They Call Me Momma Kate

By Kate Boccia & R.L. Washington

That’s the truth. Old and young, men and women, black, white, Hispanic, you name it.  They all call me “Momma Kate.”  I didn’t become Momma Kate alone.  Momma Kate is part of a small package of mammas who devote a lot of attention to the incarcerated and their families.   None of these mammas really having the time or the resources.  But they are mothers – a special band of such, no doubt – and instinctively they can’t turn their backs on a family in distress.

Through a set of strategies, we at the NIA refer to as “CPR” these mamas give inmates and their families a warm and sincere space to voice their needs.  To wrap their minds around what went so terribly wrong and what can possibly be done to survive, repair and rediscover hope.  To help them resolve the myriad of issues that come with current soft-on-crime carceral and criminal justice systems.  To help them resuscitate themselves and their loved ones.

Often times currently, it’s just two Dianes, a Karen and a Kate – me.  Together, we’ve amassed a case load of more than 1,000 families trying to navigate through brutal and outdated systems.

I had never dreamed that this work would play such a profoundly important role in the lives of the families seeking out the NIA daily. I began by simply listening to the concerns they were having.  Learning how to best help systems officials relate more and improve situations for all involved.  As more and more calls and letters came in, more and more stories were developing, and more and more Momma Bears were coming out and asserting their interests.

I began to realize that the effects of long term, sustained and sequential trauma, such as incarceration, have lasting and serious impacts on how a family navigates life and future.

My personal experience was that my psychology and behavior changed the moment my son was sent to prison. I stopped being the typical consumer of what big-box retailers assumed of me due to my demographics, age and other considerations.  I no longer felt compelled to shop and entertain and travel and consume by the usual habits.  Items like seasonal products, household and electronic upgrades, cars, clothes, meals and cocktails and a variety of other things that I had consumed with predictable regularity my entire adult life.  If GDP indicators were applied to my immediate household, we’d be highlighted as having caused an economic freefall.

The trauma also played out when I was fired from my job 90 days after he went to prison because of my poor performance; I was a walking, talking zombie.  This firing pushed me to go on unemployment, something I had never done before.  Then I curled up in a ball and cried for weeks on end.

It also gravely impacted my marriage, my mental stability and my health. I had nowhere to go and no one to help me navigate. I felt so alone and distraught. I felt the pain deep in my bones that woke me in the middle of the night as if he had died.  I became angry at the system, from the courtroom all the way through the facility, the officers and counselors. I was made to stand in a visitation line in the rain feeling as if I had committed a crime myself for which I was being punished. I felt like they hated me, and it made me hate them. I acted out with fear and hysteria, repeatedly until one day I realized it wasn’t working, that I in fact had become just another statistic.

This is a reality to EVERY single person who has a loved one go to prison. Even when the family is disengaged, they still feel the pain and stigma of incarceration. Imagine what goes on in the mind of a child during this traumatic journey. Now multiply this number by 2.5 million Americans currently incarcerated. Staggering, untreated pain abounds.

The missing piece for families who are in this state of trauma is triage. Triage is used in the battlefield, and prison is its own sort of battlefield. First, we need to stop the bleeding. Incarceration hurts and damages for life. And not just the incarcerated.  Incarceration is costly and should not be a default stake in the ground.  As much as possible, it should be a purposeful pause to repair, restore and retool in a process to release. We need such a process to sort the hurting families into groups based on their needs. Triage is essential to sustaining productive living.  And it must be attacked with urgency as if lives depend on it.

Triage is not something difficult to figure out.  We’re talking about family trauma; the kind of trauma that can only be addressed and survived by the kind of empathy and compassion and quite frankly the broader level of responsibility that a mother feels.

The NIA CPR program has proven to have filled a major gap for families.  We’ve accepted that government has not been given enough permission from jaded voters and frightened citizens to really reform and rehabilitate.  So we, like mommas, scrap to find a way to do it ourselves; focusing within.  We first help them to take a breath. We triage the situation then point them in the right direction to get them relief, if not resolution. It’s more than a band-aid type answer from a traditional ombudsman representative.  It’s a down and dirty clean the wound and wrap it up kind of model.  It’s a broader model with an end-game that targets community care and civic restoration.

So, if you know someone who might need a Momma Kate, reach out.  Mommas are always where you need them to be.  And if you feel that you can help a Momma Kate fulfill this work, don’t hesitate to donate.  It’s easy, and mommas never ask for much.         

Kate Boccia is President and CEO of The National Incarceration Association and currently has a son in Georgia State Prison.