Working With Incarcerated Moms

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As part of our series with of interviews with the winners of AllState and The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, I spoke with Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, the founder of Hour Children, an organization that houses, mentors, and supports incarcerated women and their families.

Sister Tesa and I discussed how she started her New York-based organization and how it’s progressed in the 30 years since its founding. Our interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Leah Askarinam: What was the problem you noticed that you sought to solve through Hour Children?

Sister Tesa Fitzgerald: Thirty-one years ago is when this all started. We had a sister who was working inside New York's maximum-security prison for women. And she, in her work, knew that there were a lot of children out there who were not visiting their parents for all kinds of reasons, so she asked us to come together to think about opening a house for these children. I went out of curiosity because I couldn't imagine what would happen to a child if the mother was suddenly here-today-gone-tomorrow type of thing. So, I went really to learn about the issue.

Then, in hearing stories of children and mothers, I was hooked. And I, with four other sisters at Saint Joseph's, opened a house for children whose mothers were incarcerated. Our commitment was to maximize the time that the child spent with the mother, so we would go up two or three times a week depending on the age of the child. We had anywhere from eight to 12 children whose mothers were at Bedford Prison. When I would take them in and spend time with the mothers, I had kind of an “a-ha” moment when I realized that these mothers really never had a childhood themselves, that they were victims of alcoholic or drug[-addicted] families, domestic violence, had poor education, low self-esteem—all the things that they suffered themselves, as a result, they ended up on the other side of the law. And yet, they had children and they longed and yearned for a better opportunity for their children. So, then Hour Children was born, the formal nonprofit that would offer a home and support services to mothers coming out of prison with their children.

We worked extensively with the nursery mothers. New York state has a nursery program where … women are in a prison nursery with a newborn, and they're there with them for a year. So, when they come out, if they don't have viable housing, their chances of making it are really nil. Hour Children opened with that cause in mind: to have a home for mothers who could come out of the prison system with a baby, or with the resolution or the need the reunite with the child in family care or foster care. So, that really was the first house that we started, and the need just grew.

And now we have eight houses, where we offer hospitality to women coming out of prison. We also offer them services so that they have not only a community of support that they're living with—and we notably keep it smaller, from 10 to 15 families so that they really can become family to each other—but at the same time their participating in a work-training program is crucial for the mothers to learn the skills that they need for the workforce, to have the experience of internships, to learn computers, to have good jobs, resume-writing and job-interviewing skills. So, the mothers do that. If they have a baby, we have a licensed child-care center. And we have an after-school program so that the mothers, when they do get a job, can work and not worry where their children are, and then a host of other support services.

Clothing is essential. When women come out of prison they have no clothes. So we have three thrift shops where people give an abundance of very nice clothing for casual and workforce wear, so the women have access to that. We have a food pantry program also, and mentoring programs for the mothers and the children.

Askarinam: Can you give me a sense of how the scale grew over the last 30 years? What did it start out as, and when did you start adding the food pantry and the mentoring?

Sister Tesa: It’s driven by need. … The house was crucial. The house is the heart of the whole program. So, a mother would come out to live in a house. Well, when you come out you have no clothes. I remember asking people to donate clothing and it came in abundance. So, when you have too many clothes, you open a thrift shop. And it also provided job opportunities. The thrift shops were run by women who were living in our houses.

Then again, if you had a baby and you wanted to go to work, you had to have child care. So we had babysitting first. And then it grew into a formalized program. And children grow up, so you need an after-school program. And obviously, women needed skills that they didn't have, and that's where the work-training program [came in] … So, it all really grew out of the needs that were very evident in a woman's life, especially a mother's life. The idea of being alone and coming out to an unknown world and sometimes unfriendly environment, you need good case management and counseling, so we have those services also. And it’s just driven by a lot of common sense things that you can take for granted in life. When a woman comes out and lives in a house, sometimes they didn't grow up with the necessary skills to manage their lives. Maybe their families didn’t have a routine. They didn't know how to cook, they didn't know how to clean, they don't know the whole issue of how you raise children. So all of those services are on site, and I look at it as a common sense approach to life. Which is what we do.

