SFMN Investigates: When mothers go to prison, their children and society pay the price (video story included)

Yasmine Mayol does not recall her mother being in prison. She was only four years old when Cellie, her mother, left. What she remembers is her aunt and grandmother saying Cellie was working or not around. Sometimes, they’d ignore the topic completely. “I kept saying that I missed my mom,” Yasmine said. “I remember seeing her crying in the back of a cop car. I didn’t really understand and my family told me it was for a speeding ticket, but I was smart enough to know that was not why.”

During the last two decades, children like Yasmine have become unreported collateral damage of a political movement that has gained traction since the Clinton administration. Under a tough-on-crime approach, Congress enacted a wave of legislation that punishes those convicted of repeated petty crimes with longer incarceration. These laws have also made it easier for the government to take away parental rights of inmates jailed for more than 15 months.

The number of women in county jails nationwide increased 14 times from under 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000 in 2014, the last year for which data is available, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Census of Jails and Annual Survey of Jails. It is increasing at a much faster rate than the number of men.

Nationally, nearly 80 percent of women in jail are mothers and 60 percent have children under 18. These women are primarily single parents, solely responsible for their young kids, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonpartisan group. One in every 28 children in the United States currently has a parent behind bars. Many end up in the foster care system.

Yasmine Mayol and her Mother Cellie Mayol. (Courtesy of Cellie Mayol)

Most of these women have been indicted for drug offenses.  Between 1980 and 2009, the arrest rate for drug possession or use tripled for women, while the rate for men doubled.

Cellie said drugs were at the heart of her troubles. “I began to take drugs in high school,” she said. “I would do anything to make my mind turn off.” When she came home from her first semester of college for Christmas in 2000, her grandfather’s dementia had worsened. She decided to quit school and stay at home caring for him. It was then her life began to shift. “I started at Miami Dade College, had a car, went partying every weekend,” Cellie said. “Then I got pregnant.” At 21 years old, Cellie’s parents convinced her to keep the child. Her drug habit spiked after she had Yasmine and moved in with a boyfriend who abused her.

When Yasmine was two years old, Cellie broke up with her boyfriend and moved back in with her parents. She had a full-time job and took care of her daughter without anyone finding out about her drug addiction.

At that time, she started dealing cocaine on the side. “It was so easy to make money and support my own habit, so my addiction kept growing,” Cellie said. From 2007 to 2013, she was arrested three times and went to jail twice for drug trafficking. Amidst her troubles, Cellie made the decision to sign over her power of attorney to her parents, giving them custody of Yasmine.

This decision probably saved her daughter from the foster care system. A December 2018 Marshall Project report established that “between 2006 and 2016, tens of thousands of children were placed into foster care solely because a parent was incarcerated. For about 5,000 of these children, their parent’s rights were eventually terminated.”

In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which mandated federally funded state child welfare programs to terminate parental rights in most cases that involved children who had been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months.

But the law’s unintended consequence was to make children grow up without stable families.

According to a recent Annie E. Casey Foundation study, Florida has the third-largest number of children in the United States who have experienced parental incarceration. During the last 10 years, 312,000 kids have had a parent incarcerated. In other words, about 8 percent of children in Florida have lived through separation due to a parent’s imprisonment. These children are more likely to suffer poverty, homelessness and mental health issues.

“I think there are so many things from my childhood that I don’t remember because it was so bad that I’ve blocked it out,” Yasmine said.

Professor Kakar (Maritza Zuluaga/Caplin News)

Suman Kakar, a sociology professor at Florida International University specializing in children, child abuse and juvenile delinquency, emphasized that a child growing up without a mother due to incarceration has it twice as hard. “I think it is the worst outcome or side effect of incarcerated women. Mothers are the ones who are basically the pullers of everything. They are financial, physical and emotional support.”

Emory Mitchell grew up in different parts of Florida. “I remember my grandmother crying and being devastated because she could not afford to go visit my mom in prison,” Mitchell said. “It was either rent or a trip to visit my mom.” Weak from dialysis and suffering from poor health, Mitchell’s grandmother would often send him to live with different relatives or members of her parish. “I didn’t know these people so I felt like a burden to them more than anything,” he added.

