Annette Roberts read a page from a children’s book, then carefully rotated it towards a laptop camera to reveal the images.
“My mom, she’s been sick since I was very little,” Roberts read from See You Soon by Mariame Kaba, a prison sentence campaigner and former Chicago resident. “Sometimes she goes away when she’s not feeling well.”
In the next part she had to fight back tears.
“A girl at school named Keisha says mean things to me sometimes. “Your mom, she takes drugs! Your mom is a junkie!’”
Roberts is concerned that her children have been teased in the same way as the girl in the book.
She is one of about 70 women at the Cook County Jail who participated in a program last week where they recorded themselves reading Kaba’s book. Organized by the Women’s Justice Institute, Kaba and Cook County Jail, the video files will be sent to their child’s carers and shown to the children for Mother’s Day.
Alexis Mansfield, senior counsel for the Women’s Justice Institute, estimates that at least 140 women in the Cook County prison will celebrate Mother’s Day this year. She said the prison has been very supportive of the institute’s program.
It’s estimated that about 82 percent of the approximately 1,200 women incarcerated in Illinois jails are mothers, Mansfield said. She said the goal isn’t to get more programs into prison, but to have fewer women in prisons and jails from the start.
“This was a powerful and moving program,” Mansfield said. “But the best gift for Mother’s Day would be when mothers and children sit at home and the children read books together on their laps.”
Keyuana Muhammad, director of prison behavioral health services and programs, said it is important that the prison does everything it can to keep the women connected to their families during their incarceration. Using the arts to maintain those connections is helpful, she said.
“While we cannot fully alleviate the stress a child might experience related to losing a parent to incarceration, we hope we can at least create a space where connections can be made,” Muhammad said.
On Monday and Thursday, the women sat outside a recreation room and waited their turn to read the book while volunteers from the Women’s Justice Institute recorded them and offered moral support.
See You Soon is about Queenie, a young girl who is dealing with the breakup with her mom after mom put herself in jail. The book shows that the love between mother and daughter endures despite mom’s drug addiction and the family’s difficult situation.
Some of the women told the Tribune that they referred to the book and it helped them explain a difficult subject to their children. Most of the women who spoke to the Tribune attend a prison drug abuse treatment program.
The Women’s Justice Institute also chronicled women who shared their reaction to the book. Those videos were sent to Kaba, who spent Monday night crying as she looked at them, she said.
“It’s so much beyond what I was hoping for from the book,” said Kaba. “And I’m just so grateful that the mothers resonated with it and took it seriously and wanted to do it.”
Roberts has seven children between the ages of 11 and 30. The video will be sent to her two youngest, her 11-year-old boy and her 12-year-old girl.
She has been in prison since late November awaiting trial on charges including robbery and burglary.
“I felt like the story was talking about me because I’m a recovering addict,” she said. “And being able to let my kids know that even though I made a mistake, I still love them and that too will pass and I’ll be home soon.”
She visits her children via video call. The kids are always happy to talk to her, she said.
Her son tells her about football and video games he played with his eldest brother, and her daughter tells her about her straight A’s, Roberts said. She said she misses everyday things like being there when they get home from school and telling them to do their homework.
“I really miss them when they call my name or need my help with something,” she said. “So I’m always like, ‘Who’s going to help them now? Are you hungry? are they cold Are you scared? Only accept things that only make you wonder and worry about them.”
Roberts said she will go to a convalescent home when she leaves prison and while she is still separated from her children she can visit them.
“I’m going to go to a convalescent home,” she said, “so I don’t have to come back here and never have to leave her.”
After Gloria Branch, 70, read the book for her 1-year-old great-granddaughter, she saw a familiar face in the room.
Branch met Colette Payne in the late ’80s or early ’90s when they were both riding bikes to and from prison. But Payne wasn’t in jail as an inmate this time, and seeing Branch gave her some hope.
Payne is the director of the Complaints Project for the Women’s Justice Institute, and her story of overcoming her 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 takes care of it.”
Samantha Estrada, 28, had to start over reading the book and couldn’t hold back her tears as she read.
“It was very emotional,” Estrada said. “It’s the best connection I’ve had with my kids since I got sick.”
Estrada, who has an active burglary case in Cook County, began abusing drugs early in the pandemic.
She hopes her three daughters aged 11, 7 and 5 will see the videos.
“I hope this is a great opportunity to let my children know that I have never forgotten them and that I still love them,” Estrada said. “And that I will always be here and will do my best to make sure I get back into her life.”