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Moms in Cook County Jail read to their children for Mother’s Day: ‘I’m coming home soon’
Sunday, May 08, 2022 Chicago Tribune by Stephanie Casanova
Annette Roberts read a page from a children’s book, then carefully turned it toward a laptop camera to show its pictures.
“My mama, she’s been sick since I was very small,” Roberts read from “See You Soon,” by prison abolitionist and former Chicago resident Mariame Kaba. “Sometimes she goes away when she isn’t feeling well at all.”
She had to fight back tears during the next part.
“A girl at school named Keisha sometimes says mean things to me. ‘Your Mama, she takes drugs! Your Mama is a junkie!’”
Roberts is worried her kids have been teased just like the girl in the book.
She is one of about 70 women at Cook County Jail who participated in a program last week recording themselves reading Kaba’s book. Organized by the Women’s Justice Institute, Kaba and Cook County Jail, the video files will be sent to their children’s caretakers and shown to the children for Mother’s Day.
Alexis Mansfield, senior adviser for the Women’s Justice Institute, estimates there are at least 140 women who will be celebrating Mother’s Day in Cook County Jail this year. She said the jail has been very supportive of the institute’s program.
It’s estimated that about 82% of about 1,200 incarcerated women in Illinois prisons are mothers, Mansfield said. She said the goal is not to bring more programs to prison but to have fewer women in jails and prisons to begin with.
“This has been a powerful and moving program,” Mansfield said. “But the best present for Mother’s Day would be for moms and children to be sitting in their homes, children on their laps reading books together.”
Keyuana Muhammad, director of behavioral health services and programs at the jail, said it’s important for the jail to do what it can to keep the women connected with their families while they are incarcerated. Using the arts to maintain those connections is helpful, she said.
“While we can’t completely alleviate the stress of what a child might experience as it relates to losing a parent (to) incarceration, it’s our hope that we could at least provide a space where connections can be made,” Muhammad said.
On Monday and Thursday, the women sat outside a recreation room waiting their turn to read the book as volunteers with the Women’s Justice Institute recorded them and offered moral support.
“See You Soon,” is about a young girl, Queenie, who is processing being away from her Mama after Mama turns herself in to jail. The book shows that the love between the mother and daughter remains despite Mama’s drug addiction and the family’s difficult situation.
Some of the women told the Tribune they related to the book and it helped them explain a difficult topic to their children. Most of the women who talked to the Tribune are participating in a substance abuse treatment program at the jail.
The Women’s Justice Institute also recorded women sharing their reaction to the book. Those videos were sent to Kaba, who spent Monday evening crying as she watched them, she said.
“It so exceeds what I hoped the book could do in the world,” Kaba said. “And I’m just so grateful that the moms found resonance in it and took it seriously and wanted to do this.”
Roberts has seven children between the ages of 11 and 30. The video will be sent to her two youngest, her 11-year-old boy and her 12-year-old girl.
She has been in jail since late November and is awaiting trial on charges including robbery and burglary.
“I felt like the story was talking about me because I’m a recovering addict,” she said. “And that I could let my kids know I still love them in spite of me making a mistake and that this too shall pass and I’m coming home soon.”
She visits with her kids through video calls. The kids are always excited to talk to her, she said.
Her son tells her about football and video games he’s been playing with his oldest brother, and her daughter tells her about her straight A’s, Roberts said. She said she misses everyday things like being there when they come home from school, telling them to get homework done.
“I truly miss them calling my name, or needing my help for something,” she said. “So I’m always thinking, ‘Who’s helping them now? Are they hungry? Are they cold? Are they scared? Just mother things that you just wonder about and worry about.”
Roberts said she’s going to a recovery home when she leaves jail, and while she’ll still be apart from her children she’ll be able to visit them.
“I’m gonna go to a recovery home,” she said, “so that I don’t have to come back in here and leave them ever again.”
After reading the book for her 1-year-old great-granddaughter, Gloria Branch, 70, saw a familiar face in the room.
Branch met Colette Payne in the late ’80s or early ’90s when they were both cycling in and out of jail and prison. But Payne wasn’t at the jail as an inmate this time, and when Branch saw her, it gave her some hope.
Payne is the director of the reclamation project for the Women’s Justice Institute and her story of overcoming her drug addiction helps the women she works with feel understood, Payne said.
“That’s why we’re here because women need support,” she said. “They have to know that there’s somebody who cares.”
Samantha Estrada, 28, had to start over while reading the book, unable to hold back her tears as she read.
“It was very emotional,” Estrada said. “It’s the most connection I had with my kids since I fell sick.”
Estrada, who has an active burglary case in Cook County, started abusing drugs at the beginning of the pandemic.
She hopes her three daughters, ages 11, 7 and 5, will see the videos.
“I hope this is a big opportunity to let my kids know that I never forgot about them and that I still love them,” Estrada said. “And that I’ll always be here, and I’m gonna try my hardest and all I can to make sure I get back in their lives.”