Emory ‘Marq’ Mitchell (Courtesy of Marq Mitchell)

Children who are displaced by their mothers’ incarceration are often left in their grandparents’ care. This is a best-case scenario when compared to options like foster care, Kakar said. “They can be the best possible caretakers because they do for their grandchildren what they couldn’t do for their children,” she added.

“As a young kid, I remember being really angry and what fed that anger was the trauma I grew up with,” Mitchell said. “I would get into fights at school all the time.”

“Getting torn apart from their caretaker and having one’s life interrupted results in mental anguish whether in foster care or group home living,” said Kakar. “This affects school performance, mental and social behavior.”

Mitchell said he did not feel the absence of his mother because the only mom he knew was his grandmother.

Cellie, Yasmine’s mother, spent one year in jail and five more on probation. “I was facing almost 50 years, my entire life, in prison, and I got probation because there were so many errors in the system,” she said.

According to a 2019 Prison Policy Initiative report, more than 1.8 million women were released from prisons and jails in 2013 (the last year all jails were surveyed).The Prison Policy Initiative estimates a similar annual average of female releases today and warns that family reunification is a challenge, especially given the trauma experienced by children separated from a parent.

“My grandmother is everything,” Yasmine said with a smile. “She’s been in my life from the moment I was born. My grandmother is amazing. She’s super cool.”

Mitchell is less positive about the whole experience. He believes his mother never wanted children and only had him and his siblings to continue receiving public assistance. When she was released from prison, he was about 9 years old. “She would get drunk and beat the heck out of us.”

Mitchell said he would often run away and live with his grandmother at a senior community center. Later he moved back and forth between his cousins and great-grandmother.

“My great-grandmother and I would go back and forth arguing because she had a really low tolerance for me,” Mitchell said. “She would always feed me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so one day when I was about nine or 10, I told her to take that bread and shove it up her butt. That night my great-grandmother told my mom what I had said, so she came over drunk and … started to beat me and shove stuff up my anal area. I remember my great-grandmother pulling her off of me and pushing her out the door.”

Mitchell saw being beaten as normal in his life and thought nothing of it. “I went to school the next day and told my teacher, ‘Like hey look what happened!’ not knowing how serious the situation was.” The school contacted the Florida Department of Children and Families. He was then placed in foster care. Mitchell said he did not realize he had been sexually abused until years later.

For other children, more sheltered by family, the situation was less traumatic. Still, more than a decade after being released from prison, Cellie has not overcome her absence. “It has been a rocky road fixing my relationship with my daughter, but we’re working through it,” she said. “Yasmine recently found out that I was gone for almost a year.”

Yasmine admitted that she and her mother do not have the best relationship, but said it has improved. “Last year is when she told me she had been arrested three times,” Yasmine added. “I wish it wasn’t so hard to see each other and I know she is very busy. I just wish I could do little things like go to the gym with her.”

Yasmine works as a babysitter and social media coordinator for a church while attending Robert Morgan Educational Center. She knows of children who have never forgiven their parents for going to prison. “There are people who have similar situations with their parents and hate them for it,” she said. “I love my parents though! They may be crazy and have made terrible mistakes, but everyone does in life.”

The damage children endure varies. Some have little recollection while others vividly remember their childhood and the events that altered their lives. Mitchell was sent to two different foster care homes after he was removed from his mother. “I was dubbed an intensive behavior foster child,” he said. Because of that, the Department of Children and Families Services placed him in a group home when he was 12, where he shared a room with two other people. He would frequently get into altercations. One day he poured hot soup on one of the guys. “Because of this incident, charges were pressed against me and that’s when I went straight to a detention center,” Mitchell said.

After spending 21 days detained, he was transferred to an intensive behavior group home, which he described as a lockdown facility. While the court proceedings were ongoing, he turned 13 years old and was moved to a juvenile justice program until he aged out of the system. According to Kakar, it is common practice to put children who age out of the foster care system in juvenile delinquency centers until they are 18. She explained that this should not be done because it teaches already troubled kids to be criminals by putting them with juvenile delinquents.

Mitchell was in a detention center in Okeechobee from 2003 until June 2007. While he was there, he lost his grandmother and great-grandmother. He was one of the youngest to enter this facility, so he kept to himself. “I again felt like I didn’t belong, just the way I had my entire life,” he said. “So I found myself fighting often because I felt like I had something to prove.”

