Johanna Flores, an employee of, and former participant in, the Hour Children program, and her son, Edwin.

IA reunion

On December 3, 2003, Johanna Flores stood in the baggage claim area at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, waiting for her son’s plane to touch down. She hadn’t seen him in nearly four years, and hadn’t seen his face up close since he was a newborn. He knew her voice only from the 15-minute phone calls they had in the few months leading up to their reunion, but how would that help him recognize her in a crowd? They’d spent nearly his entire life apart.

“I was so nervous,” Johanna says, wringing her hands. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know whether my son was going to say ‘Mommy’ or if he was going to say, ‘Where’s my mom?’”

In 2000, when she was 19 years old, Johanna was charged with a criminal drug offense and sentenced to four to 12 years in prison in upstate New York, thousands of miles from her home in Tijuana, Mexico. The prison time was a harsh punishment, but even harsher was being separated from her son, Edwin, for the first few years of his life.

“I feel very guilty,” she says, visibly emotional. “I made a mistake, and he's the one who lived the consequences.”

That day at JFK, Johanna was accompanied by Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, the executive director of Hour Children, a Queens-based nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women re-enter society and reunite with their families. She was also one of the only people that Johanna knew in New York, and the best person she could think of to be there the day she met with Edwin—Sister Tesa has a reassuring way about her.

The two of them stood in baggage claim, waiting for Edwin to show up. He was traveling from San Diego with his maternal grandmother, who had been caring for him since Johanna’s arrest. Sister Tesa saw them first: “There’s your mom, Johanna.”

“And there was my mom, and then Edwin,” Johanna remembers today. “Edwin ran and hugged me. He said, ‘Mommy.’ I started crying. Sister Tesa was crying. And I was like, okay. That was it. That was it.”

They were off to a good start. But the lion’s share of the work was still ahead of them both—Johanna had to get her bearings and make a life in New York, where she planned to live long-term in lieu of returning to her family on the West Coast. And she had to forge a relationship with Edwin, essentially from scratch. Edwin, meanwhile, had to deal with being separated from his grandmother and adjust to life in a new place with his mother, whom he barely knew.

That’s where Hour Children came in. It gave both Johanna and Edwin the support, information, and services that are mostly unavailable to women in Johanna’s situation—young, broke, and out of their element. And there was no set deadline by which they had to leave the program, since Hour Children doesn’t limit how long mothers can stay with them.

“As long as [women] are working, going to school, [trying to be] good mothers, they can stay here until they're ready to really move on,” Johanna says. “Hour Children gives you the gift of time.”

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Hour Women

Portraits of the lives that Hour Children has impacted

Sara NortonDecember will mark Norton’s second year at Hour Children. She works in Hour Children’s call center and has a two-year-old daughter, Mia, who was born in the nursery at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Kellie PhelanPhelan has been the coordinator of Hour Children’s mentoring and teen programs since 2009, and is in the process of building a brand new space for the program’s adolescent participants. Her nine-year-old daughter, Savanna, lives with her in Hour Children housing.

Davania MitchellMitchell, who lives in Hour Children’s independent living house in Corona with her six-year-old son, is working on her college degree. “[My son] likes to see what classes I’m going in and what subject I’m doing,” she says. “I’m happy to make him proud.”

Carolyn DwyerDwyer came to Hour Children for her work release. At the time of interview, she had 19 days left until she was allowed to go home for the first time in 25 years. “I’m very excited, and a little nervous. It’s very exciting.”

Tina YerryYerry is working on finishing her degree in forensic psychology, and ultimately wants to become an alcohol and substance abuse counselor. “I’m going to try to deter other women from going to prison with drug charges and get their legs on track before that happens,” she says. She’s been sober for 24 years.

Gaby MarcanoMarcano joined Hour Children in October of 2016. Since then, she’s enrolled in college, starting working at at the Hour Working Women Reentry Program, got engaged, and got her driver’s license. “I’m doing excellent, and I feel like I’m really proud of myself,” she says.

IIA place for those with nowhere to go

Johanna first learned English in prison. The first word she got was locker, so she could identify the place where she put her things. The second, third, and fourth words were leave me alone.

As the end of her sentence neared, Johanna became eligible for work release, an arrangement that lets inmates finish their sentences at a day job instead of in a correctional facility. She was given a hard timeline of six weeks to find a job, a difficult task for anyone first arriving in Manhattan, let alone someone with no network and a language barrier. By the third week, she’d begun to lose hope.

“It was very hard for me to get a job, so I was about to ask my counselor to send me back to prison,” she says. The stresses of New York weighed on her more than the ones that came with being in prison—there, she at least knew what to expect.

By that time, she had met Renata Kundrom, an Hour Children advocate who had visited Johanna at Taconic Correctional Facility, the medium-security prison where she’d been serving the final months of her sentence. Kundrom told Sister Tesa about Johanna’s situation, and Hour Children hired her as an administrative assistant at its headquarters. She’s been there ever since.

