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Putting Moms In Prison Punishes Their Kids, Too

Mon, 2016-05-09 10:10

CHICAGO -- It's been two months since 13-year-old Malik was able to give his mom a hug. He recently got the rare opportunity, but first he had to travel to a strip mall parking lot on Chicago's South Side, ride a bus for nearly three hours and then pass through security at the Decatur Correctional Facility in downstate Illinois.

"The hardest thing is not talking to her. She was a very funny person," Malik said of his mom, Latonya, whose legal representatives asked that her last name not be used to protect her safety. Latonya has been an inmate at Decatur for two years.

"I miss her jokes, her laughs," said Malik, who was dressed in a crisp white shirt and a small gold cross necklace for his visit on Saturday. "I miss everything about her."

Malik is among the more than 2.7 million American children with a parent in prison, according to the most recent Pew Charitable Trust figures. Put another way: If all of the nation's children with an incarcerated parent were a city, it would be the third-largest in the U.S.

Though nearly 1 in 28 American kids have a parent in jail, the problems facing separated families remain at best misunderstood and at worst ignored.

Despite perceptions about convicts -- especially incarcerated mothers -- Malik said his mom and most of the people at Decatur are not bad people.

But convincing prospective employers, landlords and policymakers of that fact is not so easy. 

Even the very reunification ride program that enabled Malik -- and several dozen children ranging from toddlers to teenagers -- to visit their mothers this weekend has been largely forgotten by lawmakers during Illinois' 10-month budget impasse.

Keeping mothers in touch with their families during incarceration is key to reducing recidivism and ensuring they can be successful and productive upon release, according to Collete Payne, a community organizer with Cabrini-Green Legal Aid, which is among the groups that facilitated the ride.

"I know for a fact, when you send women to jail, it divides the family," Payne said. "It hurts the whole community."

Though fathers remain incarcerated at a rate roughly 10 times higher than mothers, according to Pew, women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.

Incarcerated mothers also report receiving fewer visits than fathers throughout their imprisonment, according to CGLA. 

"When women aren’t able to see their children, not only does it hurt their spirit, their children are the ones most affected," Payne said. Payne, who previously served time in Decatur, noted that her son's grades dropped when she was incarcerated but showed improvement when he was able to talk to her regularly. 

Children of incarcerated parents can struggle with a range of issues that include poverty, poor grades, behavioral issues and depression, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Even when mothers return home, the children aren't always able to immediately accept them. 

“I know I broke my children’s hearts over and over again with my mistakes, so I couldn’t just expect to jump into their lives and say ‘OK, I’m mom, I’m going to take over now,'” Payne said. "Women reentering society face a lot of rejection." 

When you send women to jail, it divides the family. It hurts the whole community."
Colette Payne, community organizer with Cabrini-Green Legal Aid

That rejection can manifest itself in the form of job and housing discrimination and social stigma, all of which make resuming parental mode and reintegrating even harder. 

"A lot of times you hear, 'if you've done the crime, you do the time,’ but the world needs to know that even though we’ve been incarnated -- which is supposed to be a form of rehab -- it’s damaging,” Payne said.

"And then they go back into the same community with no resources, no support, and have people who look down on us or our incarceration," she added. "If we don’t have that support, people will recidivate again, because that’s survival mode."

Mental health support, job opportunities and affordable housing are among the key issues prisoner and family advocates say returning citizens need to be successful. 

“You have the same challenges you went in jail with -- whether it’s suffering from a mental disorder or drug abuse or sexual abuse -- and if that’s not addressed when you’re [incarcerated], you can’t expect to come back to the community and have those issues be fixed," Payne said.  

"If those issues aren’t addressed, how are you supposed to function as a whole human being?"

Payne said she and other advocates are pushing for reform that would eventually allow women convicted of non-violent crimes to serve their time in their communities rather than at prisons that are so far away they involve costly and time-consuming measures for families to stay in contact. 

Simply lacking the money to make phone calls or visit a distant prison like Decatur is just one of the daily struggles Sheila Hatchett faces.

