Originally published on 19th

Vanessa Garrett sometimes starts work before sunrise and takes calls from parents or caretakers. Her goal: to support incarcerated women who try to develop a relationship with their children from a distance. She calls the carers who are responsible for the children of inmates, mostly family members. She sends diapers, car seats, baby towels and other necessities.

“My typical day is that I don’t have a typical day,” said Garrett. “Something always comes up and the day starts from there.”

Garrett is the program director of Motherhood Beyond Bars, a two-person nonprofit that supports both parents who give birth while in prison in Georgia and their newborn babies after the separation. She sometimes meets with janitors and newborns, although this has slowed since the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Georgia. She gives inmates advice and an open ear, and helps newly released people reconnect with their families and find resources such as shelter.

Very few inmates are allowed to keep their children with them after they are born, so Garrett sends the essentials to the carers. She said carers may have financial problems and sometimes helps them apply for WIC, a federally funded supplemental nutrition program for women, children and infants.

Amy Ard, executive director of Motherhood Beyond Bars, said the organization recently started collecting population data on pregnant people in prison and whether a family member took in the newborn. Ard said that imprisonment affects an entire family’s finances. She explained that while most of the families she works with take in the newborns of their imprisoned family members, unforeseen obstacles, such as family death or job loss, could create impractical conditions.

“One little thing that goes wrong with some of these families could upset the whole family,” she said.

If the incarcerated person was on a low income, few resources may be given to the newborn while the parent is in jail. The Prison Policy Initiative, a public policy think tank, released a 2015 study that found the median annual income of an incarcerated person prior to conviction is $ 19,185, 41 percent less than that of non-incarcerated people. The median annual income of women incarcerated prior to sentencing is $ 13,890.

Garrett explained that family relationships are sometimes challenging and made more difficult by incarceration. She said that because of the prison system’s communication restrictions and limited visiting days, it is more difficult to maintain links between families and detainees. And the isolation of the prison has emotional consequences.

“The mothers in jail sit there brooding over things,” Garrett said.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research organization, “The number of women in Georgia’s prisons increased more than seven-fold, from 497 in 1978 to 3,779 in 2017.” And a 2019 Johns Hopkins study found that Between 2016 and 2017, nearly 1,400 pregnant people in 22 states and all federal prisons were admitted.

The results from services like Motherhood Beyond Bars have not been fully analyzed. Bethany Kottler, the founder and former director of Motherhood Beyond Bars, remains on the board and oversees data collection for the organization. She said she hoped that in time the group could use the information “to develop programs and guidelines and understand the needs of these families because they are truly unique.”

Ard said that much of the qualitative information she collects is the stories of the imprisoned people who drive the nonprofit into action. She frequently contacts the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm of public interest, with reports of the stories she hears from new parents in prison when their basic human rights, such as access to clean water or timely medical care for postpartum patients, are denied be or delayed.

Jesse McGleughlin, a fellow at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said that if she received a report from Ard, she would reach out to parents to investigate and stand up for any violations of the law. If the report concerns civil or human rights violations, it also sends warning letters to Georgia prison guards and the Georgia Department of Corrections.

McGleughlin’s advocacy was based in part on the strong bond between the imprisoned parents, their children, and the friends and family who speak for them. That is why Motherhood Beyond Bars is often an important partner.

“Part of the way these incarcerated mothers continue to be in contact with their babies is because of a really strong relationship between the caregivers, Motherhood Beyond Bars and the people inside,” she said.

Garrett said she often gives advice to inmates on how to speak to their family members outside of the prison system and helps facilitate conversations. In doing so, she draws on her own experiences: In January 2013 she was imprisoned and left behind a 10-year-old son and a small daughter.

“I should report to jail on January 2nd; [my daughter’s] Birthday is January 6th, “said Garrett. “So I had just missed her first birthday.”

Garrett was fired that year and was attending her son’s high school graduation. Her daughter is still living with Garrett’s mother because of the pandemic, but visits her every weekend. And she said one of the things she looked forward to most was her new position at Motherhood Beyond Bars, which started in April.

Now, she said, she was worlds away from where she was in January, fresh from prison, and worried about everyday life. Your phone might ring all day, but she’s doing exactly what she wants to do.

Jean Lee is a rapporteur. She was previously a book publisher and looks forward to focusing on the most marginalized voices in her reporting, and is interested in labor policy and issues related to the criminal justice system. She has contributed to The Lily, The Independent, Earther, and The Brooklyn Eagle. She recently graduated from Columbia Journalism School.