‘I’m coming home soon’ – Chicago Tribune

Annette Roberts read a page from a children’s book, then carefully turned it toward a laptop camera to show her pictures.

“My mom, she’s been sick since I was very little,” Roberts read in “See You Soon,” by prison abolitionist and former Chicago resident Mariame Kaba. “Sometimes she leaves when she’s not feeling well.”

She had to fight back tears during the next part.

“A girl at school named Keisha sometimes says mean things to me. ‘Your mama, she does drugs! Her mother is an addict!’”

Roberts is worried that her children have been teased like the girl in the book.

She is one of about 70 women from the Cook County Jail who participated in a program last week recording themselves reading Kaba’s book. Organized by the Women’s Justice Institute, Kaba and the Cook County Jail, the video files will be sent to their children’s caregivers and shown to the children on Mother’s Day.

Alexis Mansfield, a senior adviser at the Women’s Justice Institute, estimates there are at least 140 women celebrating Mother’s Day at the Cook County Jail this year. She said the prison has been very supportive of the institute’s program.

An estimated 82% of the roughly 1,200 women incarcerated in Illinois prisons are mothers, Mansfield said. She said the goal is not to bring more programs into prison, but to have fewer women in prisons and prisons to begin with.

“This has been a powerful and moving show,” Mansfield said. “But the best gift for Mother’s Day would be for mothers and children to be sitting in their homes, children on their laps reading books together.”

Keyuana Muhammad, director of behavioral health services and programs at the prison, said it is important that the prison does what it can to keep women connected with their families while they are incarcerated. Using the arts to maintain those connections is helpful, she said.

“While we cannot completely alleviate the stress of what a child can experience as it pertains to the loss of a parent (to) prison, we hope we can at least provide a space where connections can be made,” Muhammad said.

On Monday and Thursday, the women sat outside a recreation room waiting their turn to read the book while volunteers from the Women’s Justice Institute registered them and offered moral support.

“See You Soon” is about a young woman, Queenie, who is suing to be away from her mother after she surrenders to prison. The book shows that the love between mother and daughter remains despite Mama’s drug addiction and the family’s difficult situation.

Some of the women told the Tribune that they related to the book and it helped them explain a difficult subject to their children. Most of the women who spoke to the Tribune are participating in a substance abuse treatment program in prison.

The Women’s Justice Institute also recorded women sharing their reactions to the book. Those videos were sent to Kaba, who spent Monday night crying while watching them, she said.

“This exceeds what I expected the book to do in the world,” said Kaba. “And I’m so grateful that the mothers found resonance in that and took it seriously and wanted to do it.”

Roberts has seven children aged between 11 and 30. The video will be sent to their two youngest, their 11-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.

She has been in jail since late November and is awaiting trial on charges including theft and burglary.

“I felt like the story was talking about me because I’m a recovering addict,” she said. “And that I could let my kids know that I still love them even though I made a mistake and that too will pass and I’m coming home soon.”

She visits with her children via video calls. Children are always excited to talk to her, she said.

Her son tells her about football and the video games he’s been playing with his older brother, and her daughter tells her about his A’s, Roberts said. She said she misses everyday things, like being there when they come home from school, telling them to do their homework.

“I really miss them calling my name, or needing my help with something,” she said. “So I’m always thinking, ‘Who’s helping them now? They are hungry? Are they cold? They are afraid? Just mom stuff you wonder and worry about.”

Roberts said he’s going to a halfway house when he gets out of prison, and while he’s still away from his kids, he’ll be able to visit them.

“I’m going to a halfway house,” she said, “so I don’t have to come back here and leave them again.”

After reading the book to her 1-year-old great-granddaughter Gloria Branch, 70, she saw a familiar face in the room.

Branch first met Colette Payne in the late ’80s or early ’90s when they were both in and out of jail and prison. But this time Payne wasn’t in prison as a prisoner, and when Branch saw her, it gave him some hope.

Payne is the director of the recovery project at the Women’s Justice Institute, and her story of overcoming drug addiction helps the women she works with feel understood, Payne said.

“That’s why we’re here because women need support,” she said. “They need to know that there is someone who cares.”

Samantha Estrada, 28, had to start over while reading the book, unable to hold back tears as she read.

“It was very exciting,” Estrada said. “It’s the biggest connection I’ve had with my kids since I got sick.”

Estrada, who has an active theft case in Cook County, began abusing drugs early in the pandemic.

She hopes her three daughters, ages 11, 7 and 5, will see the videos.

“I hope this is a great opportunity for my children to know that I never forgot them and that I still love them,” Estrada said. “And that I will always be here, and I will try my best and everything I can to make sure I come back in their lives.”

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