Hatchett accompanied her great-niece and great-nephew on Saturday's reunification ride to visit the children's mother in Decatur. Without the program, visits only happen when her car is in working order and there's enough money for gas to make the nearly 200-mile trip. Even a phone call requires a minimum balance of $25 in the inmate's account.

But the impact a visit has on the children is undeniable, Hatchett said. 

"[My niece's] daughter wakes up moping and crying -- this morning she woke up and jumped right out of bed." 

The children visiting the prison Saturday had roughly five hours with their mothers. In honor of Mother's Day, they were able to visit in the prison rec area and eat a meal prepared by the inmates.

Kamaya, 5, and Kristan, 2, saw their mother for the first time in prison on Saturday. Kamaya swung in her mom's arms, while her usually stoic younger brother cuddled with his mom.

On the return to Chicago, Malik was clearly happy with his visit, too. 

"I have her a big hug and a big kiss. I feel good that I went to go see my mom. I can't wait to see her again," Malik said. When it was time to go, she dispensed a little motherly advice.

"She told me to keep my head up and stay smart."

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How Oreos Explain The 2016 Election

Mon, 2016-05-09 07:34

Last year, Michael Smith learned that his middle-class factory job on Chicago's South Side was headed to Mexico. The news stunned Smith. After all, his factory made an iconic American product: the Oreo cookie.

Soon, real estate mogul Donald Trump took an interest in Smith's plight. Every chance he had, the front-runner for the Republican nomination pilloried Mondelez, the snack conglomerate that produces Oreos, Ritz crackers and other treats, for its decision to offshore the 600 Chicago jobs. Trump vowed never to eat another Oreo again.

Then it was the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, defending Smith and his colleagues from the left. Supporters of the Vermont independent held a rally outside the Mondelez plant in Chicago, demanding that the factory jobs stay put. A Sanders surrogate called the layoffs "an all-too-typical story about greed."

Finally, Smith and his colleagues heard from Hillary Clinton. The factory workers got much more than just a shout-out from the presumptive Democratic nominee. In March, she personally visited Smith and six of his colleagues in an hour-long, closed-door meeting to talk about their layoffs. Clinton told the workers that she personally called Mondelez's CEO, Irene Rosenfeld, and urged her to keep the jobs in Chicago.

"You could have felt the chill in the room when Secretary Clinton said she called Irene Rosenfeld," recalled Smith, a 59-year-old with five years at the plant. "That will be ingrained in my heart forever, wherever her campaign takes her."

This election cycle, bashing companies that offshore work is the one thing the candidates have been able to agree on. Mass layoffs like the ones at Mondelez aren't exactly uncommon, but Americans take notice when jobs making what's been called "America's Favorite Cookie" are relocated to Salinas. Voters see robust corporate profits going to executives -- Rosenfeld raked in $19.7 million in total compensation last year, and $21 million the year before, according to the company's proxy statement -- and stagnating or disappearing wages for everyday Americans.  

Trump has become the presumptive GOP nominee by stating ad nauseum that deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement have devastated American workers -- even though the benevolence of free trade is part of modern Republican orthodoxy. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has hung in with Clinton in a surprisingly competitive Democratic primary by hammering home more or less the same trade message as Trump. And Clinton, viewed by many on the left as weak on trade, is now promoting a tax plan that would claw back tax breaks for companies that offshore jobs.

"Politics makes for strange bedfellows, doesn't it?" said Jethro Head, vice president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, which represents 4,000 Mondelez workers in the U.S. "Although [Trump] doesn't have the facts right, he has the issue right. We're tired of losing work to Mexico. We're tired of American companies sending products from Mexico back here for us to consume. There's not six degrees of separation on this. It's not even a degree. Everybody knows somebody who's lost a job that's been offshored."

One day last year, a Mondelez plant manager in Chicago called a town hall meeting for all employees. According to Leonard Aiello, a mixer who made dough headed to the bake floor, the manager said the factory would lose several lines if the workers couldn't find a way to save the company $46 million annually on labor costs. That is, $46 million "in perpetuity," Aiello said. If they could sacrifice that much in pay and benefits, their jobs would stay, and the company would add more lines. If not, half the plant would be laid off the following year.

Aiello considered the offer "ridiculous."