When he was released a month before turning 18, Mitchell stayed with a friend of his grandmother, but only briefly because he did not have anything to contribute to the financially struggling family. “I found a part-time job and went and stayed at a transition home … where people who have aged out of foster care go when they have nowhere else and stayed there a couple of weeks before starting college.”

He explained that he attended Florida Memorial University because he knew he would receive living assistance. “I went to school because I was homeless essentially. I wasn’t well equipped for school because I had adult responsibilities but was still a 13-year-old mentally. I wasn’t prepared to re-enter society.” Mitchell used college as a survival tactic, but was kicked out after being there for a year and a half. After that, he isolated himself. “I was in and out of jail for a while for stupid things. I got probation for marijuana and violated that probation and went to jail.”

It is not uncommon for kids who age out of the foster care system to have a hard time in life. A 2019 study by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy shows that children of incarcerated parents transitioning into adulthood from foster care are about three times more likely to be charged with a felony, five times more likely to drop out of high school or become a teenage parent, twice as likely to experience financial strain and/or be socially isolated than other children in general.

Natalia Giordano, a professor at Florida International University and a licensed clinical social worker with a background in child welfare, explained a parental relationship is essential despite what the parents have done. She noted these children are moved to a life of instability and loss of attachment which can effect later relationships.

Mitchell’s hardships did not end after being kicked out of school. On his way to stay with his friend in Tallahassee, he realized he did not want to ruin another friendship and decided to get off at a rest stop in Orlando. He stayed at a motel for five months while he worked bussing tables at Cracker Barrel and Charley’s Steak House. From there, he worked as a waiter and picked up a second job.

After three years of working in the restaurant business, he secured a job with a facility maintenance company that relocated him to Miami. When his company was notified that he had a criminal background, he was asked to resign. Because of this, he was inspired to start up Chainless Change, an organization that helps reentering citizens locate resources to succeed in society. “The whole goal of the organization is to have a peer-support program. It would allow me to hire people who were returning citizens while also providing services to people navigating through recovery and reentry process.”

A 1999 evaluation of the Clinton Administration’s law enforcement strategy noted that, “Six years into this strategy, crime has dropped to its lowest level in a quarter of a century. This success is the foundation for further efforts to reduce crime and keep America’s neighborhoods safe.” However, 20 years later, there are more people imprisoned than ever before, especially on drug charges. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with one million drug possession arrests a year.

Other countries, such as Portugal, have decriminalized small amounts of drugs. The United States, by comparison, spends $56 million annually to keep people behind bars. Essentially, the tough-on-crime approach creates mass incarceration, enriching private prisons and wasting hard-working citizens’ money.

Today, a national conversation criticizing these policies has given birth to more lenient laws that challenge mandatory sentences. One such measure is the December 2018 First Step Act (FSA). This policy is a step toward transforming federal prisons by expanding rehabilitative programming and earned-time credit opportunities. It also reduces mandatory minimums and better provides for the needs of federal prisoners.

“What makes sense in the short term does not always result in the best option in the long term,” said Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren at a justice reform conference.

Despite this national discussion, drug offenses in Florida composed a quarter of prison admissions last year. Legislators decided in 2007 to uphold extended mandatory minimum for drug traffickers, while other states cut back. According to the Sentencing Project, the spike in imprisonment is largely due to the tough-on-crime approach of the ’80s and ’90s. Because of this, not only have drug offenders been affected, so have their children.

Meanwhile, the children fall through the cracks. The stories of Yasmine and Mitchell are representative of those of 2.7 million other children. They grew up without a parent because of incarceration and lived with grandparents or ended up in foster care. Many found themselves in the prison system before the age of 18 as well. The tough-on-crime approach that began with the Clinton and continued with Bush and Obama has not only harmed an alarming number of women, it has also affected their children. Some may luck out and have a more sheltered life, while others are the textbook definition of why reform is needed.

Maritza Zuluaga earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish translation from Montclair State University in 2018. She is currently a Master's candidate in the Spanish-Language Master's program at Florida International University and serves as the office manager for the Junior League of Miami.