Story by Katie Kelton. Photos by Hunter Lacey.
This story is sponsored by our friends at Marie Mae!
When Brittany Barnett was 22 years old, she witnessed her mother enter into incarceration for an underlying drug addiction. Although already a young adult, the experience greatly impacted Brittany and her younger sister, spurring her to consider how much more traumatic it would be if she were younger and still in her mother’s care. Thankfully, her mother found the strength to undergo rehabilitation and now works as a drug recovery nurse, but this is not the story for all currently-incarcerated women.
Here is a startling statistic: 81% of incarcerated women in Texas are mothers. That means over 10,000 children in our state are growing up without their mom, based on a report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. According to Brittany, “Children of incarcerated parents are among the most at-risk yet least visible types of children. They’re dropping through the cracks.”
The issue of female incarceration is not without nuance. At first glance, it may raise eyebrows that Texas incarcerates more women by number than other state, that that number has grown by 908% in the last 25 years, or that 64% of these women are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. When you pull back the curtain on the lives of these women, you find a docket of issues these women face leading up to incarceration. Such issues include low education levels, lack of access to safe and affordable housing, poverty, trauma and victimization, mental health, and substance abuse. As Brittany puts it, “There’s no crime to be traumatized, but enduring trauma can lead to drug use, unhealthy relationships, and toxic behavior.”
The children left behind may still be in the wreckage. Prompted by this issue that also carries personal semblance, Brittany founded Girls Embracing Mothers (GEM) to engage daughters with incarcerated mothers and empower them to forge new paths for their lives. Their mission is to empower girls in grades K-12 with mothers in prison to break the cycle of incarceration and lead successful lives with vision and purpose. With a law degree from SMU and extensive practice in accounting, corporate law, and criminal justice reform, Brittany stepped away from the corporate world to direct her energies toward elevating GEM to new heights.
Through a phenomenal partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the women’s prison system, GEM offers the Pearl program – a chance for daughters to spend four hours every month visiting their moms in prison. Not only is the visiting time allotted more generous than the usual visit time in prison systems, but Brittany and her team also provide a meal, art therapy, and curriculum around critical life issues to help rebuild the bond between mom and daughter. To supplement the girls in the Pearl program, GEM also offers the Diamond program, which is a series of character cultivation workshops.
Angelica, a formerly-incarcerated mother, entered prison when her daughter was just eleven years old. As they began the GEM program, her daughter was “was tired of getting hurt from me, very angry, not willing to have anything to do with me,” Angelica shares emotionally. During the first visit, they sat in silence. During the second visit, they began to speak. Over a series of visits, the two began to break down the walls that had been constructed throughout their relationship. Angelica remembers, “It showed me that I made a mistake, but it’s not over yet.”
If not for GEM, Angelica might still be in prison with a severed relationship with her children. Instead, she now works as GEM’s Program Coordinator, spending time with mothers in the prisons and offering her personal testimony as proof of transformation. As for Angelica’s hopes and dreams, “They’re not extravagant,” she exudes. “I want to own a home where all my children can come home if they need to. I want to use my story to help somebody from going through all those terrible things I went through. And I just want my kids to know that, even though at first I wasn’t that mother, I am now and I’m always going to be here for them.”
In the past six years, Brittany and her small but mighty team have helped over 50 incarcerated mothers rebuild their relationships with their daughters and welcomed 150 girls to break the generational cycle of incarceration and navigate their full potential. “I am not a fan of people saying, ‘You’re a voice for the voiceless,’” Brittany confesses. “Everybody has a voice! Here at GEM, we amplify those voices.”
If you would like to accompany Brittany and the daughters of GEM on a prison visit or support relationships like these, please visit their website.
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Marie Mae has meticulously woven social impact and environmental sustainability throughout their luxury paper products and corporate gifts. Marie Mae is more than a simple “give back” company. Each item purchased equals one hour of training for one person at the Marie Mae Business School, a series of classes and training for women and entrepreneurs around the world, in places such as Rwanda. The current business school is ongoing in Dallas, Texas, empowering trafficking survivors with the business skills they need to succeed.