I’ve spent the past two and a half years volunteering in women’s prisons. When people ask what exactly I do there I answer: “I listen.” Yes, of course I do a lot of other things. Motherhood Beyond Bars has grown exponentially since we began as a small group of students just trying to get something in place to help these women. Lately there has been a lot more teaching, more coordinating, more putting out fires, and less being able to actually sit down and listen. Yet, it’s the stories I’ve heard that I can’t shake, the stories that make me go back to prison again and again.
Every woman has a story to tell. Some stories are joyful, like that of a mother who although she hadn’t seen her children in over a year, was able to connect with them through a tic tac toe game played entirely through the mail. Some start out sad, but are punctuated by points of light. I worked with a mother who gave birth while incarcerated and was distraught over not being able to breastfeed this last baby. A few months after her son was born she came to me with a question: “Miss Bethany, how long does breast milk keep in the freezer?” I told her that breast milk can last up to a year if properly frozen and she grinned ear to ear; her mother had found breast milk she had frozen from her second to youngest child. In a way, her baby got to breastfeed after all.
Although I hear happy stories, most of the stories I hear are full of sadness, trauma, and defeat. Stories about coming to prison follow a typical pattern. Abuse occurs early in the home, causing her to run way. She usually ends up on the streets and is either snapped up by the sex industry or exposed to a world of drugs and crime through an older boyfriend. Or, often enough, both. I’ve heard stories of multiple gang rapes, stories of betrayal, of drug-infused crime sprees. All of the stories I hear end with a woman in prison and a family shattered.
Yet somehow, through all of the trauma, the addiction, the neglect, these women cling to hope for themselves and their children. They are hungry to better their lives and yearn for the chance to prove themselves. For some, all it takes is for someone to truly believe in them, in their potential. Many have never had that in their lives. Others must slowly battle their way through PTSD, depression, addiction, and lack of prospects. These women bravely face obstacles most of us can only imagine.
The highest honor I have ever received is to be part of these women’s journeys. I am inspired by their love for their children and how fiercely they strive to do better for them. I am ashamed of my own petty complaints and discomforts in front of their suffering. Most of all, I feel blessed to be able to give what little I can.
If you would like to be a part of an incarcerated woman’s journey towards wellbeing, consider volunteering with or donating to Motherhood Beyond Bars.