One Mother’s Story with our Charitable Partner, Hour Children
“She was the heart of the family,” Makeda’s mom Georgia said. “Now, it’s like she’s coming back to put the pieces back together.”
Today, Makeda Davis has big dreams. Following her graduation from coding school, she hopes to become a coding teacher herself--both for teens in disadvantaged communities and for women in prison--to help open doors to the opportunities that coding can facilitate. She also has a clear vision for an app that she wants to create: one that provides essential reentry support for people as they leave prison and adjust to the world outside.
Makeda is a mom and a grandmother. Her daughter Merhanda who was only 11 when Makeda was first incarcerated is now 23 with a child of her own. Contrary to what you may be imagining, Makeda had never been in trouble--never had a single run in with the police--before or after her arrest in 2008. But after getting into a fight at a nightclub, she was sentenced to nine and a half years behind bars.
“Going to prison really changed the way I thought about prisoners. There were so many women there like myself. Women that seemed like they just made a mistake--not people I would say are criminal minded--people who made an isolated mistake, maybe, and now they’re suffering these long, hard sentences when there might have been another option for them.” -Makeda, Marie Claire (2020)
Kibou’s charitable partner, Hour Children, makes it possible for families like Makeda’s to maintain meaningful relationships during incarceration and to have support for successfully rebuilding their lives when mothers are released. For Makeda, that meant that during her incarceration Hour Children not only provided transportation and funding for her daughter to regularly visit her, but that she had a job that she felt valued in while she was in prison. When she was released, Makeda, her daughter, and her grandson moved into Hour Children housing. Now she’s on a new career path, again thanks to Hour Children.
Life Before Prison
Like us, Makeda is a mom whose entire world centers on her child. Makeda worked tirelessly to support her daughter, first selling Polartec jackets in Grand Central Station, then as a legal assistant at the Department of Buildings, all to ensure her daughter could go to the best daycare, then grade school, possible.
Following Makeda’s incarceration, her daughter’s father took over custody, and he pulled her from the performing arts school into which Makeda worked so hard to get her enrolled. Makeda explains, “He put Merhanda in a local school that was just horrible. And then she went to college for one semester. She owed $1,000, and he didn't pay it. So she never went back to school...Her father has a career. He was married. He could have done differently. And I just feel like no one took care of her the way I would have. Like, I would have found that $1,000 because you're going to stay in school. And now I see her life, and I know that none of that would ever have happened--there was no reason for it to happen. And it's like, how do I fix the damage of all of that?”
Leaving Her Daughter Behind
“When [I went away] I left behind a child who needs me, who still needs me. Being an incarcerated mother, there's no feeling more painful than leaving a child that you love. Especially in my situation where I didn't live a life of crime; I'm sure there are people in the world who would have bet their life that I would never, ever even have an interaction with a police officer. So, I just didn't ever see this for myself,” Makeda laments.
“I have this one beautiful daughter, and she's here. And I'm in prison. To this day, every time I speak to my daughter or look in her eyes, it's like, I can't believe that I hurt you. Even if she says, ‘Mom, you didn't hurt me. You didn't do this to yourself. You aren't like that.’ But I hurt her. There's no way to avoid that. No matter how much she tried to be okay about the situation, because she never saw me as a person who was reckless, she's still hurt. I see that hurt now. I see it in how she developed, in all of her experiences and where she is in life. And I can never get over that.”
On the Inside
“During incarceration, you are made to work. You can be a porter for, like, $0.13 an hour. Or if you have a high school diploma, then you can get what's called a grade four job, which is like $0.25 an hour,” Makeda explains. “So I was thinking about that, like, wow, here I am, and now I have to pick work for these wages? So where would I feel that I could make an impact? What area would I basically work for free? And when I thought about the things that mean the most to me, it was just family and children. And being a mother myself, I decided I would like to work for the visiting program in the Children's Center run by Hour Children.”
Hour Children is a leading provider of services to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in New York State. They run several programs inside state prisons including a residential infant nursery, parent education and advocacy programs, child transportation and visiting, and the Children's Center. The Children’s Center, where Makeda worked, is a high-security area as it's located in the visiting room, and it's one of the harder places for women to get a job.
After passing the required security assessment, Makeda began working as a program leader, facilitating running circle time and check-ins for teens and children. Hour Children provided opportunities for Makeda to take ownership of this role. They provided training and gave her space to develop her own programs. Makeda worked there for seven years, reflecting that it was “an opportunity to offer [children] the support they need. These children are coming from a place where they've experienced a traumatic event, and I took that very seriously.”
In 2018 Makeda was released from Bedford Hills. “The day that I came home, I went to the store and I'm like, Dang, this is how Tropicana looks now? And my daughter was like, ‘Mom, hurry up! It's just juice.’ No one had an understanding of what I was really going through. They just see me. And I put on some of my old clothes, and it still fits. And they think, oh, you're still you. But, No, I'm damaged. I'm scared. I'm trying to recenter. I haven't been to a store in a decade. Everything is just different.”
