On a sunny but brisk Easter Sunday afternoon in the heart of Clinton Hill, Reverend Clinton Miller, pastor of the Brown Memorial Baptist church, preached a powerful message. “Every day we get up should symbolize a new chance, even if we messed up yesterday,” he said. “We believe in forgiveness, we believe in redemption, we believe in transformation.” The hundreds of attendees, dressed in dapper attire, clapped, cried and shouted “Amen.” And when Miller posed the question: Has anyone here today had the world give up on you, many people exclaimed, “Yes.”
Easter is when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, a time of rebirth for those who want to forget their past, seek forgiveness and move toward the future. It is also a time when many families come together. Mercedes Smith attended the Brown Memorial service with her mother, Queen; her 28-year-old daughter, Tasia; and her four-year-old granddaughter, McKayla.
In November 1990, Mercedes was a 26-year-old single mother of three and was charged with second-degree murder, accused of bludgeoning to death an 83-year-old woman who lived in her apartment building. At the time, Tasia was six. Mercedes’ sons Tiegler and Naquan were four-years-old and two-months-old, respectively. While awaiting trial on Riker’s Island, Mercedes discovered that she was pregnant with her youngest son, Kadeem. Eighteen months after her arrest, Smith was sentenced to serve 20 years in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She was released in June of 2010.
Now Mercedes is ready for a kind of resurrection.
Bedford Hills is the only maximum-security prison for women in New York. According to a report by the Correctional Association of New York, of the 815 inmates at Bedford Hills as of January 2006, 71 percent were mothers, and about 63 percent were serving time for a violent offense.
In 2011, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reported that 2,603 women were incarcerated in New York prisons. The Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York reports that in 2009, there was almost 80,000 children with a parent in New York prisons, including 5,240 with an incarcerated mother.
Mercedes is a sable-toned woman with a seeming calm demeanor, a disposition in stark contrast to the violent crime of second-degree murder that she was convicted for, though she maintains she is not guilty of the crime. She insists she was innocent, but while she was dismayed about her sentence, she says she was mostly upset because she was going to be taken away from her children. “I was angry. I didn’t care about nothing else but my children,” she said, solemnly. “I didn’t care about being free. If the judge told me I could bring my kids with me I would have been like, ‘okay.’”
Smith was fortunate to have family members willing to assume custody of her children. Her mother, Queen, took her three oldest children — Tasia, Tiegler and Naquan, and, after Mercedes gave birth to Kadeem, her aunt Etta took him in.
Queen was working full-time as a daycare school teacher, but she didn’t miss a beat when faced with her family crisis. “I didn’t have time to be upset about Mercedes or anything like that,” she said. “I didn’t have time to worry. It was like my daughter’s in jail. My life has changed all of a sudden.”
Many children of incarcerated parents end up in kinship care—living with grandparents or other relatives. The other alternative is the foster care system. However, according to a 2011 report from the New York State Kinship Navigator, kinship care, not foster care, provides the largest single resource for placement of children with incarcerated parents.
And, according to the Osborne Association an organization that works with currently and formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, when a parent is incarcerated, the impact on children is traumatic. In general, whether children are under kinship care or in foster care, they often suffer from various emotional and psychological issues including confusion, fear, anger and a sense of abandonment, and they may have issues in school because of teasing from their peers.
When Mercedes was first arrested, Queen told the children that she was away at school. Eventually, of course, she had to let them know that Mercedes was in prison. Queen would bring the children to visit Mercedes every two weeks at Riker’s Island. She says it was difficult, but she wanted her grandchildren to stay connected with their mother. “I don’t know how I did it,” said Queen. “Riker’s Island was the worse place to go, taking three kids. You have to be searched. The kids had to be searched and they had hundreds of people in that one room.”
Later, when Mercedes was at Bedford Hills, her mother continued to bring the kids to visit her regularly. But frequent visits did not erase the void in the children’s lives. Nor did it remove the shame. Mercedes says that one day Tiegler told her that his sister had been telling people that Mercedes was dead. “At first it hurt me,” Mercedes said. “But then I understood that she was embarrassed.”
Throughout the years, Mercedes says her kids told her that it was hard having a mom in prison who could not be there for the important moments in their life. Still, Mercedes wanted to parent her children to the best of her ability. She looked forward to receiving their report cards and photographs of their important moments. “When they came on visits, we talked about school and what was going on in their lives. Then I would spend time with them individually because they each had some secret they wanted to talk about without everyone around.”
Queen says the children never cried for their mother. But Tasia describes a steady slower kind of pain: “I missed her being home and being able to call her whenever I wanted,” she said. “I don’t think that it bothered me as much when I was younger because I didn’t understand. As I got older, it kind of bothered me a lot. I didn’t have my mom here to do a lot of things with me as a young lady. Without my grandmother, I don’t know what would have happened to us.”
