By Wendy Pacheco
Since I could remember, my life has been shaped by courts, cops, and jails. My grandmother and I used to walk hand in hand through the East Los Angeles Civic Center toward the local courthouse to watch a judge decide the fate of my mother.
I remember blaming her, reprimanding her for her choice in clothing, her decisions to walk through the alleys at night, and for her overall state of well-being. My feelings shifted my 2nd year of college, when a professor offered a course to formerly incarcerated students where we spent hours on end discussing our own experiences and deconstructing the historical relationship between people of color and the criminal justice system. I realized that my mother’s experiences speak largely to the experiences of women across the United States who are suffering from drug addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, or other forms of abuse. I realized that due to mass incarceration, my mother and I were unknowingly a part of a community of millions of women who experienced what my mother and I had.
My mother’s relapse lasted about 8 years before she was mandated by a judge to participate in a rehabilitation program or serve a minimum of 1 year in a federal prison. As a witness to my mother’s journey with reentry I recall the difficulties she faced in trying to rebuild her life. Finding stable housing was especially difficult, because the waiting list for public housing and the formal processes for renting an apartment hindered my mother from taking the necessary steps to reintegrate into society. Many leasing agencies and landlords require potential tenants to provide proof of income that reflects twice the amount of rent. But for someone like my mother, whose income primarily consisted of government assistance that did not amount to anything near twice the amount of rent for an apartment in Los Angeles, her options were limited.
I found my everyday realities continue to be enmeshed with the criminal justice system after my father's arrest in 2011. At the time, he was the head of household, and so his arrest resulted in a shift of financial responsibilities and ultimately bore severe financial hardships on my family. As a senior in high school my only option, as I saw it, was to completely immerse myself in the possibility of higher education as a means to move beyond my circumstances. As a 1st year student at UC Berkeley my priorities were driven by the necessity to care for my family: bearing the financial responsibility of paying for phone calls to maintain steady communication, sending my father money for his monthly commissary visits, and carrying out the emotional labor for my family in dealing with the incarceration of a parent.
As my mother celebrates her third year of recovery, my father completes five years of being incarcerated; I still carry the psychological and emotional trauma from those experiences. The stigma, isolation, and trauma associated with incarceration have direct impacts across families and communities that last well beyond release. Since 2011, as many as 100,000 mothers who are were primary caregivers have been incarcerated in prison alone; additionally, when it is not the woman who is incarcerated, women tend to be the ones who bear the financial and emotional responsibility after a loved one has been locked away. It is not enough to address mass incarceration as a racial issue, an economic issue, or a queer issue, we must also view mass incarceration as a reproductive rights issue, and as an overall women’s issue, that bears collateral consequences on families including increased poverty, destabilized neighborhoods, and generations of trauma.
Wendy Pacheco is a graduating senior at the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Ethnic Studies.