kid and barsHARLEM, 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Until this law was passed, parents of children in foster care had their parental rights automatically rescinded after 15 months of incarceration.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.

Fighting Back

Smith has overcome her drug addiction and is now fighting to win back her parental rights. Recently, she saw her son for the first time in two and a half years; it warmed her heart that he still called her "mom."

"I want to see people have the same smile on their face I have every time I see my son," said Smith.

She says she was "one of the lucky ones," since her son was adopted by a family member rather than in foster care, but she knows the helplessness of having parental rights taken with little to no legal recourse.

"I have to fight so it doesn’t have to happen to other people," said Smith.

Will Norris, project associate for the Initiative for Children and Family Services at the Osborne Association, a nonprofit advocate based in the Bronx, N.Y., talked about having to fight the widespread attitude that those in prison are no longer human and don’t deserve basic rights.

However, he’s seeing a change. "I’m thankful for what has transformed in this city and throughout the state," said Norris, a father who is 14 years out of prison.

His organization and others are now taking their message statewide to make sure the law is carried out. "We as advocates play an important role that it’s not just on a piece of paper," said Norris.

Mia Savage, another committee member and formerly incarcerated mother ("a very good mother at that," she says), is currently fighting for her children in the state of Virginia.

New York is among the most progressive states in the nation concerning the rights of inmate parents in a country where 1.7 million children have a parent in state or federal prison. The Adoption and Safe Families Act is a federal law that has been amended by many states to further tighten the 15-month time limit.

"I see the need to push this legislation nationally," said Savage.

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Colleen Flaherty is a Women’s eNews editorial intern and journalism major at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

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Coalition of Women Prisoners, part of the Correctional Association of New York: