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Record Numbers of Incarcerated Mothers Bad News for Women, Children, Communities

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Mothers Behind Bars

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report “Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children,” the number of children under 18 with a mother in prison grew 131 percent between 1991 and 2007, when approximately 65,600 mothers were incarcerated. Mothers are more likely than fathers to be their children’s primary caretaker and to be single parents, so the mother’s incarceration inevitably disrupts the lives of their children, as they must then be cared for by someone else.

“A lot of women who end up in prison were already single parents at the time of their incarceration, [so] they might not have strong family ties,” says Law. “A lot of women who are in prison have histories of abuse, either childhood and/or adult abuse, which means they might not have the same connections and trust in their families that men who end up in prison do. So their children are actually five times more likely to end up in foster care than [those of] men in prison.”

During the Clinton administration, the Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act was put into place, which was intended to free children from foster care for adoption if the child had been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. Unfortunately, this had the effect of permanently separating children from incarcerated mothers, whose parental rights were mandated to be terminated irrevocably after 15 months. Even if the mother was able to show she was able to care and provide for the child upon release, says Law, there was simply no way to get her child back. Eleven percent of mothers in prison report their children being placed in foster care, while 42 percent reported the child’s grandmother as being the primary caretaker during her stay in prison.

Even in the majority of cases where a family member or friend is able to care for the child (very few fathers assume full-time care while a mother is in prison), this still may involve changing schools or neighborhoods and disrupting the child’s life, and the absence of the mother while in prison inevitably causes anguish.

“No matter what their mother did – they could have seen their mother selling drugs or working as a prostitute in front of them – it does not matter, children love their mothers; they are attached to their mothers; it is pretty devastating to break that bond even if logic tells us that this person could not possibly be an appropriate parent,” says Lerner.

In Search of a New Life

Prisons, as opposed to being places where people can be rehabilitated in the hope of establishing law-abiding lives and becoming productive members of society, are typically warehouses to store people until their time has been served. Furthermore, in these cash-strapped times, budget cuts often mean slashing what few services exist, such as educational, drug treatment or mental health programs.

“In Colorado now, they’re actually cutting their educational and vocational courses from something like a few months to eight-week sessions,” says Law. “Even though studies have shown that education is the number one factor in whether or not somebody goes back to prison.” And because higher numbers of men tend to be violent offenders who pose more of a risk to society, it will often be decided that resources and programs will be given to men’s rather than women’s prisons. Nowadays, ironically, squeezed state budgets may mean fewer people end up behind bars, as states simply can’t afford to house as many people as they used to.

Other states may be rethinking their approach of using incarceration as an all-purpose solution to social ills and instead are using alternative methods to deal with problems such as drug addiction. “In New York, our incarceration has gone down significantly and a lot of that is because much of the population in the state prisons was coming from New York City and so much of the crime being sentenced to state prisons was drug related,” says Lerner. New York now has several specialty narcotics prosecutors and drug courts and a large network of drug treatment and services that work to offer alternatives to incarceration, says Lerner. Judges are more willing to use these measures than incarceration because people who complete treatment are less likely to end up back in the criminal justice system.

Once released, women face many barriers to rebuilding their lives. A job can be difficult to obtain with a prison record, and even though it is technically illegal to discriminate unless the crime was directly related to the work being performed, the criminal background checks many employers routinely do often mean former inmates have trouble finding legitimate work. Other obstacles exist as well. For instance, in the state of New York, says Law, women with prison records are not qualified to live in public housing.

“About half of the women who enter prison have not completed high school and about half have not had a legal job within the last year,” says Lerner. “So when they come out of prison, they probably still have not completed a high school equivalency diploma and they haven’t gained any job training or work experience in most cases.” In one odd New York case, women had the option of training to be hairdressers or barbers in prison, but then the state had a regulation against obtaining a barber’s license if one had a prior criminal conviction, and parole regulations prevented the women from moving to another state.

“Corrections budgets have become a huge part of state budgets,” says Lerner. “[It's] crazy because corrections was created to remove people from community … not to be a school, a doctor’s office, a mental health clinic, a drug treatment provider and a job training center.” Unfortunately, this is what the prison population often needs in order to become law-abiding and contributing members of society, says Lerner. “If prisons are going to do a good job of preventing people from coming back, they need to figure out how to make those things available. It’s certainly not what they were created for and we’re asking a lot of the system.”

Ultimately, as we look at the numbers of Americans being incarcerated, we have to ask ourselves if prisons in their current state are making society safer or less so, even though many may label measures to reintegrate prisoners back into society as being “soft on crime.”

“There has to be a belief that people who enter prison can come out of prison being better,” says Lerner. “That’s a change. It’s not something we’ve asked people to think about.”

This post was originally published by Truthout under a Creative Commons license.


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Photo from Curtis Gregory Perry via flickr

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10:05PM PST on Feb 1, 2012

There are to many women in Massachusetts doing time in jail or prison for prostitution. Most of the women in Massachusetts are serving time behind bars for prostitution. It is taking up a lot of jail space and prison space for most violent female offenders in Massachusetts facilities. Prostitution is not only a non violent offense. It is also a victimless offense. Most women work as prostitutes in Massachusetts to make money to survive. Most of the jobs in Massachusetts don't pay well for women, so they sell thier bodies to survive. Massachusetts should legalize prostitution. It will help reduce crime. It will save Massachustts a lot of money in court cost and incarceration every year.

2:17PM PST on Feb 1, 2012

Sandy C. seems to have missed the point entirely. Sure. Blame the mothers, if that's how you feel good about yourself, Sandy. But it still doesn't address the fact that it's damaging to families--and there are major social costs to damaged families such a elevated crime rates, drug use, poor health. The corrections system is supposed to stop these things, not encourage them. As it operates now, it encourages more crime, social disorder, drug use, etc., while costing insane amounts of money that could be better spent.

12:45AM PST on Jan 31, 2012


8:03PM PST on Jan 30, 2012

it's the kids who really suffer for their parents' mistakes. this is another reason why a license should be required to have children.

7:11PM PST on Jan 30, 2012

Just another part of the male domination and control of women particularly those that must be punished.

3:11PM PST on Jan 30, 2012

Rebecca S: Have you read "When She Was Bad How" by Patricia Pearson? It is a great book on precisely the point you made.

And yes, we definitely do need more programs to help once people are outside prison. I know of several hardworking people that were on the right track to getting where they should be but due to not being allowed back in the work force they slipped into their old ways...lost in the system.
I work at a volunteer service that provides books for inmates (due to so many prison libraries not being funded/closed down) but they are so limited in what can be sent---and some of the guidelines are ridiculous! One prison requested that we do not send books on how to learn a trade, but they accept fiction crime & murder mysteries???

1:17PM PST on Jan 30, 2012

So sad

10:49AM PST on Jan 30, 2012

Very unfortunate

10:38AM PST on Jan 30, 2012


5:31AM PST on Jan 30, 2012

Thanks for sharing.

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