What Kathy Morse remembers most from her years in jail and prison is that she missed her children.

The mother of three from Point Pleasant Beach, Ocean County, recalls using toothpaste to make a picture of her children stick to the wall of her jail cell. She said she still struggles to forgive herself for being away from her children in 1991, in 2006 and 2007 and from 2009 to 2014.

“It was absolutely devastating. The amount of guilt was so overwhelming and continues to be to this day,” said Morse, 58, who was incarcerated for grand larceny. “It was just totally overwhelming. This guilt, I was drowning in it.”

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women in the United States increased more than 700 percent, rising from from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 222,061 in 2014, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington, D.C.

New Jersey has one of the lowest female incarceration rates in the nation, at 22 women inmates per 100,000 people. The only states with lower rates are Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, according to sentencingproject.org.

Last year, Democratic U.S. Sens. Cory Booker if New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Richard Durbin of Illinois introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, a bill that would address prison conditions on the federal level.

The bill was drafted with the help of women who had been in prison, with federal lawmakers and advocates weighing in from across the country.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-Middlesex, has sponsored a bill that looks to lessen some of the trauma families experience when mothers receive a jail or prison sentence.

Provisions include providing parenting classes to inmates and their children; creating an overnight pilot program for inmates and their children; and prohibiting restrictions on the number of children allowed to visit an inmate.

Gale Muhammed, founder and president of the prison reform advocacy organization Women Who Never Give Up, partners with Second Baptist Church in Atlantic City to work with Atlantic County women who were formerly incarcerated.

People now know mass incarceration is a problem, but less thought is given to children who miss their mothers, who are usually the primary caregivers, when they are locked up, Muhammed said.

“Once the absentee parent has left the home, those children suffer from trauma, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder,” Muhammed said.

More than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child younger than 18, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Morse, too ashamed to tell her youngest child, now 13, that she was behind bars, made an excuse that she wasn’t at home because she was at “the hospital.” That backfired on Morse, because when her daughter became sick, she didn’t want to see a doctor and was afraid she would be taken to “the hospital” and not be able to come home, like her mother.

In a state facility, Morse said, she was allowed one 15-minute phone call per day. Some days she did not talk to her children at all because no one answered the phone.

Aloncita Brookens, 52, of Atlantic City, can sympathize.

For almost 20 years, heroin addiction hooked Brookens mentally and physically.

Brookens battled heroin addiction from about 1994 to 2015. She was placed at least two dozen times in the Atlantic County jail in Mays Landing and did one stint in prison at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, Hunterdon County — the state’s only women’s prison.

Brookens’ first offense was for heroin possession, but subsequent arrests were for shoplifting to buy drugs.

During one of Brookens’ jail stints, she was pregnant and going through withdrawal. Methadone saved her and her baby’s life, she said.

Brookens never lost custody of her children, unlike some incarcerated mothers.

“When I had my oldest son, when he was born, I was locked up. When I got locked up, I went to the Atlantic County Justice Facility. I’m grateful because my grandmother was there. She had my son brought to her in Oklahoma. She took care of him while I was locked up. Mind you, my grandmother was in her 80s,” Brookens said.

In 1994, Brookens’ grandmother took care of the one child she had when she went away for the first time at age 24.

Brookens’ husband, former professional junior welterweight Johnny Jones, of Atlantic City, took care of her children, now ranging in age from 24 to 11, during her subsequent arrests.

Morse didn’t lose custody of her children either — but that doesn’t mean her children were not hurt or damaged by the experience of her being away, which included a stint in Rikers Island in New York.

Morse’s two oldest children, now men ages 31 and 30, no longer speak to her.

Her 13-year-old daughter was 9 when she was released from prison most recently. The mothers of her daughter’s friends Googled Morse’s name. After that, they wouldn’t let their daughters play with Morse’s daughter, she said.

When Morse was released from prison the last time, after four years away, she felt like an outsider in her own home. Her husband and daughter were like best friends, and she felt like she was an interloper even though she stayed in contact and wrote a letter to her daughter every day, she said.

“They had this routine, and after four years (out of prison), I still feel that way sometimes,” Morse said. “My daughter has abandonment issues because of what happened. You don’t realize how you being incarcerated is going to impact your children. ... There is this fallout that continues.”

During Morse’s last four-year stint, she missed out on birthday parties and Christmases.

“You can’t get that back, regardless of what you do. You can’t make up for that lost time,” Morse said.

Brookens was numb from her drug use for most of time she was incarcerated and didn’t realize the impact she was having on her children.

By the middle of this decade, she had spent a couple of years out of jail with her five children, now ranging in age from 24 to 11, and was no longer desensitized.

Her last stint in jail was eight months on an old charge in 2015. It was the most painful of all her incarcerations.

“I’m thinking about me as a mother. How is this going to look to (my children)? That was like a wake-up call to me,” Brookens said. “You’ve got children. You are a mother. You are not just an addict running around here doing this and doing that no more. You’ve got a family. Come on. You’ve got to get it together. I had to change my life, get some things on the ball.”

Staff Writer

Twenty years as a staff writer in the features department, specializing in entertainment and the arts at The Press of Atlantic City.

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