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August 06, 2018

Jessica Katz: Prison: Narratives and Counter-narratives
Category: 2018 Event, News, Speaker Announcements

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Jessica Katz, founder of the Family Preservation Project, is an ally for imprisoned mothers, their children, and their families as they face the myriad unrecognized consequences of our legal system.

“We have gotten very good at talking about the issue of mass incarceration in very broad brush strokes. Though prison was originally designed for punishment and isolating people who were unfit for civilized society, today prisons are places where we are sending folks to get the kind of help that was not accessible to them in the community. A social services agency of last resort. We lock away folks who are poor, and often, because they are poor. We lock away addicts and trauma survivors. We disproportionately lock away people of color.

As we have shifted our use of prisons, we have also shifted our narrative. We have built a strong story that tells us prisons are where people go to get fixed, corrected, rehabilitated.”

Jessica has been a student of this issue for the last two decades while working in and around the US prison system. From a young age, she has been somewhat pre-occupied with the notion of justice. She remembers that, even as a child, when justice seemed allusive, it was still worth chasing.

While a graduate student at Columbia University, Jessica participated in a legal clinic that brought her into prisons in New York. There she worked with parents, with the goal of helping them access their legal rights, especially as those rights impacted their children.

Jessica remembers “going inside this monolithic system of our own creation upended almost everything that I thought I knew. It was difficult for me to wrap my head around who was in there, why they were there, and how long they were there. I also became profoundly aware of the larger ecosystem of family, and the profound impact on the children who suffer the ambiguous loss of their parent. It was impossible for me to ever look back.”

Over the past 20 years, Jessica has become a powerful ally. She is tenacious. “Systems do a poor job of caring for people. People do that better.”

So Jessica founded the Family Preservation Project.

“We work alongside imprisoned mothers and their children and families. We provide a multi-generational intervention to interrupt destructive cycles that have served no one well. We strengthen and support families where they are negatively impacted by our criminal legal system. We help women find their way back to their best version of themselves—the version that is deeply rooted in their identity as mothers. We work in partnership with mothers to create a coherent narrative for their children to make sense of what has happened and is happening.”

In 2016, Jessica received the American Bar Association’s Reunification Hero Award. The next year, she advocated for, and was instrumental in the passage of Oregon SB 241 making Oregon the first State to legislatively adopt,The Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents.

The Family Preservation Project is the subject of Brian Lindstrom’s documentary film, Mothering Inside. Recently, Jessica and Brian again collaborated on Like a Shield, a docu-short that articulates the need for children’s rights to be recognized as their parent moves through our criminal legal system, and what happens in the absence of that. The mothers and children who are subjects of the film were all involved with the Family Preservation Project, have come out the other side of this system, and are working to create better outcomes.

If you ask Jessica what motivates her, she will tell you, “I am driven by
finding what is right amidst a long and strong narrative about what is wrong, and feel a profound sense of privilege in walking alongside women as they find their way back to their center.”

Jessica says she is looking forward to creating community with the 2018 speakers..”they are a kick-ass group of humans!” She is also looking forward to igniting conversations with the larger TEDx community. The idea that restoration can happen when people are put in cages goes against our basic human nature. I am confident that there is a path forward to re-imagining our criminal legal system.

Jessica Katz

Jessica Katz, founder of the Family Preservation Project, is an ally for imprisoned mothers, their children, and their families as they face the myriad unrecognized consequences of our legal system.