Prior to her arrest, Mercedes says she was struggling and confused. She had overcome an addiction to cocaine five years earlier, but she only kept jobs for short periods of time. The father of Tasia and Teigler was a drug dealer and the father of Naquan and Kadeem worked for New York City Human Resources Administration. She had been living with her children in an apartment with her mother in the building were the murder took place. Mercedes claims to have had a good relationship with the victim and was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She feels that her conviction of second-degree murder and depraved indifference were based greatly on circumstantial evidence.
When she arrived at Bedford Hills, Mercedes says she cried a lot because she didn’t think she’d be able to serve 20 years. “People was concerned I was going to kill myself,” she said. But, her faith gave her get strength. “I prayed a lot. I read my Bible. I went back to everything I learned as a kid in church.”
Knowing that she couldn’t change her circumstance, Mercedes decided to find constructive ways to help her pass the time, including ways to nurture her maternal and caregiving instincts. She taught a parenting class for inmates for 12 years. For seven years she was also part of Puppies Behind Bars, a program that trains inmates to raise puppies to become service dogs for the disabled and veterans. Part of Mercedes responsibilities was to care for her assigned puppy by feeding it, walking it and bathing it every day. “When they’re little, they’re like newborn babies,” said Mercedes. “I think that it helped me realize my responsibilities.”
Since her release from prison almost two years ago, Mercedes has been trying to reconnect with her family and become a productive member of society. She found employment as a part-time policy specialist for W.O.R.T.H. program (Women on The Rise Telling Herstory). In this capacity, Mercedes meets with members of the Legislature to gain support for bills that her organization is trying to have passed on behalf of other formerly incarcerated women.
Like many other women with felony records, the past haunts Mercedes. She has been denied numerous times for subsidized and low-income housing because she’s a convicted felon, and since she’s on parole, landlords are usually unwilling to lease an apartment to her. “We spend a lot of time proving yourself,” she said. “There is a stigma.”
For now, she lives with a family friend in Harlem, although she would prefer to live in Brooklyn to be closer to her mother, and to Tasia, Tiegler and McKayla — all of whom still live in the building where the murder occurred, the neighborhood she left so long ago.
“I want to come back to Brooklyn because this is where I’m from. All I know is Brooklyn.” Mercedes is not allowed to live in her mother’s building because of parole stipulations because the crime took place there. She does, however, visit every weekend, and has been attending Brown Memorial on Sundays with her mother, daughter and granddaughter for more than three months.
Mercedes says she’s happy to have found a new church to worship at with her family because it is helping them to grow together spiritually. “Right now my faith means I want to walk stronger, I can be anything I want to be with the strength of God.”
Indeed Mercedes tried to do the best she could to parent her children from behind bars, but twenty years is a long time for a child to go without the regular presence of a mother. But on the surface, anyway, her children seem to be faring well — with one exception.
Tasia, now 28, is a reserved young woman who is outwardly affectionate toward her mother. She says that even two years later, she is ecstatic about her mother’s release. “I’m still happy. I’m so glad she’s home,” she said gleaming. Tasia balances her job and helping Queen care for Naquan’s four-year-old daughter, McKayla.
Teigler, 26, is a bashful young man and works as a manager for a women’s retail store in Manhattan. When Mercedes first went to jail, she says that it affected him badly because he was a momma’s boy, and he still is.
Naquan, 21, is serving a three-year sentence in an upstate New York prison for attempted robbery in the second degree. He has about two more years left on his sentence. “I was a little upset with him because he didn’t have to go that route,” Mercedes said. “ I told him about the friends he had. I said, ‘You know what prison is like, you grew up visiting me so you know what it’s like.’”
Kadeem, 20, is a college student at a college in South Carolina. Mercedes says she’s happy that he understands the value of higher education. “I stressed to him that education is a must or else he will only get jobs paying minimum wages,” she said.
Mercedes says she has plenty of days when her life is really hard. “I have my struggles, sometimes I feel like a gypsy living from here to here, but I believe that God is going to pull me through.”
At the conclusion of Pastor Miller’s sermon, he asked if anyone wanted to give his or her life to Christ, to be baptized or join the church. Mercedes and Tasia, both dressed in black, and the matriarch of the family, Queen, dressed in gray, all walked down the aisle. Although Mercedes’ sons were not part of this momentous occasion, she saw her steps toward redemption as steps toward establishing a new beginning for a family separated by the great gulf of her years in prison.
“I feel like for years God was trying to get my attention. He finally got my attention while I was in prison,” she said. “And I promised the Lord that I would never turn my back on him. Today I care about being responsible. When my children come to ask me for something, I want to be able to show them the type of adults they should be.”
This story is part of a series of stories that focuses on the less economically vibrant parts of Brooklyn. For more, check out the rest of our Under the Radar series.