"My own personal feeling was they were never going to put the lines here," said Aiello, a 57-year-old who had four years in at the plant. "What they wanted us to do and wanted us to agree to was not possible. It couldn't be done. I kind of got the feeling they thought we were stupid."

According to Head, the offer was indeed not realistic. Shaving $46 million a year would have equated to a 60 percent cut in pay and benefits for the workers, he said. And even entertaining such a demand could have weakened the union's bargaining position with Mondelez and others. In fact, Head believes that was the motivation behind the company's proposal. The union was about to start negotiations for a master contract covering Mondelez workers around the country. The company may have wanted to see if the union would signal its willingness to make concessions before they were even at the table.

In an email, Russell Dyer, a Mondelez spokesman, said that the company was operating "in a very challenging macro environment," and that it was focused on "improving the efficiency of all aspects of our business." He said Mondelez had pumped $450 million over the last four years into upgrading its U.S. manufacturing footprint, including adding new lines in New Jersey, Virginia and Illinois. He stressed that some Oreos would still be made at three other U.S. facilities, and that the Chicago plant would still employ 600 people.  

"Our Chicago bakery will continue to play an important role in our manufacturing network, remaining one of our larger manufacturing facilities in North America," Dyer said.

That's little consolation for the half of the factory being laid off. In interviews with five workers who already lost their jobs, a few clear themes emerged. They all viewed Mondelez as a healthy company that doesn't need to move the production lines to Mexico, except to pad its profits. And they blame their predicament largely on a generation of policymakers who they believe have encouraged corporations to offshore production in order to cut costs.

"How is this country going to survive if you keep taking all the good jobs overseas?" lamented Titus Banks, 52, who was among those laid off in March. "Why are the middle class cut out of being middle class, and the folks who are already rich are just getting richer?"

The term NAFTA is practically a slur among the Mondelez workers. The 1994 deal, signed by President Bill Clinton, loosened trade barriers between the U.S. and Mexico, enabling American companies to seek out cheaper labor south of the border, and produce cheaper goods for American consumers. Smith said that as much as he appreciated the visit from Hillary Clinton -- "I thought it was a real class act on her part" -- NAFTA was very much on his mind. "We were aware that it happened under her husband's administration," he said.

According to Smith, Clinton told him and the other Mondelez workers that she didn't succeed in getting Rosenfeld to reconsider the line closures. Clinton's campaign did not respond to questions about the call with Rosenfeld, or the meeting with the Mondelez employees. A Mondelez spokesman confirmed the phone call with Clinton, saying only that Rosenfeld "reinforced our commitment to the Chicago bakery and the U.S. market overall."

To Laura Martinez, Mondelez's move to Salinas reflects the broader disappearance of decent blue-collar jobs that can sustain families. For eight years, Martinez worked in a plant for Bake-Line, the cookie and cracker maker. She was laid off from that job, and went to work at a Wrigley plant producing gum. She was laid off from that job, too, and went to work at Mondelez eight years ago. In March, she was laid off once again. She said she now wonders if any good work remains in American food manufacturing.

"We have to pay the mortgage. We have to live," said Martinez, who is 52 years old and whose husband has bone cancer. "I'm already looking for a job, and a lot of companies only pay $12 an hour or $10 an hour. That's not enough."

The union has launched a boycott of all Oreos produced in Mexico, urging buyers to check the label on boxes to determine where they were produced. (The union does not discourage people from buying Oreos still made in the U.S.) The boycott has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, a federation of more than 50 unions.

That makes for another case of strange bedfellows: The most prominent promoter of an Oreos boycott has been Trump. Organized labor on the whole has come out hard against the GOP front-runner and his brand of politics. And many of the Mondelez workers in Chicago happen to be Mexican-American, like Martinez. Trump has called Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "criminals," and demanded that a giant wall be built on the southern border and paid for by Mexico.

Martinez said she harbors no ill will toward the Mexican workforce, especially as someone born in Mexico. "A lot of people there need jobs, too," she said. But she believes the workers there are paid at exploitative wages, while American workers like herself lose their wages altogether.

"They want to pay workers two dollars an hour, and still send the product back to the United States," Martinez said. "Well, how are we going to buy the product if we don't have jobs?"

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