Suzanna Masih/ CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

The Rocky Road to Family Reconnection

By Suzanna Masih

When Jean Coaxum was released from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, on Oct. 10, 2006, after 23 years, she waited anxiously as the guards opened the gate – much too slowly for her liking. Outside the prison doors was precious freedom and family.

She had been to five parole board hearings, and been rejected four times, before finally getting parole. Now the gates were opening, and her three children – who had been raised by Arline, Coaxum’s mother, in her absence – had come to take her home.

“On the other side, my family was waiting for me. I was anxious and excited to actually go through the gates because I knew that I was never coming back,” Coaxum, 61, recalls.

She was sent to prison in 1984 for a robbery in which a woman was killed. Her children, Renee, Arline – named after her mother – and Malcolm were 9, 5 and 11 months old then. Now, they were all adults with jobs and lives of their own.

Coaxum was looking forward to making up for the lost time – missed weddings, birthdays and holidays. Stolen memories, as she calls them. She was expecting to ease back into the close relationship she’d had with them before she’d gone to prison. But that didn’t happen.

In the first few weeks back, she made the trip to the Bronx every other week from Providence House, a transitional housing facility for formerly incarcerated women, where she was staying in Brooklyn, to see her mother Arline, and soon started feeling left out.

“My kids were also coming by and I’m seeing them doing things for her, buying things and not really doing things for me. They were more attentive to her than me,” she said. “It was like I was trying to fight for love from my kids, but they were so in tune with my mom. I didn’t want to take that away from her, but I am the mother too.”

As of April 30, there were 2,037 women parolees in New York, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that over the past five years, more than 2,500 women have been released on supervision almost every year. With all the expectations required of parolees – to keep up visits to parole officers, stay drug free, find a job, a house and participate in state-mandated reentry programs – family reintegration can be a stressful process, specially for women leaving prisons.

Researchers and activists say that for many women, the additional anxiety about reconnecting with their children emotionally, or getting custody if child services is involved, is yet another daunting aspect of restarting their lives.

Criminal justice researchers Elaine Gunnison and Jacqueline Helfgott have documented the challenges for female parolees in resuming their role as a mother and trying to balance it with other demands of reentry. 

In a book titled “Offender Reentry: Beyond Crime and Punishment,” published in 2013, the professors report on the many stressors women released on supervision face, chief among them is worry for the children’s emotional wellbeing.

“They are trying to reintegrate, to get a job, get housing and then they’ve got this added burden of trying to get custody when they are still trying to get all their basic needs met. It makes it really difficult for them,” said Elaine Gunnison, the book’s coauthor and associate professor at Seattle University’s Criminal Justice department, in a phone interview.

Monica Morales has worked with formerly incarcerated women for 15 years at the Osborne Association, a New York City-based nonprofit that offers a host of reentry programs, including substance abuse treatment, job training as well as advocacy and counseling to mothers with family court involvement.

According to Morales, on average about 80 women come to Osborne from prisons each year with different levels of substance abuse, trauma and life experiences. 

“At least half of the women have struggled within sometime of their life with reconnecting to their children after those things have occurred to them or because they spent more than 15 months incarcerated and they risk losing their parental rights,” said Morales.

It is hard for incarcerated mothers to maintain a bond with their children. Prisons are located far upstate – the closest women’s prison, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, is a one-and-a-half hour-long train ride from the city on the Metro-North Railroad – and it becomes difficult for families to travel that far. Some families just prefer not to expose children to the experience of going into a prison system.  Therefore, women serving long sentences end up not seeing their children for years at a time, said Morales.

By the time the incarcerated mother is released, a divide has already formed between her and the children who have often moved on with their lives. The gap is hard to bridge for women who are struggling to cope with the many demands of reintegration.

Coaxum at her desk as she gets ready to leave work for the day. She was released on parole in 2006 after serving 23 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Suzanna Masih/ CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Coaxum, who got off parole in 2011 and works at Exodus Transitional Community, is still trying to get some semblance of the nurturing relationship she had with her children before she went to prison.

She and her children used to meet at Arline’s house in the Bronx every few weeks for dinner. But Arline passed away in February 2016, and Coaxum has not seen them since the funeral. They called her for Mother’s Day and she said she was surprised.

“They are still grieving my mother,” she said. “I really didn’t think they would call, because they miss her so much. Everybody is hurting.”

Her children could not be reached for comment by the time this article was filed.

For Coaxum, mending her relationships with her children is a work in progress and she feels she is in a good position with her eldest daughter and youngest son now because they call her often. Getting it right with the middle daughter will take time, she thinks.    

“I’m just trying to build a decent relationship and I hope to do it before I die because once you die you can’t bring anything back,” she said.