NationalStacy M. Brown

The Suffering Behind the Unjust Incarceration of Black Women and Their Families

Shaquanda Cotton constantly worries about her 8-year-old daughter’s safety in the Paris, Texas, school system.

After all, her child counts as Black in a district whose recent history includes students at the high school adorning the backs of their pickup trucks with large Confederate flags.

But it’s Cotton’s own history with the school district that terrifies her.

Now 30, Cotton received a seven-year prison sentence in 2006 after an encounter with a school employee. 

She was just 13 when a resource officer denied Cotton early entry into Paris High School.

Arriving early had proven a regular practice to allow Cotton to see the school nurse for a daily dose of prescription medication.

As Cotton writes in her new book, “Memoir of a ‘Teacher Slapping B*%$!” the resource officer and another school employee assaulted Cotton but Cotton found herself detained, arrested and jailed.

Cotton wanted her medication and only asked the employee why, after denying her entry, had she allowed several white students to enter the building.

Later, when she appeared in court to face bogus assault charges, a more violent white female juvenile also had a case in front of Judge Chuck Superville.

The judge denied parole for Cotton, who had no previous offenses, while he granted a 14-year-old white girl parole for a more severe crime. 

The white girl violated probation but received a second probation.

Cotton received a seven-year jail sentence.

“My daughter is 8 years old and I’m seeing a lot of the same things that happened to me, and I’m afraid,” Cotton explained.

For Black mothers everywhere, Cotton’s story resonates.

A study in the Journal of Marriage and Family revealed that more than half of all African-American women had experienced jail or at least one incarcerated family member. The report revealed that the experience results in high depression levels and psychological distress.

An NAACP fact sheet further noted that African Americans are jailed more than five times the rate of white people, and the results are palpable.  

The NAACP’s research paper noted the resiliency of African Americans but called that resilience “a double-edged sword as these experiences worsens health outcomes.”

Miquelle West, told Yahoo! News that she understands this firsthand.

“We’re both doing time in our own way,” she said of herself and her mother. 

“Certain things I can’t achieve because my mom is not present. But sometimes, when you are fighting for something of this magnitude, it should take your time,” West said, talking while crying softly during the Yahoo! News interview.

Miquelle’s uncle, Marcel Mays, was arrested with her mother and convicted in the same drug conspiracy. Mays finally left prison in 2010 after 16 years and five months.

“Michelle doesn’t have an out date,” Mays said in the report. 

“I always wonder: What does that feel like, not having an out date? I woke up with something to look forward to.”

Marion “Pete” Mays, Miquelle’s aunt who helped raise her, told Yahoo! News she suffered years of depression after the incarceration of her siblings.

“My whole life was consumed with very dark days,” Marion Mays, 58, said. 

“Later on in life, I have been able to seek help for this. Unfortunately, this is something I have had to live with. It’s similar to death. It also causes grief. I haven’t lost my sister but I’m losing time with her. Journaling helped me. And my faith has helped me, too,” she said.

Meanwhile, nearly two decades after the incident and several years after her release from jail, Cotton’s struggle to cope and raise her daughters continues.

“Not only am I a target, but my daughter is also,” Cotton explained. “It makes it tough. There are some situations that she has in school that make me feel like deja vu – it reminds me of what happened to me, so I’ve been trying to focus and work to make sure it doesn’t happen to my children.” 

Those situations include Cotton receiving disciplinary letters for being “openly defiant” and “not following the rules.” While in school, Cotton received reprimands for “pouring too much paint into a cup.” 

Because of growing media interest in her case after community activists protested Cotton’s treatment and incarceration, a special conservator appointed to overhaul Texas’ juvenile prison system reviewed the matter.

Cotton would be granted release one year into her sentence when the conservator said “we have no confidence in the system that was in place. This case is an example of what we expect to happen if something wrong has been done to youths being held inside that system.”

Activist Jay Morrison has asserted that America must take “full responsibility for its past and correct what is still purposefully occurring – mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, unequal school systems, gentrification, police brutality.”

“The tension will continue to exist,” Morrison said. “Until all people can be honest about our history and lack of repair, the hate will be hard to get past. These human rights violations against Africans in America must be treated with the same seriousness as other communities that have experienced similar imprisonment, oppression, exploitation and genocide.

“When the playing field is leveled, I imagine a greater peace in America,” she said.

Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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