Navigating Freedom, Reentry and Motherhood: The Challenges for Formerly Incarcerated Moms
A group of women, many of them mothers, sat in a circle in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood in early April, talking about the challenges they’ve faced and victories they’ve celebrated recently. The group, called Seeking Safety — a project of the Bayview-based organization Positive Directions Equals Change — provides support for women in recovery from substance use disorder and for the formerly incarcerated.
This group is facilitated by other legal-system-impacted women like Lisa Wood, who spent time locked up in the 1980s.
“A lot of us who leave our children and go to prison come from broken cycles,” she said. “We don’t know how to put the pieces together and so we really need support before coming out of prison.”
There isn’t a lot of support for women, especially mothers leaving prison and jail; and the support that does exist is mostly scattered among various nonprofits and government agencies.
Over the last several years, a record number of incarcerated people have been released in California. The reasons include a number of early release laws that California has passed, and the fact that prisons became deadly hotbeds for COVID-19 during the pandemic. The state’s incarcerated population declined by more than 20% in 2020 alone — and the rate of decline in women’s prisons was even greater.
With the number of incarcerated people being released at an all-time high, advocates say that more resources to help people reenter society could lower recidivism rates, help family instability and improve the mental health of formerly incarcerated people. But the obstacles facing those reentering society are daunting, and the amount of helpful resources, especially for mothers, hasn’t kept up with the need.'[My daughter] is in the same struggle that I was in all those years. Now I’m trying to break this cycle.’Lisa Wood
For the children of women who give birth while they’re incarcerated, the generational impacts can start when they are separated shortly after birth.
‘My son followed me into that pattern’
Lisa Wood watched crack destroy her community of West Philadelphia in the 1980s. She herself was introduced to drugs at 13 years old, and she spent 12 years in and out of prison.
“I watched how the drugs changed my community, and saw how it destroyed the African American community,” she said.
When Wood was incarcerated for the first time in 1985, she was pregnant.
Most women who are incarcerated in prisons and jails across the U.S. are mothers, according to the Prison Policy Initiative — and an estimated 58,000 women every year are pregnant when they are admitted.
“I had my daughter in prison,” Wood said. “She went home at 3 days old.”Sponsored
How much time incarcerated mothers spend with their newborns depends on a prison’s policy. Some women are only allowed a day or two before their child is either placed with relatives or in foster care. Wood had only a couple of days before her daughter went into the care of Wood’s mother.
When she was released in 1988, she had a 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter to take care of while she was still trying to manage her addiction. She struggled to get better and wound up returning to prison one more time.
Wood was at risk of an 18-year sentence after being arrested a third time because of the California habitual offender law, otherwise known as the “three strikes law.”
“So I said to the judge, you know, I’ve actually been a junkie my whole life and no one’s ever asked me, can I give you any treatment or help?” she said.
The judge sentenced Wood to complete a residential drug addiction program with the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco. If she didn’t complete the program, she would be back in prison.
“I still was thinking of leaving and going back to hustling and the whole drug scene,” said Wood.
Instead, she made the decision to stay in the Delancey Street program for six years and eventually started working in the intake department and mentoring other residents.
Meanwhile, while Wood was doing work on herself in Delancey Street, her children were growing older and facing their own challenges. Wood’s son went into prison for the first time at age 14.
“My son kind of followed me into that pattern that I was in with the gangs and drugs,” Wood said.
He was released when he was 25 and has been out for years. He and Wood have a great relationship today, she said.
But Wood’s daughter still resents her absence and struggles with mental health and substance use disorder like Wood did. As a result Wood is now raising her daughter’s three sons.
“She’s in the same struggle that I was in all those years,” she said. “Now I’m trying to break this cycle.”
At Seeking Safety, most of the women Wood sees are Black and brown. She’s trying to make the strong connections women like her need, and she knows that success is not guaranteed.
“We can see the potential in them, but they can’t see it in themselves,” she said. “Until they’re able to see it, it doesn’t matter.”
‘You’re pretty much on your own’
Many formerly incarcerated parents have to navigate how to rekindle family relationships after they’re released. Damage from years of separation can be hard to repair, and advocates say parents are often given no help in child custody cases while incarcerated.
A week before Linette Galindo’s eldest son turned 7, back in 2004, she was incarcerated. Her sentence lasted almost 17 years. While she was away, her ex-husband, who had custody of her children, didn’t allow her regular communication with her kids.
