Speakers explore imprisoned mothers with children

Panelists say incarceration disrupts family, reform needed

When Tonie Rhones left for prison, her daughter was only 15 years old. When she got out 11 years later, Rhones' daughter was 26 and had two children of her own.

While serving her sentence, Rhones did not see her daughter once. Now that she is out of jail, Rhones is working on re-establishing their relationship.

Rhones was one speaker on a five-person panel Thursday night in the Katzen Arts Center. It was part of the opening for the art exhibit "Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States," which is on display in Katzen until April 27.

The exhibit first opened in a female prison, Rickie Solinger, exhibit curator, said. It only used up half the room, so the female prisoners used the other half to create a companion exhibition.

The exhibit has seven multi-media pieces depicting the difficulty incarcerated women have with keeping relations with their children.

"Everyone walking through the rotunda will have their mind zapped [by the exhibits]," Solinger said.

Women in the D.C. prison system are sent to prisons in Connecticut, West Virginia, or Florida, among other states, said Sarah Galbraith, executive director of Our Place DC.

"These women are completely disconnected from their children," Galbraith said.

Incarceration time interrupts families, Solinger said.

Women who are mothers of children below 18 make up 80 percent of the female prison population, said Ravenna Motil-McGuire, a sophomore in the School of International Service, who attended an alternative spring break on the prison justice system.

"There is so much that needs to be changed in the prison system," Motil-McGuire said. "Families are being ripped apart."

When moms are sent to prison, their children are left behind to live with their grandparents or in foster care. These children are more likely to have development problems, said Mona Danner, a feminist criminologist from Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Va.

"All of those women who are locked up don't get to be mothers of their children," Solinger said.

Galbraith also discussed her experience visiting a prison and the inhumane conditions the prisoners were kept in.

"Here are women who need the best we have to offer as a society are getting the least we have to offer as a society," Galbraith said.

Our Place DC is an organization that helps women who are in prison or who have recently left prison. The organization sends women birthday cards and help them re-establish a life once they leave, according to an Our Place DC brochure.

"Our Place was the only place I had to call," Rhones said.

Rhones went to Our Place DC as soon as she left prison, still in her blue jumpsuit with no money. The organization has since helped her become part of society and Rhones has been working at Our Place DC for five years.

"I am the statement of Our Place," Rhones said.

Students said they enjoyed the panel and were shocked by prison circumstances.

"It's an injustice to see the United States prisoners have such little social services for women," David Ellis, a senior in the School of Communication said.

Tamar Strauss-Benjamin, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she was previously unaware of prison life.

"It was very eye-opening of what really goes on in the prison system, especially women's correctional facilities," Strauss-Benjamin said.

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