“When I came home, I didn't immediately go into Hour Children's living situation or work program. Instead I went to my mother's studio apartment, but the conditions there were really bad. My daughter was working as an inventory manager at Pandora Jewelry, so I thought I'd be able to depend on her for a little bit, but as soon as I came home she quit her job.
“Think about this: my daughter was eleven when I went in, and when I came home, she was 21. Her life without me wasn't easy. As soon as I came home, for her it was like, My mom is home now. You're home now. You're going to take care of everything. And even though I wasn't in a position to do that, it still made me, like, if somebody believes that you can do that, it kind of makes you want to take on that role. Right?”
“So I really was thrown back into life without time to adjust. As soon as I got home, I was on Indeed.com, creating a resume and sending it out. Finally I got this job, and a month later, my daughter tells me she's pregnant. I didn't know she was dating. Like, what's happening?”
Though Merhanda's age meant she was no longer technically eligible for Hour Children's services for children, Makeda made her plea anyway. “I wrote a letter to Sister Tesa, and I said, I know that my daughter doesn't qualify for this program; she's not a child, but I beg of you to please hear my appeals to you for help. I'm still a mother, even though I'm not a mother to a baby, I'm still a mother. And even though my daughter's an adult, she's still a child. I don't know what that trauma of my incarceration did to her, because I wasn't here all those years.”
Hour Children welcomed Makeda, her daughter, and her grandson into their housing with open arms. And beyond offering Makeda, herself, access to the Working Women’s program and services, they invited her daughter to be a part of these opportunities as well.
“I feel like every single day I'm trying to pour into her everything that I couldn't when I was trying to parent from a distance. I know if I was home, she would have gone to college. If I was home, she probably wouldn't be in a situation she's in. Now I have a second chance to help raise my grandson. We are definitely blessed to be in this beautiful brand new apartment, to have a home to call our own, but I'm not working yet. We still have pieces to put back together.
“I'm still trying to heal myself from the damage of everything that I went through. I'm getting older, and the turmoil still feels so heavy around me. That has to be affecting my health. So how much longer do I have to fix this situation?
Makeda credits Hour Children with the path she’s on today. She says she can call herself a software engineer because she learned about the coding bootcamp from them. She says, “They paved the way for a successful future for me; now I just have to take the steps. But I'm forever indebted to Hour Children.” And she intends to pay it forward.
“Most people who are coming home have family members who just never been in the system. And no matter how good you come home, you don't feel acclimated to the world. Look, I've been home for three years, and I still get anxiety going to the supermarket.
“Ask Makeda how to improve coming home from prison and she’ll deliver a rapid-fire list: Prisoners need better nutrition so women don’t come out sick or overweight; they need wellness training and, she says, mandatory physical exercise to keep their heads clear. There should be tutorials for people about to be released with pictures—maybe videos—so they can see what the social-services office looks like or what places like Fortune can do for them. Add in field trips so inmates can understand the world they’re stepping back into...Most of all, they need mentoring from people who already came home—living examples of people who got through this.
“The first year out of prison is critical for ex-inmates. They’re often leaving prison with little money, uncertain housing, fractured relationships with family, and no job, not to mention the psychological toll of incarceration. ‘They’ve got to construct a whole life for themselves: Where am I going to live? How am I going to have money in my pocket to eat, clothe myself, get across town?’ says Ann Jacobs, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Opportunity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Makeda envisions a sort of Facebook for reentry where people who want to support people coming out of prison can connect. “We could provide access to mental health services because we always want to make sure people who have traumatic backgrounds have good mental health services, good support, mentors, life coaches. So I have this big dream for that as well.”
We asked Makeda what she’s most proud of, “I think that I'm most proud of where I am today and my dedication to learning software engineering and coding. I feel like it was a big sacrifice to have dedicated countless hours to learning and teaching myself this new language.
“I'm proud that even with health issues and even though I'm never feeling great, I'm always doing what I have to do. I'm always studying and trying to learn. And with my daughter, sometimes it's really complicated, but I'm doing my best there. I'm proud of not giving up. It would be so easy to give up.
“I’m proud of the fact that despite the challenge of trying to rebuild my life, I keep building to try to pave the way for my family--to have a life and build their life. I'm the first person to get an associate's degree in my family, which I got in prison. And now they're like, you're in boot camp?! And I can't wait for them to see what came of this sacrifice, and the pain, and the labor. I'm just proud that I'm still in the race.”
Makeda graduates from coding school on Christmas Eve of this year, and she begins her apprenticeship on January 4th. Once she completes that she’ll move into a full-time role.
If you’re a software engineer or work in coding and would like to connect with Makeda to help bring her app to life, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll make sure to put you in touch.