'They Love Their Kids': Texas Lawmakers Want To Send Fewer Moms To Prison

May 8, 2019
Originally published on May 8, 2019 3:31 am

For the eight-and-a-half years she spent in prison, Kristan Kerr looked forward to one thing every month: a visit from her daughter, Chloe. Visit by visit, she watched Chloe grow from a toddler to nearly a teenager.

"I just watched her grow all the way up," Kerr says. "One visit, she couldn't read, and then the next visit she was reading something to me."

Convicted for aggravated robbery in 2011 – she was the driver — Kerr says she wasn't making good choices back then, and it meant missing out on a lot.

She and Chloe would talk on the phone and send letters and visit, but she says you can't do the physical, nurturing part of parenting from prison. Even though Kerr trusted that Chloe was being cared for by her grandmother, she says you never stop worrying about your kid.

There are more than 225,000 women behind bars, according to the most recent 2017 federal statistics. Half are in state and federal prisons, the other half in local jails. It's actually a slight decrease, coming after years of ballooning incarceration among women.

From 1980 to 2016, the country saw a 700% increase in the number of women behind bars. Exactly how many are mothers isn't well tracked, but a survey of women in Texas prisons showed more than 80% of them are moms.

Lawmakers across the country are now considering ways to send fewer moms with minor children to jail and prison, and to help preserve parent-child bonds when they're locked up.

In Texas, lawmakers are considering bills that would promote diversion programs, probation or other community-based sentences over jail or prison time to avoid breaking up families. Tennessee recently passed legislation to do that.

Kristan Kerr says she watched her daughter grow up while she was in prison. "Every visit, I'd say you're getting big, you've grown," Kerr says. "I just watched her grow all the way up."
Christopher Connelly / KERA

There were some tough times for Chloe, who's now 12. It was hard seeing other kids with their moms, but she says it's been good since her mother was released in October. Not that it's been easy, exactly.

"It's been a little bit challenging because I've still got to get used to her, I've got to learn her, get comfortable with her," Chloe says. But, she adds, "I'm happier now that she's here, that I get to see her every day."

"Many of the women, once they get arrested, are scrambling to find someone to take care of their kids," says Michele Deitch, who studies prison issues at the University of Texas at Austin. "So a lot of kids get shuttled from place to place, and if they're not able to find a place for them, then many of the kids end up in foster care."

Other states are looking at incarcerating parents closer to their children, and expanding visitation so kids can see mom or dad more often. Incarcerated parents who have stronger relationships with their kids, Deitch says, behave better while inside, and are less likely to commit future crimes after they're released.

"It's really critical for the parent to not lose touch with their child, and to stay involved and to feel like they can make a difference in the child's life to be aware of what's happening to them," Deitch says.

Growing up with their incarcerated parents can be damaging to their children. That's part of the reason children with incarcerated parents are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system themselves, according to Dallas lawyer Brittany Barnett. She launched Girls Embracing Mothers, a nonprofit aimed at improving outcomes for girls and their incarcerated mothers, after her own mother was sent to prison.

[T]he children are the hidden victims of their parents' crimes. - Brittany Barnett, Girls Embracing Mothers

"Even though I was a young adult when my mom went to prison, my sister and I were devastated by her incarceration," Barnett says. "It not only impacts the person in prison, but the children are the hidden victims of their parents' crimes."

Kristan and Chloe Kerr took part in the Girls Embracing Mothers program. Barnett says she's optimistic about reform legislation, but hopes it's just a first step toward a more effective and less punitive justice system.

"These women aren't bad women, they made bad choices," Barnett says.

Texas Rep. James White, a Republican, says the crimes women commit are often different from their male peers. He heads the House Committee on Corrections, and introduced a bill to address issues faced by women in prison, including pregnancy and childbirth.

Maybe they're stuck with addiction but that's a sickness, but that doesn't mean they don't want their children. - Kristan Kerr

"I hear a lot of offenses that are linked to domestic violence, so they may stab their spouse that's abusing them and their kids," White says, "young women that have experienced repeated sexual abuse from a family member, women who have fallen into the trap of addiction."

Researchers agree that a history of trauma underlies a lot of the criminal behavior that lands women in jails and prisons. Kristan Kerr says many of the moms in prison with her struggled with psychological and behavioral issues.

"Women, they love their kids," she says. "Maybe they're stuck with addiction but that's a sickness, but that doesn't mean they don't want their children."

Since she's been out, Kerr has been working through a list of goals she set for herself to rebuild her life. She's got a job, got her driver's license, and she's spending lots of time with her daughter.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The number of women in prisons and jails around the country has ballooned over the decades. It grew more than 700% from 1980 to 2016. Many of these women are mothers. From Fort Worth, KERA's Christopher Connelly reports on how Texas state lawmakers are rethinking motherhood in prison.

CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: For the 8 1/2 years she spent in prison, Kristan Kerr looked forward to one thing every month - a visit from her daughter Chloe.

KRISTAN KERR: Every visit, I'll be like, you done grown. You getting big. You getting tall. And then, like, one visit, she couldn't read. And then the next visit, she came and she was reading something to me. So that was special for me, too.

CONNELLY: Kristan was convicted for aggravated robbery in 2011 as the getaway driver. She says she wasn't making good choices back then. Kristan missed out on a lot of her daughter's life. She says they talk on the phone and send letters and visit, but you can't really do the nurturing part of parenting from prison. Chloe was well taken care of by her grandmother, but Kristan says you never stop worrying about your kid. There were some tough times for Chloe, too.

KERR: How did you feel knowing that I wouldn't coming home for a while?

CHLOE: I don't know.

KERR: Well, your first memory of your momma not coming for home for a while, how did you feel?

CHLOE: 'Cause I used to see other kids with their moms, and then I used to just think about it.

CONNELLY: There are more than 100,000 women in state and federal prisons. The number of incarcerated women doubles when you count local jails, too. Exactly how many of them are mothers isn't well-tracked, but in Texas, a recent survey showed that more than 80% of women in state prison are moms like Kristan. That's prompted lawmakers here and in other states to consider bills that would promote probation or other community-based sentences over jail or prison time to avoid breaking up families. Michele Deitch studies prison issues at the University of Texas, Austin.

MICHELE DEITCH: Many of the women, once they're arrested, are scrambling to find someone to take care of their kids. So a lot of these kids get shuttled from place to place. And if they're not able to find a place for them, then many of the kids end up in foster care.

CONNELLY: Other states are looking at incarcerating parents closer to their children and expanding visitation so kids can see mom or dad more often. The effect on kids from having a parent in prison can be severe. They're more likely to commit crimes themselves later in life, but Deitch says building a strong parent-child bond is critical to preventing that.

DEITCH: At the same time, it's really critical for the parent not to lose touch with their child and to stay involved and to feel like they can make a difference in the child's life, to be aware of what's happening to them.

CONNELLY: As the chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee, Republican Representative James White hears from a lot of women who've been in prison. And he introduced a bill to address a number of issues they face, including pregnancy and childbirth behind bars.

JAMES WHITE: Each one that I talked to - I asked them about their offense.

CONNELLY: White says the crimes that women commit are often different from their male peers.

WHITE: I hear a lot of offenses linked to domestic violence, so they may stab their spouse that's abusing them and their kids - young women that have experienced repeated sexual abuse from a family member, women that have fallen into the trap of addiction.

CONNELLY: Researchers say a history of trauma underlies a lot of the criminal behavior that lands women in jails and prisons. That's why Kristan Kerr says if lawmakers want to help moms in prison, rehabilitation has to include counselling and drug treatment.

KERR: Women - they love their kids. They just might be stuck in addiction. And it's just a sickness, but that don't mean they don't want their children, you know what I'm saying? So maybe they can come up with something that help with that.

CONNELLY: Kristan has been working through a list of goals she set for herself to rebuild her life after prison. She's got a job, got her driver's license and she's spending lots of time with her daughter. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Connelly in Fort Worth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.