Hour Children and its organizers make a point of finding opportunities for women who have been in prison, some for decades, and now carry with them stigma, communication issues, or no marketable skills. Johanna spoke of a woman whom Hour Children took on who didn’t speak a word of English and couldn’t write.

“Where's she going to work?” Johanna asks. “They were getting ready to send her back to prison [from the work-release program], and Sister Tesa wasn't going to allow that to happen, so she ended up hiring her, too.”

Employment is critical, of course, but Hour Children’s top priority for families is getting a roof over their heads. Homelessness is shown to have a direct link with recidivism—a 2002 study indicated that nearly 33 percent of ex-cons who entered public shelter systems within their first two years of liberation were eventually re-incarcerated.

“Housing is the number one need,” says Johanna. “That’s the foundation for anybody to really just get their lives together.”

Though Hour Children is an expansive program, they still cannot accommodate all the women and children they would like to in their 37 units. For every Johanna they take on, there are countless other women who they just can’t bring into their facilities. Part of that limitation is due to a shortage of resources; the other part is the city’s enormous prison population.

“[We] have limited space, so we said no to housing for more and more people, and it’s been painful,” she says. “We can’t take as many families as we’d like.”

Kids playing outside of My Mother's House, a building owned by Hour Children which serves as transitional housing and a daycare for program participants.

IIIMother of all problems

Before it was the multifaceted reentry program it is today, Hour Children was a foster home. Sister Tesa, along with three other nuns from the Sisters of Saint Joseph, became licensed foster mothers in the mid-’80s and opened their doors to children who were born in the prison nursery in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. As they took in more and more children over the years—eight to 12 at a time, according to Sister Tesa—they also got to know their mothers.

“Every weekend we would take turns going up to visit the mothers. And after a while, you got to know them,” Sister Tesa says. “I remember leaving one day saying, ‘Wow, that could be my niece that I just spoke to.’ Their life circumstances were pretty brutal. They really didn’t have the support of a loving family who encouraged education and a good life.”

As the Sisters started to see that mothers needed help as much as their children, the founders of Hour Children looked to broaden their services. They sought out charity status, eventually becoming an official nonprofit that focused specifically on formerly incarcerated mothers and their children. In 1992, after nine years of working with children, they also began taking in mothers.

The number of women in the U.S. prison system has risen between 700 and 800 percent since 1980, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the total global population of female inmates. To put that in perspective, the U.S. only accounts for five percent of the global female population. This shockingly rapid increase has taken its toll on the American family unit: Sixty percent of women in state prisons nationwide have children under the age of 18, and women are far more likely to be primary caregivers than are their male counterparts. Imprisoning a mother usually means upending a family and relocating her children, putting them in situations where they live with grandparents or other family members, or in the foster system.

Sara arranging her daughter's stuffed animals in their room at My Mother's House, a transitional housing block for participants in the Hour Children program.
Mercedes holding Sara's Daughter, Mia, in one of the daycare rooms at My Mother's House. Mercedes, who was once Mia's teacher, now takes care of Mia when Sara, who is currently in the work release program, is required to return prison for two nights a week.

Long-term separation from a mother (such as an 18- to 20-month prison sentence, the average for female inmates) can severely impact a child’s development. It can result in aggression, negativity, and trust issues during childhood, and mental illness and criminal activity in adolescence and adulthood. According to a 2015 study from nonprofit research center Child Trends, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to repeat a grade in school and less likely to show interest in learning new things or completing assignments. Hour Children’s services have a direct impact on the children they take in: Last year, 100 percent of kids participating in Hour Children successfully completed the school year and went on to the next grade.

Much of the organization’s success can be attributed to its growth over the years—today, it has about 50 employees, over a third of whom are formerly incarcerated women. Hour Children’s services have also expanded. What was once a foster home is now a network of community centers that gives women access not only to housing, but also to children’s centers, teen programs, employment assistance, tutoring, continued education, and social services. And the proof of the program’s efficacy is in the numbers: The nationwide five-year recidivism rate among female prisoners in the United States is 68 percent; among Hour Children women, the rate is two percent.

The success and scope of Hour Children has not gone unnoticed. In 2013, Sister Tesa was honored at the White House for her work with Hour Children. She, along with about 20 other representatives from nonprofits that work with the formerly incarcerated, were brought together to be celebrated for their work with an underserved population, one that Sister Tesa says society would prefer not to think about.

“We were recognized for going out and providing some sort of humane services to allow people to get back on their feet,” she says.

More recently, the organization was awarded a Youth Empowerment Award by Allstate, which specifically recognized its long-term impact on children. The consequence for a child whose mother stays out of prison is massive—evidence about the impact of a parent’s chronic absenteeism is proof alone.

In other words, the difference being offered is between forging ahead in life, or sliding backwards.

Johanna and Edwin Flores outside of their home in Corona, Queens.

IVMeet the Floreses

To put a face on the success of reentry programs, you could look at Johanna and her present circumstance, or you could look to the future, at Edwin.

