Group bangs the drums for imprisoned mothers

kjahner@newsobserver.comMay 12, 2013 

A group of about 50 demonstrators led by an activist couple combined a “Happy Mother’s Day” message with a protest over incarceration rates at the state prison for women in Raleigh.

The group made a racket with more than a dozen drums, ranging from a large bass drum to a tin box, in front of the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Southeast Raleigh. They hoisted signs proclaiming “Happy Mothers Day” as well as “Free All Mothers; Against prisons and the world that creates them.” Another said “cops: protectors of the rich, hunters of the poor.”

“This is a complex issue; we’re just trying to deliver some joy on a day that’s otherwise tragic and sad,” organizer Patrick O’Neill said.

He said the prison’s chaplain had told him that Mothers Day was worse than Christmas for mothers in the prison. O’Neill also said they had a broader political message against high incarceration rates, especially for nonviolent offenders.

Mary Rider, O’Neill’s wife, also attended, banging the drum hanging around her neck.

“I’m a Christian and I believe in works of mercy. One is to visit the prisoner,” said Rider, the mother of eight.

O’Neill and Rider have protested the justice system in the past. Rider was sentenced to 15 days in jail for crossing a police line and trespassing on Central Prison property while praying in the driveway the night the state executed Sammy Flippen in 2006. Flippen was the last person executed in North Carolina.

O’Neill said that many women enter the justice system with histories of being victims of domestic abuse. The “injustice system,” as he calls it, deprives children of their mothers, furthering a cycle of poverty and incarceration.

The group’s protested at one point brought them next to a prison fence on State Street, and prison officers told them to cross the street because they were on state property. They backed up about 30 feet to the sidewalk and continued playing without incident, continuing their march around the prison. At least one person could be seen waving to the protesters from inside the prison.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It has been dropping since 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, with 492 inmates per 100,000 residents, down from a peak of 506. North Carolina saw its prison population shrink by 2.3 percent between 2010 and 2011, and has a rate significantly below the national average.

The female incarceration rate is roughly 7 percent that of the male rate.

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