SHARON JONES was 21 years old when her mother was sent to the state prison for women in Framingham, Mass. Confused and alone, Ms. Jones turned to a unique program that provides aid to imprisoned mothers and their families.
"I had a hard time dealing with the fact that my mother was in prison," she says. "I was a mother myself, and I'd lost my apartment. We didn't have any place to go. AIM was able to put me on to housing, and to help with everything else."
AIM stands for Aid to Incarcerated Mothers, a nonprofit agency headquartered in Boston with an office at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Framingham. Whether the women are sentenced to six months or for life, whether their children are infants or young adults, AIM's small staff and its 15 or so volunteers offer help.
They arrange visits between mothers and children and help families with everything from finding an apartment, to balancing a checkbook, to babysitting. The program also helps families deal with the shame and confusion people feel when someone they love is incarcerated.
"I didn't want to tell my kids that their grandmother was in prison, because I didn't know how they would react," Jones says. "Then my oldest son started reading the mail, spelling out `Framingham MCI' [Massachusetts Correctional Institution]." Rise in women inmates
Though AIM is one of only a few programs of its type in the country, the need for such services is widespread. During the 1980s, the number of women incarcerated in the US tripled to more than 45,000. In Massachusetts, from 1987 to 1989, the number of women committed to the Department of Correction increased 27 percent, from 897 to 1,142, though the figure declined somewhat from 1989 to 1991.
As is true elsewhere in the nation, most of these women are convicted for nonviolent offenses: drug abuse, petty theft, prostitution, or welfare fraud, and the average sentence served in Framingham is seven months. Nationally, approximately 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers of dependent children, and of these the majority are their children's sole providers.
"We try to keep these families together, that's our No. 1 goal," says Jean Fox, AIM's executive director. "And when they're released, we do what we can to help them back into the community, and to stay out of prison." Visits to foster homes
Pamela Roseboro spent four months in Framingham in 1988, "for shoplifting and drugs," she says. During that time her six-year-old son lived first with an uncle, then in a foster home. AIM arranged for Ms. Roseboro's placement in a drug-treatment program after her release, and AIM volunteers visited her son while he was in foster care.
"You can't come out of incarceration to check out your child's foster home," Roseboro says. "They do visits for you, and can tell the mother that the children are fine." Worried about her son, Roseboro almost left her drug-treatment program. "The AIM people said, `No, you stay in the program, and we'll make sure your child is all right. You do your part, and we'll do ours.' "
AIM was founded in 1979 when a group of inmates at Framingham contacted women in the community for help in seeing and caring for their children.
"One of the founders was a woman who was still breast-feeding when her sentence began," Ms. Fox recalls. "She had trouble getting a breast pump into and out of the facility, and getting the milk out fresh to her baby. She got together with other women at the facility, and they discovered that they all shared problems related to being a mother."
Today AIM serves approximately 100 women a month. The program's staff and volunteer attorneys work to ensure visitation rights, and they represent incarcerated mothers in child-custody and adoption cases. An agency van makes the rounds once a week, picking up children in the Boston area for visits to their mothers, while volunteers use their own cars to reach children in other parts of the state. AIM also provides newly released clients with small emergency grants for rental security deposits, furniture and clothing, or to cover work-related expenses, such as uniforms or transportation to job interviews.
A new project called CHARM (Comprehensive Help to At-Risk Mothers) educates inmates about AIDS and HIV (the virus believed to cause AIDS), a growing problem among the women's prison population. Roseboro, who was diagnosed as HIV positive 10 years ago, says that AIM has been crucial in helping her understand and cope with her condition.
"They helped me hook up with a church, which has been a real help," she says. Roseboro credits her Christian faith - and AIM - with keeping her healthy and drug free since her release.
Dorothy Dwyer has been an AIM volunteer for seven years, since her retirement from the Needham, Mass., public schools. She has spent hundreds of hours and driven thousands of miles, taking children, from infants to adolescents, to see their mothers in Framingham.
"It's wonderful when the children first come for their visit. They're so happy to see their moms, and their moms are so happy to see them. But it's usually a very short visit, and when you have to take them away, that's very hard, especially for the school-aged children." `It's not their fault'
"There's also a children's group on Thursday," says Jones, who became a volunteer after her mother was released. "We have a driver who brings the kids in. First we ask them if they have any homework and if they need help with it. We have a diary where we ask them to write down how they feel. We always have a snack, and then we sit down and talk."
Sometimes, help for these kids can be as simple as letting them know they're not to blame for their mothers' being in prison.
"When your mother's incarcerated, society makes you feel like it's your fault," Jones says. "Lots of times the kids will say, `If I hadn't done this, if I hadn't done that, my mommy wouldn't be in that place.' But it's not their fault, and it's really important that someone tells them that."
"When the parents are recovering, the children need to recover too," Roseboro adds. "They need to know that mommy's coming back, that she's safe. After she's out, they need to know that mommy isn't going back to jail."
Dwyer keeps in touch with many of the mothers after they're released. Roseboro has also become an AIM volunteer.
"Once you're in the program, you're always a member of Aid to Incarcerated Mothers," Roseboro says. "They gave me a foundation and helped me get started in the right direction. No matter what, that will be a part of me for the rest of my life."