Edwin is now six feet tall, reticent, driven, and college-bound. The only lasting issue that he seems to deal with is significant memory loss. He can’t recall meeting his mom for the first time, can’t conjure up anything about his early years in New York, and doesn’t have any clear childhood memories. He says that everything before the fifth grade is a blank. Johanna thinks it’s trauma, but Edwin thinks he just has a shoddy memory.

Academic struggle is one of the hallmark issues impacting children with incarcerated parents, yet Edwin has been on the honor roll since sixth grade. His greatest worries are over whether his high school has prepared him sufficiently for adulthood, that he doesn’t know enough about things like health insurance and income taxes. He doesn’t like change, and he’d rather not be the center of attention, but the same could be said for many 17-year-olds.

Many factors—circumstance, chance, their own strength of spirit—have led to the Flores’ success, but no one would deny that Hour Children has played a significant role. The program stayed with them as they grew into success, helping them navigate troubles as they appeared. Early on, while Johanna worked as an administrative assistant at Hour Children, Edwin stayed in the program’s daycare center. Later, he attended an Hour Children after-school program. He’s gone to its summer camp, made friends in its teen program, and it gave him his first job at 14 years old. When he had a hard time with math in his early high-school years, Hour Children placed him with a tutor, and today he prepares for the SAT exams with a different tutor on Sundays (and speaking of those high school years: Half of Edwin’s tuition at a Catholic school in Queens is footed by Hour Children). Both Johanna and Edwin were matched with mentors—Johanna’s mentor, Diana Madsen, is still a part of her life. Hour Children has given them free therapy, too, in a city where mental health care can cost hundreds of dollars per session.

“Having a therapist, it's huge,” Johanna says. “That's why Hour Children's recidivism [rate is so low], because of the support systems that we have here.”

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Hour Children employs program members at an on-site call center.

V“We become the family”

Hour Children offers former female prisoners so many services because many of them face “transformation with families,” as Sister Tesa calls it, or what others might call a disruption in a woman’s support system.

“For some women who have been inside, the family has sort of walked away from them. Now, when they're out, they're trying to re-bridge back, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. And that's a very painful thing to watch,” she adds.

Johanna herself faced a transformation of family while she was incarcerated. Once her sentence was finished, she went out to where her family lived in San Diego to see if she wanted to move back. She found that her mother wasn’t yet ready to talk about anything that had happened in prison, and nobody else knew where she’d been. Her mom told them she was in college all those years. That isn’t unusual—friends and family of the formerly incarcerated often perpetuate a conspiracy of silence or untruth for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s shame, sometimes it’s denial or frustration, and sometimes it’s just an effort to protect convicts from stigma and judgment. Regardless of motive, it can be isolating.

“I know she didn't mean no harm,” she says. “But after everything that I went through, I needed to talk to somebody. I needed to vent. I needed to cry. I needed to not lie. I needed just to be me, and my mom didn't want to do that.”

Soon after she arrived in San Diego, she returned to Queens and to Hour Children. “I talk to my mom every day,” she says. “I visit my mom every year. But other than that, I belong here.”

Hour Children owns a fully-functional hair salon, operated entirely by members of Hour Children.
The salon gives women a chance to hone their cosmetics skills.

This sense of community and connection is a major benefit that many women get from the program. For them, family is sometimes a far-away or bygone concept. Their relatives might be angry, hours away, estranged, or have passed away. For these women, Hour Children is the community they’d otherwise be without. It’s the surrogate. It’s a group of like-minded people that women can count on to understand them during one of the most emotionally tumultuous periods of their lives. You can sense it when you duck into an Hour Children facility—the pantry, the hair salon, the thrift shop, the administrative building. You can feel it just walking down the street in the part of Long Island City, Queens, where most of Hour Children’s buildings are concentrated. Everyone is welcoming, and everyone is happy to see you.

“We become the family,” says Sister Tesa. “That’s really our success. The [Hour Children] women themselves become family and a support system, and my staff is there helping you when they see things are getting tough.”

The program’s recidivism rates alone are proof that programs like Hour Children are effective. By keeping women out of prison, the organization saves the state and federal government huge amounts of money and gives women a real shot at life. Perhaps most importantly, it protects children from family disruption. It’s a tremendous challenge. Not everyone is cut out for this work–but when a program like Hour Children makes the commitment, the benefits can ripple across generations.

“There's a sense that people make themselves judge and jury and it's, you know, She shouldn't have, shouldn't have, shouldn't have. Well, there's a lot of things we can say we shouldn't have [done],” Sister Tesa says, adding that Americans’ affinity for retribution—giving criminals what they supposedly deserve—keeps former convicts at a disadvantage.

In reality, she says, helping these women doesn’t take much. Offering any degree of help possible, even just opening a few beds up to women who desperately need it, is a start. Change can be made, as long as the interest and compassion are there.

“Nobody can help everybody,” she says. “But I always feel, where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can do something.”