Economic sanctions. Collateral consequences. Permanent punishments. There are 44,000 restrictive federal laws, rules, and policies that continue to penalize people long after they have served their sentence in prison. Permanent Punishment, a four-part series, examines this stark reality faced by nearly 3.3 million men and women in Illinois.
The number of women in prison is exploding. Between 1980 and 2020 there has been a 475% increase in incarcerated women according to the data from the Sentencing Project. More than half of those women are mothers to children under 18.
Since she returned home after incarceration 22 years ago, Celia Colon has turned much of her energy to helping other women rebuild their post-prison lives through her nonprofit Giving Others Dreams. But she says having a record has hindered her forward progress.
“I'm still facing permanent punishments,” Colon said. “Even though I have my record sealed and I have degrees and I have certificates and I sit on every state and government board doing national systemic work, really impacting lives … society always wants to label you as the worst mistake that you ever had.”
Maria Garza, co-founder of Challenge II Change, has been out of prison for just over a year. She says most of the fundamentals of adult life – from seeking employment to finding housing – are affected by having a criminal record.
“When you have to give a historical background of your work history, and why there is that large gap – the questions come about,” said Garza. “Even though many times applying for an apartment, things like that, they don't say nothing, but you can tell when there's no return call.”
Colon points out that women with children face more entanglement with state systems and institutions than their male counterparts when they’re released.
“Eighty-six percent of women in prison are primary caregivers. When we come home, we have more programming to do mandated by the state. So you’re in this cycle … because as a woman, if your kids are with the state or under foster care, you have mandated supervised visits before you have single visits on your own,” Colon said. “There is parenting classes, substance abuse classes. There’s any kind of alcohol and drug evaluations, if you didn't have a drug or alcohol case, you will have to do these prior to getting your children back.”
Alana Gunn, assistant professor at University of Illinois Chicago, says often the reasons women become incarcerated inform their experiences after incarceration.
“When we think about women who have had criminal legal involvement, we’re really talking about this pipeline — trauma to prison to enduring trauma pipeline. We’re talking about women who have disproportionately had experienced myriad trauma over their life cycle as a child, as an adult and intimate partner, violence dynamics and experiences. We’re also talking about women who experience disengagement and disruption due to systems that failed them, that did not create the access and the support that they needed being young, the one being the educational system, one being child welfare system,” Gunn said. “So we’re really talking about trauma over the developmental life cycle of women that doesn’t stop … when one comes out of prison, we’re then talking about community forms of supervision that serve as another form of surveillance, we’re talking about women that have had experiences with addiction and possibly mentally so many issues.”
Garza is currently pursuing a degree from Northwestern University. She began with their prison education program while she was still incarcerated and says the transition to continuing her education on the outside has presented some difficulties, but she intends to keep going.
“There’s all of the barriers that they are when you come out because of the collaboration that there is still with the Illinois Department of Corrections and me being a parolee and the limitations that there are with the communication with my cohort, the students that are still on that side of the fence. So it has been challenging,” Garza said. “I’m pushing through because to not do so is to say what a lot of times has been said about women — that we can’t do this and do that. But I can. I can work. I can still be a mother, I can still be a friend, a daughter and I still can go to school.”