December 28, 2019
By Dan Levin
GATESVILLE, Texas — Every month, Lila Edwards wakes up early for a two-hour road trip with a group of girls that ends with them walking single file through a metal detector. Inside an empty classroom, Lila eagerly and anxiously awaits Inmate 01740964.
When the inmate, a woman serving a 40-year sentence for murder, walked in during a recent visit, Lila collapsed into her arms and didn’t let go for more than a minute.
These monthly visits at a minimum security prison are the only times that Lila, who is 10 years old and in the fifth grade, touches her mother.
“Sometimes I ask, ‘Mom, when are you going to come home?’” Lila said. “She says soon and tells me to pray more to God about it. I pray for my mom every night.”
A toddler when her mother was convicted of stabbing to death a woman who was also dating Lila’s father, Lila will be an adult when her mother, Lena Acosta, is eligible for parole in 2030.
Ms. Acosta says she regrets that her own actions from nearly a decade ago have left her daughter in this position today. “The person I was was horrible,” she said, adding that her faith has helped her change.
As the prison population in the United States skyrocketed since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has grown by more than 750 percent, at a rate twice that of men. The increase, according to criminologists, has been driven by a rise in the imprisonment of white women for property and drug-related crimes. And as the population has risen, so, too, has the number of children growing up with a mother or father behind bars.
At least 5 million children — or about 7 percent of American youth — have had an incarcerated parent, with black, poor and rural minors disproportionately affected, according to a 2015 report that examined federal data.
The consequences are exacting, from unstable homes to lasting effects on well-being. Studies show that children in many ways share the sentences with their parents: They face increased risks of psychological and behavioral problems, insufficient sleep and poor nutrition, and higher odds of entering the criminal justice system themselves.
The toll it takes on children is often far more severe when the inmate is their mother. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons, and nearly 80 percent of those in jail, have minor children, and most are their primary caretaker.
“To have a mother in prison is like a primal wound,” said Brittany Barnett, founder of Girls Embracing Mothers, the organization that takes Lila for the monthly prison visits. The program, which started six years ago, has worked with 52 incarcerated women, all but two of them single mothers.
“Once the mom goes to prison, it really devastates the home and family,” said Ms. Barnett, whose mother spent time in prison.
No state locks up more women than Texas, where four out of five women in state prison are mothers, according to a 2017 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The average sentence is nine years for a drug conviction and more than eight years for theft offenses, the organization said, a significant portion of a child’s life.
In response to the growing number of incarcerated mothers, and amid growing public pressure over a series of inmate deaths and scandals involving the treatment of imprisoned women, Texas lawmakers this year passed a series of so-called dignity laws to better accommodate female prisoners.
Jeremy Desel, the director of communications at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the prison system’s visitation policy allowed small children to be held by their parents during the two-hour visits, guidelines that were “intended to protect everyone involved.”
“The first and foremost priority always has to be security,” he said, adding, “there is room for discretion in that policy.”
The department has a program that allows mothers to bond with their newborn children for several weeks after their birth, Mr. Desel said, and the department is open to suggestions that might come from the mandated study.
‘Mom’s Missing All These Milestones’
Texas is among eight states where the women’s prison population has surged — with more than 12,000 serving time, the majority of them for nonviolent crimes — while the number of incarcerated men has fallen, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts research group.
Many of those women are locked up in Gatesville, a rural city about 40 miles west of Waco that is home to nearly 16,000 people and five of the eight women’s prisons and state jails operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
One recent morning, donkeys grazed in a field outside the Linda Woodman State Jail as 22 girls stepped off the Girls Embracing Mothers bus. Most of their mothers had been transported from a nearby prison.
To participate in the program, inmates must have had no infractions for at least six months. In addition to monthly visits, the mothers are counseled on ways to bond with their daughters, including how to talk openly about what led to their imprisonment.
On this recent visit, the women and their daughters ate cupcakes and listened to lessons about building their self-esteem.
Malishia Booker, who is serving a 20-year-sentence for aggravated assault of a public servant and other offenses, tried to give her daughter Jessicah advice on filling out college financial aid forms. But there was little she could offer besides encouragement.
“I feel so helpless,” said Ms. Booker, 46, the mother of seven children, four of whom who were living together in an apartment outside Dallas.
