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Moms on a Mission: From Formerly Incarcerated to Advocacy Champions

May 03, 2024

As we honor mothers this weekend, we can’t forget about the women and mothers who have overcome unthinkable obstacles – and even suffered great loss – to be the resilient, powerful individuals they are today. At Dream.Org, the lived experience of our staff shapes our advocacy for a world beyond prisons. We sat down with two of our incredible staff who are using their stories as formerly incarcerated women and mothers to end mass incarceration: Brittany Lee and J Hunt-Garcia. 

What does being a woman mean to you? 

J: Being a woman means embracing the complexities and richness of my identity, shaped by experiences, culture, and society. It means navigating a world that often imposes expectations, limitations, and stereotypes, yet finding strength, resilience, and empowerment within myself. It means celebrating the diversity and unity among women, recognizing our shared struggles and triumphs. Being a woman is about asserting my autonomy, voice, and agency, while also advocating for equality, justice, and opportunity for all genders. It's about honoring the past, shaping the present, and striving for a future where every woman can thrive authentically and unapologetically.

Brittany: There are inherently unique things that women have that we can celebrate within ourselves. We are moms, daughters, and grandmas. We have accomplished more than people expected of us. It's hard not to think about what being a woman is without thinking about being a Black woman and being biracial, and how that has impacted how I've thought about femininity, or how women – particularly Black women – show up in spaces. We are incarcerated at 1.6x the rate of white women. We deserve to be celebrated, and I want to bring awareness to how we're disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration and systemic injustices.


What barriers have you encountered in navigating the justice system as a woman and mom? How did you overcome those barriers?   

Brittany:  When I was first initially arrested. I was experiencing my monthly cycle. I bled completely through my pants, and it took over 24 hours for me to get new ones. Never in my life have I thought about the depth of what it meant to feel deep shame for something that my body naturally does. When I think about the hardships of what it’s like being incarcerated, that is one of those experiences. It was not being punished for being incarcerated, it was punishment for being a woman while incarcerated. It took three different correctional officers, 2 of whom were women, to finally get someone to address my concern. 

I had over 100 or more strip searches in my 90 days while I was incarcerated. There are certain things you also experience as a woman throughout the monthly cycle that during strip searches can be asked to be removed. It's why you hear a lot of dignity work tends to be while women are incarcerated because that's where you’re punished for being a woman. Some of the effects of these are still present today. Giving birth to my son brought some memories back. Having a doula was the best decision I made for the safety and health of my son and myself. 

J: I was incarcerated while pregnant with my first child, and dealt with the complexities of parenting an infant and toddler through nothing more than 15-minute phone calls and short visitation blocks on the weekends. I was forced to stop my medication for postpartum depression because they preferred I live on a working yard that did not have a pill call, so the need for cheap labor trumped my mental health crisis. I had no access to traditional postnatal care.  My body and mind suffered immensely. There were days that I truly believed I would not make it out. 

The challenges continued upon release because I had to essentially re-learn how to parent my son. Even though he was young, he had serious abandonment issues because of the forced separation. It has taken a lot of therapy, and I still struggle with the guilt and shame in often unexpected ways. One example of that is the guilt of being here for every milestone of my second and third child. I know my oldest son was robbed of that, and it’s a heavy burden to bear.


How should we uplift and encourage the diverse voices of women and mothers in justice advocacy? 

J: We have to center the voices of incarcerated women, so advocates and policymakers can prioritize the rights and well-being of incarcerated women and mothers. Our Dignity for Incarcerated Women Campaign, which aims to improve visitation policies, ban shackling of pregnant women, ensure access to feminine hygiene products, and provide essential support services. This legislation has already impacted the lives of more than 36,000 women in 14 states, but we need every state to take action. After these laws are passed, there is more work to be done around implementation. In Arizona, the dignity law is not being followed and women are still suffering. Unfortunately passing laws often isn’t enough, and without independent oversight of the Department of Corrections, we never know whether or not prisons are implementing these important policies. 

Brittany: There's not enough conversation around the different experiences of women, and how they come to be incarcerated. Whether it’s cultural differences to how women become incarcerated and what they're punished for is different across the board. As criminal justice is becoming more talked about, and as more people have been involved, I think a big part of it is setting women up for success, creating legacies, and making space for other people. For me that's one of the reasons I love working for Dream.Org, and leading the Dream Justice Cohort- to bring as many different voices to the table as possible, to empower them to be able to go back to their communities, make an impact and do something different.


How can communities do a better job of encouraging and promoting issues that impact the lives of women and moms? 

J: Communities need to intentionally support incarcerated women and mothers to address the systemic injustices they face. We need everyone fighting for better policies, and community-based programs so we can reduce the number of women being sent to prison and improve outcomes for people who are incarcerated. We also need more people to seek empathy and understanding for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. By amplifying the voices of formerly incarcerated women and mothers, we can tackle negative stigmas and provide robust support networks for women that promote healing and support successful reentry. 

Brittany: We need to be intentional about bringing women to the table. It's not that we don't have women who can be in these spaces, it's that we have to create and allow for space to happen. Another reason why I love working at Dream.Org is that it’s one of the most diverse teams I’ve worked with. I appreciate that. It is not one gender over the other that is dominating the space.  We've really allowed for it to be a group of experts. The same is true for our cohorts and other programs.

Another thing to highlight for women is how incarceration can rob them of their fertility whether it be long sentences, forced induction, forced sterilization, lack of access to feminine products, risky pregnancy, or labor/delivery conditions just to name a few. Women shouldn’t have their abilities to reproduce taken because of their incarceration. Communities need to realize that women being incarcerated does impact our community, especially because we have never seen it done at this high of a rate in history, and there will be many unforeseen consequences. Decarceration is necessary now and we should be sharing the urgency of this in any space we can. 


Taking Action 

As we reflect on the experiences of incarcerated women and mothers like Brittany and J this Mother's Day, let's advocate for policies that treat women with dignity and respect while ensuring they have the support they need to flourish. Centering their voices and uplifting their stories is essential to creating a future where every woman and mother has the opportunity to thrive, rebuild, and reunite with her loved ones.

Help us end mass incarceration and improve the lives of justice-impacted women across the nation by donating today.

The future starts with a dream.
The future starts with us.
Black woman standing in front of protestors.