People would say, “Can we do this? Why don’t we have this?” So you go ahead and you do it. The [question] “Why not?” becomes the reality. And people jumped in to help to do those things. Same with the food pantry. We started with a small pantry, for women I knew who were going home to families after prison, and they didn't have enough resources, so we said come to us and we'll make sure you have food when you run out of food. Well, now we're servicing 9,000 families a month in our community because the need is larger than just our own local community.

Askarinam: Before all this, had you had any previous experience in this area?

Sister Tesa: No, no, I'm an educator. I'm still an educator by trade, I hope. And education is the key here. But no, I was a teacher, I was a principal and I was a supervisor of education in Brooklyn and Queens. So, I was a real rookie.

Askarinam: But that's kind of experience, right?

Sister Tesa: Education was. And I worked with families, and I saw the needs, and things like that. But I also believed that if we can keep kids focused on education and developing their innate talents and feeling empowered to use that in some way, that's the secret. We would have no prison system if we had decent education in our world because people would see another way of life. Same thing with—drug addicts don't belong in prison, they belong in rehab. There are a lot of common-sense ways at looking at our social issues.

Askarinam: What led you to believe “I should be the person trying to fix this problem, I can independently do this without government or a big company behind me”?

Sister Tesa: It was sitting one-on-one with the women who were pleading for someone to believe in them and offer them an opportunity. And I remember often leaving the prison after a visit with this kind of churning in my stomach, saying that I have to do something, kind of a fire in your belly—you know that expression—I can't just listen and say “I'm sorry” or offer words of help. You had to do something. That’s kind of what happened: Let’s just do it, let’s just do something.

And of course, I read, and you get educated about the larger needs of the world about us, and I could see it. The neighborhood we were in, we were between two massive housing projects, and you saw the poverty and the need. You say “Well, let's do something.” And you take a little step. And one little step led to another. And we’re certainly only a drop in the bucket to address the need that’s there for incarceration … but if you do something, you do something.

Askarinam: Have you ever thought though that there should be an institution already in place here? That there should have been some government system in place?

Sister Tesa: You would like to think that the government knows that when they say they care for the people of our country, that what that means would really fold over into concrete programs. And that happens to some extent. There's a little here and little there. It’s not enough.

We’re not really looking at the systemic issues. What’s bringing people to a point of incarceration? We have to look backwards: Why are prisons filled? And then look at the issues and address them. It certainly is the responsibility of the government, but we're a government of the people by the people and for the people, so all those have to step up and be involved.

Incarceration is one of those things where they view people as punishment: You did something wrong, we put you away, and maybe you’ll come back. I mean, that's the mentality that's got to change in our country. These are people who made a mistake like the rest of us, and we have a responsibility to help them get back on their feet after doing wrong. And the wrong sometimes is minuscule or it's severe, and I don't minimize crime in any way. The people I see behind bars certainly would do better elsewhere. Although there are some I bet that would be happy where they are—not happy, but you know, there's a need of institutionalization of severe criminals. But that's not who we're talking about. And that's not what's going on in our prisons. There are people who are in poverty and marginalized with no opportunity.

Askarinam: Do you think there is a place for a big institution or maybe someplace funded by government that could kind of replicate what you're doing in other places?

Sister Tesa: Oh, sure … You have to have the will to replicate, and you have to have the belief, and look at the statistics of what's changing. I don’t think it should be big. Big is not good. Our model works because we’re personalized. You know you get to know people’s names and their stories. And that can happen over and over again.

Empower smaller groups to do this over and over again. And it can work. But don’t get big. Because once it gets big, it becomes nameless. And once people become nameless, they're voiceless, and it's over. They don't feel that that they're important. So it certainly can be replicated by many, many people of goodwill. Many civic groups, church groups, all across our country and really eager to help. I get that call over and over again. And I get people coming in from all over the United States to see what we're doing and see what we've done. And then they go back and they say “What can we do?” I say, “Just start. Get a small house. Get a parish house. Get a local group to sponsor a small house in the community, and then welcome in people. And then that will grow.”

So it certainly can be [replicated], and I see it being done. It's not done enough. We certainly don’t have enough. And again, on our end of the world, we could do more if we had the ability to get more housing. You can't offer people to come and be job-trained if they're going back to a shelter that's really not the best for them at night — crime-ridden, drug-ridden, however it is … Housing is key.