Jessicah, 19, described the latest sibling tensions at home and the merlot-colored dress she wore to senior prom.
“Mom’s missing all these milestones,” Jessicah said tearfully as her sister Ja’Bria, 18, slouched in a chair across the table, looking glum. “We’re not mad at her anymore, just sad.”
The ramifications of lengthy prison terms often follow mothers long after they are released, from financial hardships to damaged relationships with their children.
Karen Keith — who spent nearly three years in Texas prisons after she fell behind on $1,200 monthly restitution payments for an embezzlement charge — has struggled since her release in 2015 to find housing because, she said, many landlords reject those with criminal records.
Even more painful, she said, is that her family has cut off all contact.
“I have not seen my three children and three grandchildren in six years,” said Ms. Keith, 62, who said she stole $143,000 to pay for her son’s medical care, which had maxed out her health insurance coverage. “They don’t want anything to do with me.”
Maggie Luna, a single parent whose first prison term began in 2011 after she was convicted of writing bad checks, has lost custody of her three children. A Texas judge terminated her parental rights in 2014 after she failed a drug test, she said. Unable to afford a lawyer to file an appeal, she said, the ruling sent her into a downward spiral of drug addiction that led to another prison sentence.
Her youngest daughter was adopted, her 9-year-old son is in a psychiatric hospital, and her oldest, 13-year-old Delilah, is living with Ms. Luna’s mother.
Delilah was in kindergarten when her mother was first sentenced. For a while, she and her siblings lived with Delilah’s father, who occasionally took them to visit their mother.
Both mother and daughter can still recall the pain of those visits.
“The guards would say no touching,” said Delilah, who at the time was 5 and too old to sit on her mother’s lap. “We’d have to sit on opposite sides. It was really hard for me to understand.”
The most searing moments came at the end of each visit, when guards escorted Ms. Luna out of the room as her distraught children looked on.
“My son’s screaming and there’s nothing I can do,” recalled Ms. Luna, 39, who has been out of prison for two years.
Since 2016, parental incarceration has played a role in nearly 20,000 children entering the state’s foster care system every year, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard the guttural cries of women who got served papers to terminate their parental rights,” said Lauren Johnson, an outreach coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, who was imprisoned three times for crimes related to drug addiction. “Losing your children is the ultimate price to pay.”
Absence Takes Its Toll
Lila Edwards was just a year old when her mother, then 19, clutched a kitchen knife outside her boyfriend’s apartment complex, watching as he talked with a woman who had been competing for his affections. When the woman ran up to her and took a swing, Ms. Acosta fatally stabbed her, according to court records.
“That’s a night I’ll never forget,” said Ms. Acosta’s mother, Helen Garcia, 51, who is raising Lila and four other grandchildren.
Lila, whose favorite subject is math, rarely acts out, but her mother’s absence has taken a toll. “Everyone else at school has their mom,” Ms. Garcia said.
Lila has told only her best friend about her mother’s incarceration, and she did not reveal it until last year.
When Lila joined Girls Embracing Mothers in 2017, she had not seen her mother in three years. She arrived at the prison with her hair in braids, but she later asked her grandmother to leave it natural so her mother could comb it.
Lila has not missed a monthly visit since. Together, she and her mother have made keepsakes: pillowcases, a dreamcatcher that now hangs in Lila’s bedroom, and an origami box filled with Lila’s handwritten praises to her mother, which sits on a shelf in her prison cell.
For Ms. Acosta, the visits, which last four hours, are a rare chance to bond with the daughter who is growing up without her.
“It’s a great relief to know her as a person,” Ms. Acosta, 29, said. “I can really talk to her about girl things, like how to take care of herself as a young lady.”
But as Lila grows older, their conversations increasingly touch on Ms. Acosta’s incarceration. “I told her I made a bad decision,” she said. “Lila’s at a point where she understands. She got sad, but I don’t lie to her.”
At 2 p.m., the visit was over, and the girls, many of them teary-eyed, hugged their mothers goodbye.
“I love you, baby,” Ms. Acosta murmured into her daughter’s ear, savoring their final embrace for a month.
Dan Levin covers American youth for the National Desk. He was a foreign correspondent covering Canada from 2016 until 2018. From 2008 to 2015, Mr. Levin was based in Beijing, where he reported on human rights, politics and culture in China and Asia. @globaldan