Written By: Chiara Atoyebi
Elsie Flores and Anastacia Henry Photo Courtesy Avenues for Justice
The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty. — Mother Theresa
Celebrating Mother’s Day can mean different things to different people. If you’ve never been a mother, if you’ve lost your mother, or you’re reparenting yourself, or if you’re not close with your mother at all — you may have mixed emotions about how to celebrate it. Typically, when it’s time to celebrate the quasi-deification of the women who’ve often sacrificed their humanity for the care of others, thoughts of unconditional love rightfully compel most children to find reasons to thank the woman or women in their lives that raised them. But what if that’s not your story? A few days before the holiday, I sat around my dining room table with some friends, and we were immersed in the topic of mother-daughter relationships, and it wasn’t all good. While most of us felt appreciative of the privilege our hard-working mothers afforded us, a few were honest about the, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), competition, dysfunction, and a lingering sense of arrested development caused by a mother wound that persisted far into their adulthood and even challenged their current relationships. As more women share their experiences around motherhood, it’s becoming apparent that identifying as female is not enough for a mother to feel maternal, which is why women are the best advocates for themselves in this space. They know themselves, and they know their bodies. Motherhood, or well-informedmotherhood anyway, is a village effort that consists of ongoing support. Yet, for a young woman facing incarceration who has never been mothered herself, where can she turn for help? Is incarceration the only answer?
Women of Color in Prison
According to a 2022 report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), 58% of women in the United States prison system are mothers. Nearly 80% of them are currently being held in jails and awaiting a trial — currently they cannot afford bail. They are often incarcerated for non-violent crimes and are the primary caretakers of their children. PPI reported that an estimated 58,000 people are pregnant every year when entering jails or local prisons.According to the most recent available data, 2.3 million people are confined in a U.S. correctional facility, 231,000 of which are women. Of these, roughly 109,000 are women of color, who are overrepresented in the incarcerated population. Among incarcerated women, three out of four are of childbearing age, more than half are mothers of minor children, and up to one in 10 were pregnant when they entered incarceration.
For reasons often out of their control, informed by trauma-induced circumstances wound up making adverse decisions and finding family in the streets. These remarkable women were also given a second chance through an Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) program in New York City called Avenues for Justice.
Infographic Courtesy of Avenues for Justice
Avenues for Justice (AFJ), a non-profit organization working with youth, BIPOC communities, mothers, and community activists to help reduce recidivism. AFJ has always looked to highlight and elevate stories around their program participants and court advocate staff who were mothers before and/or during their time in prison.
With programs like the Hire Up program which offers participants access to virtual, in person, and hybrid events assisting with educational and life skills, mental health therapy, and more.
Meet The Mothers of Avenue for Justice
Elsie Flores was a recipient of the 2006 AFJ Andrew Glover Youth Program’s Outstanding Group Award.
As a young woman raised in the New York City projects with an absentee mother and a family history of generational incarceration, poverty and an amalgam of adverse circumstances created an insurmountable deck stacked against her. At the age of ten, with no one to support her or provide her guidance, Elsie quickly turned to the streets for solace. By the age of thirteen she began selling drugs and at sixteen, was arrested for selling to an undercover detective — two weeks later she discovered she was pregnant. Facing up to six years in prison, and a baby being born behind bars, Avenues for Justice intervened and offered Elsie a second chance at life with an alternative to incarceration. Hear how Elsie turned her life around with a changed mindset, structure, and care from her advocates at AFJ and how she is becoming the mother she always wanted.
Can you tell me a little about life before your incarceration? I was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Lower East Side with eight siblings in total — two from my mother’s side, and six from my father’s. Because my mom was caught up in her drug addiction, so really, I feel like I was raised by the streets and on my own.
Tell me about the earliest and fondest memory of your mother and your childhood? Can you (safely) recall what changed your beautiful memory or relationship with your mom? Unfortunately, I do not have a fondest memory with my mom, but I can say that my relationship changed with my mom when I understood why she got addicted to drugs and was not able to love me properly.
So far, the mothers I have encountered that have gone through the AFJ program, have an awareness, peace, and compassionate accountability for their lives and also the lives of others, which is aspirational. How do you feel your interaction with Avenues for Justice better set you up for success in your life? Avenues for Justice truly cares for our Participants and support them through it all. From court advocacy to job readiness programming to even just having them over for dinners to check in with how they’re doing.
What are you doing differently with your child today that what was done with you? What I am doing differently is loving my child and working hard to give them a better life,which is all I could ever ask for growing up.
Congratulations on being a cycle breaker in the best way — -one day at a time. What advice would you give a young woman in your similar situation?If you feel like no one cares or you know anyone who feels that way, just know that Avenues for Justice does care and would love to help.
This fall Elsie will continue her educational journey at NYU where she will be earning her master’s degree in social work.
Anastacia Henry is the 2022 Second Chance Award Recipient
Anastacia Henry is one of Avenues for Justice’s stand-out program participants. Anastacia was born to a 16-year-old teenage mother who’d been cycled in and out of the foster care system. Her mother often could not care for her, and a young Anastacia was sent to live with her aunt and grandmother. However, her feelings of abandonment and resentment began to develop inside her and ultimately led her down the wrong path with the wrong crowd. In 2018, after a school fight that escalated into Anastacia being charged with Gang Assault Charges, her life was at a crossroads. Not only was she facing seven years in prison, but she also discovered she was pregnant. Thankfully, Avenues for Justice would be able to offer her a second chance.
Can you tell me a little about life before your incarceration? Life before my troubles was okay. I kinda had both lives, meaning I know the feeling of wanting to have something but not being able to have them, as well as wanting things and finally being able to get it. I was born in Long Island and am the oldest of four siblings, and I was never in a steady household; I stayed with my aunt’s friend for a bit until I moved in with my grandma, and then my aunt took my sister and I in. Today my four-year-old son and I live with my mom, and now that I have my high school diploma, I’m working toward my nursing degree.
Tell me about the moment life pressures and your choices caught up with you. How was it facing time as an expectant mother — -and being introduced to Avenues for Justice? The hardest pressure turned out to be hanging out with the wrong crowd and falling into a situation where I didn’t do the right thing. I had gotten into a big fight, and while I wasn’t looking to get into a fight, I had to handle my own and protect myself. Facing a big sentence as a young new mother was scary; it wasn’t the life I had imagined for myself, so I definitely was not ready for that to possibly become a reality.
So far, the mothers I have encountered that have gone through the AFJ program have an awareness, peace, and compassionate accountability for their lives and also the lives of others, which is inspirational. How do you feel your interaction with Avenues for Justice better prepared you for success in your life? Everything AFJ offers has helped me in many ways, between simply being listened to and feeling heard and the emotional/mental wellness services. I really feel that after working with them, I’ve matured a lot. I’m a lot more open to others, and I’m calmer overall.
What are you doing differently with your child today than what was done for you? I do everything I can actually to spend time with my son. We go out and play games together, and I take him to the park almost every day after school.
Congratulations on being a cycle breaker in the best way — -one day at a time. What advice would you give a young woman in a similar situation?When you have a young one looking up to you, you realize that’s the most important person to continue fighting for, so don’t give up! It may get hard, but if you keep going, you’ll realize in the end that it’s worth it — I promise.
Anastacia recieved AFJ’s Second Chance Award for successfully turning her life around in 2021. She is currently raising her son and attending college.