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Sandra BarnhillSandra Barnhill, Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers, Inc.

Discretion in sentencing is the news. The New York Times reports, “Lawmakers and legal experts predicted…that the Supreme Court decision returning discretion on sentencing to judges would renew the struggle between Congress and the judiciary for control over setting criminal punishment.”

The ruling may give judges a wider range of options in weighing a mother’s past offense with the future needs of her child. But what about currently incarcerated mothers?

Read the transcript
from January 28, 2005

Leadership Talks Archive

Join Leadership Talks on Friday, January 28 at 1 pm ET for a live, online interview with Sandra Barnhill of Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers, Inc. (AIM) in Atlanta, and a 2004 Leadership for a Changing World awardee. Barnill will discuss AIM’s efforts to assist inmate mothers, their children and other family members in maintaining critically important family ties during the mother's incarceration

Nationally, an estimated 1.3 million young children have mothers who are in prison or supervised by justice-system agencies, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. More than 90 percent of the 2,000-plus women in Georgia prisons are mothers of dependent children between the ages of 7 and 12. Most female prisoners are high-school dropouts and poor. Despite the disturbing numbers, the public has devoted few resources to the needs of prisoners' children, who suffer the trauma of social stigma, separation and family fragmentation.

Seventeen years ago, Sandra Barnhill, a defense attorney who often visited indigent clients in Georgia's prisons, noted the absence of agencies promoting positive relationships between children and imprisoned mothers. In the predominantly African American neighborhoods Barnhill served, she saw how incarceration of women was damaging three generations: the young mother, the older caregiver, and the children. "As a young lawyer, I quickly became disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the law,” Barnhill says. “As an African-American woman, I see daily the effects of the criminal-justice system on my community," she says.

When Barnhill formed AIM in 1987, she hoped not only to call attention to the need for reform but also to create an environment that would serve as a model for what society should do: create opportunities for people from all walks of life. One reason children are often prevented from visiting their incarcerated mothers is simple: lack of transportation. So AIM secured a van to transport metropolitan Atlanta children to visit their mothers in prisons throughout the state, a service that continues today. Also, because of Barnhill's work with the state Department of Corrections, all correctional facilities for women have created children’s centers in which mothers can touch, hold and read to their children during visits. AIM offers after-school programs, teen-leadership programs, summer camp, tutoring, Saturday programs, emergency assistance for families, and referral services – all focused on the needs of children of incarcerated mothers. In addition, thanks to AIM, mothers in prison receive parenting education materials, and assistance in raising their children after release.

To date, AIM has served more than 3,700 mothers and 10,000 children. Many of these youngsters continue their involvement as AIM camp counselors and volunteers. AIM also has fostered seven service organizations that teach conflict resolution in high schools, hold support groups for released prisoners, and other activities. Former prisoners launched four of these groups. Though public opinion remains a barrier, Barnhill has helped individuals and institutions across the country become more aware of the plight of children of incarcerated parents. Her most important achievement has been the creation of what Bettieanne Hart, an Atlanta deputy district attorney, calls “an extended family for lonely and bewildered children.”

For more information

Leadership for a Changing World profile

Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers website - www.takingaim.net


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