We all love Orange is the New Black: It’s fierce, feminist, and fearless in its portrayals of complicated and real women. Gender and sexuality have been frequent show topics in the past, though the start of season three focuses mainly on motherhood. One inmate’s husband questions whether it’s a smart decision for their daughter to keep visiting her mother in prison, while another is pregnant and facing some big decisions once her child is born. These stories are more than just plot though: They’re reflecting the real experiences that women and their children face every day in America. Here, author Nora Raleigh Baskin talks about the challenges faced by mothers and their children when they’re separated by bars and how their stories inspired her to write her latest middle grade novel, Ruby on the Outside.
Ruby on the Outside is probably the only book I’ve written where I can pinpoint exactly the moment I decided to write it. I was accompanying a friend to a Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) charity fundraiser. After cocktails and tours of the house, after hors d’oeuvres and small talk, the event began. The president of RTA spoke, then some of the volunteer professional actors, and then an ex-prisoner. As I listened, I was humbled and somewhat ashamed to learn that there are over 2.2 million incarcerated adults in our country, more than any other county in the world. It is a huge and disproportionate percentage of our society and it was something I knew nothing about. It is a hidden, secret population. What struck me next was the understanding that there is an even greater number, completely innocent, that are possibly more affected by our broken criminal justice system: the children of parents who are incarcerated.
At the end of the afternoon, I wrote my modest check to RTA and I left feeling unsettled and useless. Here were professionals, lawyers, doctors, and philanthropists trying to repair this system, people with far more experience, money, and time than I had. What could I possibly do?
Well, I could do what I do: Write.
Unlike my first novels (which were almost entirely autobiographical), my more recent work has required a great deal of research. For this work my inquiries quickly led me to an organization based out of Queens, NY called Hour Children that works with the children and families of incarcerated mothers, a perfect place to start. Sister Tesa of Hour Children invited me to visit, and in our initial conversations I gained a basic understanding of what a child’s life would be like if his or her mom was in prison: phone calls that resulted in enormous phone bills, difficult visitation procedures, and the children’s center within the walls of the prison itself. She then suggested I contact Emani Davis, one of the children portrayed in the non-fiction book, All Alone in the World. Emani welcomed me into her home and generously told me her story. Sister Tesa also told me about the wonderful documentary by Jenifer McShane, Mothers of Bedford which gave me enormous insight into the effects of incarceration on women and families. But it soon became apparent that the only way I could write an authentic account of a girl whose mother is incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional facility was to get inside. I had no idea how impossible a request that was when I asked Alessandra Rose of Hour Children if she could make that happen. She said she would try.
Several weeks after my initial visit to Queens, I was hiking with my dog in the Connecticut woods when I got a call from an unknown number. Something told me to pick it up. The no-nonsense voice identified himself as the official warden for the State of New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) and asked if I still wanted to visit the prison in Bedford Hill. I told him I did.
“Be at Bedford Hills. 9AM. Don’t wear green.”
I think that was pretty much the whole conversation.
After visiting the prison (and according to the COs at Bedford Hills, it is unheard of for a writer—with a pad and pen no less—to be allowed inside a prison and to be honest I have no idea why I was granted permission), I was able to begin writing. There was, of course, that pesky little problem of character, backstory, plot, structure, climax, and resolution, but I was able to complete a first draft. Then, because I felt a deep obligation to the children I was writing about, I asked Kellie Phelan, the program coordinator at Hour Children, if she would read my first draft and would she perhaps give it to a few of the children for their comments. Kellie not only read my manuscript and gave me feedback, but she then she offered to organize a book discussion with some of the participants at Hour Children. I also spent the next several months emailing her questions about everything from whether or not hair combs could be brought into the visiting room (they can not) to whether or not the visiting room was air conditioned (it is). I was grateful and nervous, but I immediately made six copies, three-holed punched them all, and fit the pages into loose leaf binders to make it easier for the kids to read. About two months later I returned to Hour Children and met with my special after-school book “club.”
These kids had so much to say. They were honest and open and wise well beyond their years. It was validating for me to learn that I had nailed so many of the issues: the shame, the waiting, the denial. But they were eager to add their own personal details: the way your heart stops when you hear the door opening in the visiting room, the topic of the vending machines and how important sharing “normal” food was to both the parents and kids, the sense of loneliness, anger, and love.
I took notes. I took down their names and I went back to writing with not only more accuracy but more commitment, more understanding, more heart.
I didn’t realize when I first started this project how important it would become to me. I had no idea how much I would come to care, how much I would learn, and how much it has affected my life outside of writing. My eyes are opened to a world I never before knew existed. My hope is that this book starts a conversation, an argument, a discussion, and maybe it comes to mean something important to someone else. Or just makes one child feel a little less lonely.
Nora Raleigh Baskin is the ALA Schneider Family Book Award–winning author of Anything But Typical. She was chosen as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for her novel What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows, and has since written a number of novels for middle graders and teens, including The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah, The Summer Before Boys, and Runt. Nora lives with her family in Connecticut.