“I had to fight through the courts to be able to at least try to get letters and pictures,” she said. “Which is very hard to do when it is just you by yourself trying to figure this out.”
While in prison, Galindo’s ex-husband remarried and relocated her children to Colorado. For six years she didn’t know where her children were, she said. Like many mothers in her position, Galindo became a regular in the prison library and started studying child custody laws.
Then, in 2019, a year before her release from the California Institution for Women in Chino, her ex-husband filed for adoption of their kids. Like many incarcerated parents, Galindo received no legal help in her adoption hearings.
“I had to represent myself,” she said. “I had to become an attorney.”
Galindo lost her case, and when she was released she tried contacting her kids.
“I went on social media, like anybody would, and tried to find pictures of them on Facebook, Instagram. Just to see what they look like,” she said.
Galindo’s ex-husband discovered she was looking for pictures of her children and reported it to her parole officer, who advised her to stop looking them up on social media, and she stopped.
She has now been out of prison for almost two years and is currently living in San Bernardino with her sister, working at a local factory for minimum wage.
Eventually, she wants to become a drug and alcohol counselor to help women who have had similar experiences.
“A lot of my determination comes because one day I know my kids are going to come looking for me,” she said. “I believe that in my heart.”
‘There’s not a lot of resources, especially for us undocumented people’
Much of the success for formerly incarcerated people reentering society depends on their social networks and how many barriers they have to overcome.
Laura Garibay came to the U.S. from Mexico and was granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status in 2013, prior to her incarceration.
Garibay, 37, is a survivor of domestic violence and went to jail after an incident with an abusive ex-boyfriend. The case was later dismissed. Garibay served only four months in jail — but during that time, she was unable to reapply for DACA status, making her ineligible for government assistance, including food stamps and supplemental income, when she was released in 2019.
Garibay, who lives in Fresno, slept in motels and sometimes even in cars, she recalls.
A glimmer of hope arrived in March 2020, when a judge granted Garibay full custody of her daughter after she proved that the ex-boyfriend, who was her daughter’s caretaker, was not providing a safe living environment.
“As soon as I saw my daughter, she ran towards me and I ran towards her,” said Garibay. “We just didn’t want to let it go.”
But after winning custody, she and her daughter still had very little money and nowhere to live, so they had to seek support from the abusive ex-boyfriend, who helped pay for an illegal sublet in Shafter, a small farming town in the Central Valley, she said.
“There are no other people that could help me out — so typical of a person who’s in an abusive relationship,” she said. “That toxic cycle continues.”
Garibay ended up getting pregnant with the ex-boyfriend. Shortly after, they were evicted when the landlord found out they were illegally subletting, and Garibay took her daughter to live with a friend in Tehachapi. Garibay said that’s when she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and started seeing a therapist.
“They saw how severe my depression was,” she said. “The thing that kept me going was my little girl. I need my little girl. My little girl needs me.”
A 2015 study found that half of formerly incarcerated people and their family members surveyed nationally experienced negative mental health impacts related to their incarceration, such as depression and anxiety; in California this disproportionately hits Black and Latinx incarcerated people.
When Garibay finally separated from her ex-boyfriend, she was 7 months pregnant. Again, she was homeless. But she was going to a support group, which eventually referred her to a reentry program called Root & Rebound, which provides services in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and the Central Valley. They helped her find a place to live in Fresno.
“They said, you’re going to have to pack whatever you could fit in a car. That’s all we’re bringing,” she said. “We’re placing you in a program that has a lot of security. You’re going to be safe there.”
Garibay was referred to another nonprofit program in Fresno called Rescue the Children, where she lived for 18 months and received clothing, housing and therapy. It’s common for women reentering society to have to seek out many different resources from different places because prisons and state governments don’t provide enough help, said Claudia Gonzalez, who works with Root & Rebound and helped Garibay navigate the resources available to her.
“Nothing is mandated. There’s no law stating that parole officers have to find resources for you,” said Gonzalez.
Garibay currently attends Fresno City College and is pursuing a career in the legal field. But she is still waiting for her DACA approval, which means she still can’t legally apply for jobs. Her college will stop paying for her housing in September.
“What does this mean for me and my girls again?” she asked. “You know, it puts us back in a limbo.”
Garibay depends on scholarship money and small amounts of government assistance that her two daughters get since they are U.S. citizens. There are still days when her depression feels overwhelming.
“I have a 1-year-old and I have a 13-year-old that depend on me,” she said. “They have nobody else, and because of that reason, that’s the reason I push forward.”