Mothering Behind Bars: A Conversation with Siwatu-Salama Ra

Siwatu-Salama Ra and family Credit: freesiwatu.org

Siwatu-Salama Ra is an environmental justice activist in Detroit, Michigan. Two years ago, she was arrested for pulling out a gun when someone violently threatened her two-year-old daughter. She was a licensed gun owner and never fired a shot. She was found guilty of felony firearm and given a two-year mandatory minimum sentence. She gave birth to her son while in prison. After serving eight months, she has been released on bond as she awaits her appeal. Her case raises many questions about self-defense, racial disparities in the justice system, and the treatment of incarcerated women. Her story also highlights the power of organizing and community. Lydia Wylie-Kellermann interviewed Siwatu while she was out on bond awaiting her appeal.

Geez: Could you start by introducing yourself and saying a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Siwatu-Salama Ra: My name is Siwatu-Salama Ra. I’m a daughter of a long-time community organizer and activist, Rhonda Anderson. I was raised by a single mother who raised all four of her children and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. I followed a lot of what my mom did, and I started environmental justice work at about 14.

Recently, people have given me another title – a difficult title – of being a political prisoner. I was released from prison almost five months ago. I came home to a baby who was turning six-months-old, who I had given birth to in prison. And a three-year-old who is close to being four now. I left when she was two.

Geez: Can you talk about how mothers and pregnant women are treated in the prison-industrial complex?

Ra: I knew nothing about how mothers and pregnant women were treated until I landed there myself. And even before that, as an organizer or someone who claims to be socially aware, I would’ve said I was against mass incarceration . . . but it wasn’t until I was inside that I understood that the issue
was much deeper.

The rate that we are incarcerating people is getting higher and higher, but the type of people being incarcerated is also changing and we’re seeing an increase in women being sent to prison. Women are being pushed into crimes of survival just to survive in this country, in these cities, in these lands. It’s an assault on women; the rape of her resources, her dignity, her respect.

So we have this criminalization of Black women, and once they are in the system, we’re sending more and more women to prison – 90 percent of them are moms.

Once I entered the prison, I had to go through 22 days in quarantine. That means 23-hour lockdown on a pregnant body. 23 hours in your cell. Every day you get one hour out when you can try to call your family, try to get some medical care if you need it, try to see a little bit of sunshine outside in the fenced area.

The women that find themselves in prison receive very little compassion. And especially if you are a pregnant mom, your punishment is almost tripled. Because you have to anticipate giving birth . . . so that means you have to mentally prepare yourself to go into a delivery room with armed officers all around. I had four officers with totally loaded guns on their waists and bullet-proof vests.

But beyond that, many of the women who give birth there – a lot of their children don’t go home. So a lot of the same things that you’re seeing happening at the Southern border [of the United States] are happening right here to women who are under incarceration. Their babies are not going home. They’re ending up in the system.

So through the pain, through the agony, through the despair, the unbelievable feeling of giving birth while incarcerated, and then having to leave that baby behind and then head back to the prison. I was lucky to have my baby go home. He did get to go home, but a lot of them don’t.

Geez: When we held organizing meetings and healing circles for you in Detroit, we weren’t just organizing for you – you were sending out communal poetry and organizing needs. Is there anything you want to say about the women you were with there?

Ra: I think about a young lady who I became close inside with – we depended on each other for some sanity in there. She is a mother who gave birth to her son two months before I did . . . a strong mom, a fighter mom. And I remember her coming back from the hospital, from having her baby, and she was in tears. She was shackled and brought into the prison with the guards. The one thing I noticed about her is that she had a C-section and she had belly chains on. When I seen her, I had a panic attack. I had an asthma attack. I was 29 weeks pregnant and just looking at her. All I could think was “That’s about to be me.”

When I saw her, I said, “Where’s the baby? How’s the baby?” And she’s crying, and she just dropped her head and said, “He didn’t get to go home.” He became a ward of the state. And ever since then, she has been fighting to bring her baby home.

Women in there were so strong. Some of the most talented, strong, articulate, beautiful, artistic women that I’ve ever met were in prison. So what does that say about us as a society, about who we are incarcerating? We are facing troubling times. So I’m learning a lot about prison abolition. This is new work for me. I saw what this system survives on and how it keeps going. But I also saw how we can get rid of it.

Geez: What are ways that we can try to get rid of it?

Ra: What I saw was people from all corners of activism – water, land, healing, educational work, media work – coming together and asking “So what do we do?” They decided that they should and must come together. And that alone sparked a ripple in the universe. Because to free a woman out of prison – to get me out of prison on bond pending appeal – that is unheard of.

So I know that we can abolish this system. We can get rid of it. We can mimic what has happened to me, over and over and over again. We have to make the connections and de-silo our work. There is no differentiating why we’re fighting. It’s all the same thing. We are stronger together, our organizations and our resources are stronger together. What I saw was people coming together for something bigger. And it did magical things. Not only for me, but for so many women in there.

Geez: Were there particular experiences that you found yourself organizing around?

Ra: I started to organize around this question: What can I do to make sure that my baby knows me? I was afraid of what it would be like for me and my son, and I needed him as much as he needed me. The thought of being away from him scared the shit out of me. It was everyday terror to even think about and prepare for. So early in the first month of me being in prison, I started talking about being able to breastfeed. No baby was ever formula-fed in my family, so I didn’t know anything else. But the prison said no. No was the only option. I had to hold my baby in my arms while my breast was full and I was leaking through my shirt, and still I could not breastfeed him.

So we were organizing around that early on: how do women that are incarcerated bond with their babies? We were
working on that while I was in prison and trying to get the prison to change their policies.

Geez: Are there ways that your prison experience has changed who you are as a mother?

Ra: I’m a hurt mom who’s trying to piece herself back together. Something precious was taken from me. You know, before I left, my children were my moment to moment. To have my children ripped from me was a soul violation. Soul hurt.

The reason why we’re here is to be of service to others. That’s the only reason. So, I feel like I’m mothering my children but also mothering everybody else’s children because that’s our form of activism that we do. We’re active for the next generation, and the next generation. And sometimes you don’t even see the fruit of your work, probably not in your lifetime. We just hope that it comes and that our children get to live better lives, in better environments. So it’s just strengthened me. I’m hurt, but I’m strengthened in another way too.

In all the ways that this country can violate women, can violate women of colour, can violate a Black woman and her family – because if you incarcerate a mother, then you incarcerate her family – in all the ways that we are violated daily, this is just another one. A big one. So we’re just responding. And that’s what women do: we respond to crisis, and we try to make it better. The way that looks and the way that plays out is through fighting. The fight is strong. Women are fighting for their lives, fighting for their families, fighting for this world. And that’s why I think it can’t be men who run this country. It can’t be.

Geez: I think that’s one of the themes that keeps coming up. Just how many movements have been run by mothers, fueled by mothers – that fierce unstoppable power.

Ra: Yes, yes, yes. A mom, just doing what she does. And I can’t ignore my mom, right?
Because I’m still my mom’s baby. Like I have babies, but I’m my mom’s baby. And she fought for me, so hard. When I tell you, Lydia, how many times I called my momma on that phone every day. She always answered, always, no matter where she was, no matter what she was doing. Answered. To pray with me when I needed it. To hear me cry. To hear me scream over that phone. To just hold me above water. My momma is five-foot tall but went against something so much bigger. And she won.

Image credit: Siwatu-Salama Ra and family, freesiwatu.org.

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Issue 53

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 53, Summer 2019, Mothering.

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