A “stronger bridge” between the community and currently incarcerated persons, besides their families, is badly needed. This was the overall message last weekend at North High School at the August 20 BRIDGE event.
Around 250 persons — adults and children — attended BRIDGE Families Convening, sponsored by BRIDGE, a group of currently incarcerated persons, their families, and the organization Voices for Racial Justice, along with many other community organizations that work with those in prisons and jails. It was an opportunity for the community to hear stories, said Voices for Racial Justice Executive Director Vina Kay.
Zakarias Wayso was among several persons who told their individual stories. He is now working full time and studying to be certified as an exercise specialist. He was released in February after serving time for assault.
“You can’t touch…or kiss the child. If you’re affectionate, your visit is over. If your child is disruptive, your visit is over.”
The MSR published an article he wrote while incarcerated called “Growing up Somalian in America.” He told the audience that he hoped that his community would be more welcoming after he reentered society. “Trust is the biggest part of my transition,” he admitted.
“Zack deserves a second chance. We’ve got to support him,” said Jason Sole, an ex-offender who is now a Metropolitan State University instructor. “I came out three times, but only the last time I got it right.”
“My experience being incarcerated wasn’t typical,” explained Autumn Mason, who advocates for better treatment of pregnant female prisoners. She was eight months pregnant while serving time in Shakopee in 2014.
“When I went into labor, I was strip searched while my contractions were five minutes apart,” said Mason. “I was still shackled to the bed” after her youngest daughter’s birth, and she was not allowed to breastfeed her child.
“You can’t touch…or kiss the child [during visits],” Mason continued “If you’re affectionate, your visit is over. If your child is disruptive, your visit is over. They [prison officials] make you jump hoops” in order to see your child or children, she pointed out. “The community needs to know what goes on behind those walls.”
A new anti-shackling law that outlaws the use of restraints during and immediately after childbirth came into effect in 2014, a couple of weeks after Mason delivered her youngest child. The Minnesota law also guarantees inmates access to birth coaches or doulas — the first state in the nation to do so. It also allows a female inmate additional food while pregnant and a breast pump to maintain milk production if the mother’s release is pending.
Mason also told the audience that prison authorities denied her repeated requests for prenatal medical checkups. “It took four weeks to see a medical practitioner three weeks before I delivered my child. When I got there, they had my medical records mixed in with someone else’s. When I went into labor at 12 o’clock [midnight], I was not allowed to call my family, my daughter’s father, not even my assigned doula. I was accompanied by corrections officers all through my entire labor and delivery.”
Mason said she wants newly imprisoned mothers to be allowed to pump breast milk that would be stored and transported to their infants. She wants new moms to be allowed to spend quality time with their newborn for nursing and bonding, since Minnesota currently does not allow this.
“This is a very emotional subject for me,” stressed Mason. “I felt obligated to speak for those women” who are going through similar birthing issues while incarcerated. “A mother’s instinct is to protect their children, but how can you do that when you are restricted and have to depend on a system that has to provide for your shelter, health care, and your support, and has the ability to limit” your time with your child.
“I was scared…and feeling guilty about allowing my mistake [to be imposed] on my children and their well-being,” she continued. “It was my mistake, and my children had nothing to do with it. I take full responsibility for my mistake.
“I was one of the fortunate ones that I had a family that kept my children together,” noted Mason, the mother of three. “How many children are separated from their siblings due to a parent incarcerated, or are taken away from a mother who is incarcerated?”
“I served a total of 25 months” since April 2014, said Mason, now on work release since May until her sentence is completed in December for criminal vehicular homicide. She quickly noted that her now-two-year-old daughter is still feeling the effects of that ordeal.
“There are a lot of things about [her daughter’s] personality. She is very reclusive and not as outgoing as my other children,” her son, age seven, and her other daughter, age four. “I had to put forth an extra effort to connect with her and bond with her. Now that we have bonded, she has separation anxiety — she panics when I leave her.”
Being placed in outstate county jails, as happened to Mason during her incarceration, creates “a disconnect” with family members, especially if they are unable to visit because of long travel distances from the Twin Cities. She was transferred to “three different county jails” in Minnesota because of overpopulation. This has impacted her daughter, she said. “Out of her first two years, I didn’t physically see her for 10 months.
“Women are so easily forgotten in the criminal justice system,” said Mason. “We have a particular set of needs. Prisons are unsupportive for women. If my experience can help other people not have to go through that, [I will] be as transparent as I can be. I hoped that it sparked a conversation and creates some changes.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.