By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
Fighting back tears, Stephanie George struggled to keep her composure as she was sentenced to life in prison without parole for possessing 1,290 grams of powder cocaine.
The 26-year-old mother of three quietly cried, as Judge Roger Vinson admitted from the bench that the ruling was unfair but lawful.
“There’s no question that Ms. George deserved to be punished. The only question is whether it should be a mandatory life sentence … I wish I had another alternative,” he told George. “Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing for a number of years … your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder. So certainly, in my judgment, it doesn’t warrant a life sentence.”
George’s involvement in drugs began when she struggled to support her children as a nursing assistant. She ended up relying on welfare and food stamps to get by. Financial relief was found in the men she dated, who were drug dealers and helped by paying bills. In exchange for their support, she would deliver drugs and take messages for them.
On two previous occasions, George was busted and sentenced to probation for the first offense and nine months in jail plus work release for the second felony. However, her third offense would prove to be life changing.
During a raid on George’s home, officers found 500 grams of powder cocaine and $13,710 in an attic safe that belonged to her former boyfriend, Michael. Drug residue was found on utensils in the master bedroom. Nearly $800 was found on Michael from 500 grams he had already sold.
Michael would later testify that he paid George to allow him to store drugs in her home. She was also accused of possessing an additional 290 grams of crack, for a total of 1,290 grams and was categorized as a career criminal.
Like George, Sharanda made a life altering decision when she chose a career in the drug industry. The 32-year-old single mother looked to drug dealing as a way to earn fast cash to support her 8-year-old daughter.
Little did she know that the decision would affect her and her daughter’s life. Sharanda purchased powder cocaine from a supplier in Houston that was turned into crack cocaine and sold in Dallas. She legally purchased a gun, which she never used but carried for protection.
Although she was a first time offender, she was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine at trial and sentenced to life without parole in federal prison.
Sharanda’s decision is costing tax payers $1.2 million to house her, but her daughter is paying a higher price for her crime.
“I was 8 years old at the time and my world as I knew it was shattered… Being without my mother for over 13 years of my life has been extremely difficult,” explained her daughter. “But the thought that she is set to spend the rest of her life in prison as a first-time non-violent offender is absolutely devastating.”
George and Sharanda are among 1,256,300 women that are being supervised by correctional systems in the United States. Statistics released by the U.S. Department of Justice also reveals that 75 percent of women in prison are mothers, with two-thirds of these women having children under the age of 18.
According to the DOJ’s report, “Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014”, female inmates make up 50,200 of Michigan’s prison system.
While incarcerated mothers dread celebrating Mother’s Day behind bars, it is their children who suffer the most.
“I was lonely and felt left out when my friends would talk about fixing breakfast or buying gifts for their mother,” says Kimberly, 16, whose mother is serving 15 years in prison for second degree murder. “I miss going to the mall with my mother or having personal conversations about things going on in my life. Sure I talk to her on the phone and write letters, but it’s not the same as that one on one contact. Sometimes, I need my mother in front of me to wipe away my tears or to comfort me in her arms with a warm embrace. I feel like the judge sentenced me, when he locked up my mother.”
Prison Fellowship noted how the effects of having a mother in prison vary according to a child’s age.
“Children between the ages of 2-6 can feel separation anxiety, impaired socio-emotional development, traumatic stress and even survivor guilt. Children between the ages of 7-10 may experience developmental regressions, poor self-concept, acute traumatic stress reactions, and impaired ability to overcome future trauma. Children from ages 11-14 may experience rejection on limits of behavior and trauma-reactive behaviors. Children from the ages of 15-18 may experience a premature termination of dependency relationship with parent, and it may lead them to intergenerational crime and incarceration,” cited the organization on its website at www.prisonfellowship.org.
Embarrassment is experienced by most children, when their parent goes to jail. Some may blame themselves for their parent’s incarceration, thinking they have done something wrong. Others may experience teasing at school by their peers, which may lead to them having lower self-esteem. And, some may respond with anger, rebelliousness, and may want to retaliate against their teasers.
To combat negative effects, experts advise caregivers to encourage communication between the child and mother. Children who continue to stay in touch with their parent in prison exhibit fewer disruptive and anxious behaviors. There is also evidence that it helps the parents as well by lowering recidivism rates and making reunification easier and more likely once the parent is released from prison.
However, a parent’s release from prison can be bitter sweet.
On December 19, 2013, President Barack Obama commuted George’s sentence. Although she is free, she still suffers from the effects of a life sentence. Her children have grown up without her, and older relatives have aged and passed away.
Meanwhile, Sharanda’s daughter hopes that Obama will commute her mother’s sentence as well, before he leaves office.
“I know that my mother committed a crime and that she has to pay for her actions. However, after over 13 years I feel she has more than paid the price for her crime,” she pleaded. “My mother does not deserve to come out of prison in a casket.”
For, there is no justice even with time served in being a “prison mom”. Children suffer from being without their mother, and their mother suffers too. The unknown about what’s happening with their children is what punishes mothers most.
As one mother put it, "I can do time alone OK. But it’s not knowing what's happening to my son that hurts most. Being incarcerated doesn’t stop you from worrying about your child. It’s part of the sentence, when you’re a prison mom."