By Colleen Flaherty
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Friends and advocates of female prisoners gave thanks for many things at a recent meeting in Harlem. One was a New York law passed in June that helps parents keep custody of their children while they are in jail, mostly for nonviolent offenses.
HARLEM, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)--Friends and advocates of female prisoners gathered here last week and went around the room to give thanks.
Members of the Coalition for Women Prisoners said they were thankful for life, family, happiness and good friends. Some in the crowd who had served time expressed gratitude for having their lives together after incarceration.
The group also had a hard-won legislative victory in New York State to celebrate and discuss: the Adoption and Safe Families Act Expanded Discretion Bill, signed into law in June 2010.
Until this law was passed, parents of children in foster care had their parental rights automatically rescinded after 15 months of incarceration. The median sentence length for women in New York's prisons is 36 months.
Now, the law gives foster care agencies the discretion to extend that cutoff if the parent has remained involved with the child and the child's best interest is served by the parent's ongoing relationship.
This is part of a huge push to maintain family relationships in New York, where 83 percent of female inmates are convicted of nonviolent crimes and 73 percent of incarcerated women are mothers of children under 18.
Sharmaine Smith, a member of the Incarcerated Mothers' Committee and a formerly incarcerated mother, lost her parental rights while in prison. She was one of the many who lobbied lawmakers in Albany to pass this law.
"People can get their lives together," said Smith.