”
Women are more likely to commit non-violent crimes, such as drug or property crimes, or are arrested for retaliating against abusers, penalized for the increasing criminalization of school-aged girls’ misbehavior, or the criminalization of sex work, which disproportionately punishes sex workers instead of those, most often men, who hire or profit off of sex workers.
How Unequal Pay Further Hurts Women Rejoining Society
What made this gathering especially important is that women face persistent and unique barriers to reentering society, from finding a safe place to sleep at night where children would eventually be allowed to visit to finding a job that pays enough to save up for first and last month’s rent and reunification and legal costs, which are many when working through the courts to restore terminated parental rights, or TPR as the experts assembled routinely called it.
Women already earn significantly less than men, but factor in the stigmatizing labels of ‘ex-felon’ or ‘ex-con’ on a job application, and a woman’s ability to earn a living wage after serving a prison sentence almost becomes insurmountable.
The Problem with ‘Ex-Offender’
Some folks still use the problematic term ‘ex-offender,’ a question one of Dr. Barbara Baumgartner’s students zeroes in on while questioning Anne Precythe, the Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections. Baumgartner organized the day-long symposium, “Gender Impacts: Mothers and Reentry” and serves as the associate director of the Washington University Prison Education Project and as a teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
To Precythe’s credit, she paused and told the inquiring student that the term ‘ex-offender’ was just habit, and she was willing to think about using a different, less negative term moving forward.
A North Carolina native who joined the Missouri Department of Corrections in February 2017, Precythe gives off an awww-shucks, I’m-just-one-of-the-gals persona–she is warm, cracks jokes easily (“So, it seems I’m the last thing between y’all and Friday,” she acknowledges at the end of the day), describes herself as a ‘data nerd,’ references Norway as a corrections model, and admits she threw up a little bit in her mouth when she heard someone in an earlier panel refer to the DOC as a place that ‘warehouses people.’
“Corrections is so much more than warehousing individuals,” Precythe says. “Our job is to help people to be better… for them to figure out what better is for them.”
“Gone are the days of people picking up rocks and moving them to the other side of the yard.”
Reframing the Purpose of Prisons
Stacey Lannert, assistant public defender for the City of St. Louis and someone who knows intimately what the re-entry process looks like as a woman who served 18 years in prison for killing Thomas Lannert in 1990 after testifying she had endured years of sexual abuse from Lannert, her father. Lannert was pardoned by Eric Greitens in the final hours of his Missouri governorship on June 1, 2018.
“I was approved to be an attorney by the State Bar of Missouri,” Lannert says, “but I couldn’t work at Walmart.”
Lannert asks the audience, “We’re great on punishment, but where are we with rehabilitation?”