Mothers in Jail

Julee Newberger
September 11, 1999

Imagine a labyrinth of cinderblock, then a long, narrow hall with a row of wooden benches. At the end of the hall, you see your mother, dressed in a blue cotton jumper that buttons down the front. A glass wall separates you. Although you are just inches away, you speak to each other on a telephone as if you are miles apart.

Now, imagine you are 5, 8—even 12 years old. You're visiting Mommy in jail.

Since 1980, the number of women in custody in State and Federal prisons has risen more than fourfold. The Women's Prison Association reports that at least 75 percent of jailed women are mothers, most with two or more children. Before incarceration, these women were far more likely than men to have been their children's primary caregiver.

Today, or any day, some 165,000 U.S. kids have mothers in prison.

"The majority of women are imprisoned for non-violent, drug-related offenses-not crimes against their children," says Denise Johnston of the Center for Children of the Incarcerated in California. When they exit prison, she finds, these women will likely be back in their children's lives.

The challenge for corrections and rehabilitative services, Johnston and others argue, is to help a woman rejoin her family so her children and her community don't continue to pay the price for her crime.

A Mother's Mindset
I put her through pain because I used drugs when I was pregnant? I wasn't there when she needed me most, when she got her first cold or when she was born and withdrew from cocaine.

You can hear the pain in many women's voices as they talk about their children. Guilt aside, it's clear that a parent's prison stay, maybe as much as earlier drug abuse, takes its toll on kids. A 1993 report by National Council on Crime and Delinquency warned that children whose parents are incarcerated experience trauma, anxiety, guilt and fear. They are at significant risk for poor academic achievement, dropping out of school, gang involvement, early pregnancy, drug abuse and delinquency. And children of inmates are five times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves some day.

The American Correctional Association (ACA) finds that incarcerated mothers are usually young, unmarried women of color with children and few job skills. They have little or no work experience, and significant substance abuse problems. The children's father likely has just a "peripheral role" in their lives, says Brenda Smith, formerly of the National Women's Law Center.

A 1991 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics adds that jailed women also have many psychological and health needs. Women are three times more likely than incarcerated men to have experienced physical or sexual abuse before entering jail. They are more likely to suffer from HIV than their male counterparts, and at the time of the survey, six percent entered prison while pregnant.

The question of whether women will emerge from prison clean from drugs and ready for responsible motherhood may depend in part on whether they are able to maintain their roles as parents—even from behind bars. Counselors say from experience that with prolonged separation from their children, many women lose the incentive to rebuild their lives.

The Power of Parenting
I want to take all the parenting classes that I can and learn as much as I can so that when I got home I will be able to be a good mother.

Denise Johnston says one of the toughest challenges incarcerated mothers face is keeping a connection with their children. "If we could be certain that every child would be adopted, we might say it makes sense for them not to see their mothers," Johnston says. But for most, "the mother retains a role in their lives."

While 95 percent of state prisons allow mother and child visits, the rates for county jails tend to be lower. Out of the nearly 140,000 incarcerated women in 1998, almost half were living in local or county jails, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. The Montgomery County, Maryland Detention Center allows contact visits for mothers and children only once a year during the Christmas season. Chief of Inmates Mary Jones Brown says that logistical and legal issues prevent more visitations. Besides, "what we do for women, we then have to do for men," she notes.

The effect of those rules is felt by "Eensie," a 39-year-old African American woman with a long history of substance use who has been incarcerated at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility for six months on drug-related charges. She has four daughters living with a foster family who take great pains to keep Eensie involved in their lives through phone calls and visits. Eensie's two younger daughters have been adopted by the foster family, and all four girls will remain in their home upon Eensie's release from jail.

Although she feels lucky that her children's foster parents encourage her involvement in their lives, she pines over her youngest. "I feel her just slipping away," Eensie says.

That's why programs for incarcerated mothers need specific parenting components, says Jane Sachs, director of Pre-Release Services in Montgomery County, Maryland. When male and female inmates have six months or fewer until their release, Sachs' residential program offers them parenting classes, helps them get jobs, monitors their daily activities and allows nightly visits for family members.

Sachs sees widespread evidence of adults with meager parenting know-how. "Kids learn in school things they'll never use," she complains, "but they don't learn parenting,"

Programs for incarcerated mothers, whether in-house or residential, tend to provide substance abuse treatment and job training after release. Most importantly, there is an underlying expectation is that an inmate will go back to playing a role within her family.

Such services seem to be growing. According to the ACA, mother and child program initiatives and vocational training are growing to meet the needs of female inmates. Eighty-eight percent of the state correctional facilities in the ACA survey had pre-release programs to prepare male and female inmates for rejoining the community. Nearly all had basic education and life skills training.

When asked how in-prison programs could help these women improve their lives and their children's prospects, Ann Jacobs, president of the advocacy group the Women's Prison Association (WPA), said, "A more interesting conversation is, why are these women behind bars if they're not a danger to society?"

Prison Alternatives
I am a parent from a distance and there are certain things I don't know how to talk about or feel.

"My interest is in more public investment in alternatives to incarceration," Jacobs says, "including programs in which women are kept in community, get drug treatment, learn to meet the needs of their children, and get education and vocational training they need to actually make a living wage."

Summit House, Inc. of North Carolina shares that goal. It runs three residential centers for female offenders convicted of non-violent felonies who are pregnant or the mother of young children. The mission is to keep the family intact while the woman satisfies her obligation to the criminal justice system.

According to Karen Chapel, the former C.E.O. of Summit House, Inc., the program is in a category with five or six other residential programs across the country that takes a holistic, comprehensive approach to the treatment of incarcerated women and their families. The state of California offers two programs for inmate mothers that allow eligible inmates to move from a prison setting into community-based facilities.

Says Sharrell Blakely of the California Department of Corrections, "By the time each woman leaves the facility, she should have a place to live, a job or school program lined up and a plan for her future."

For these programs, success is measured in a lower rate of recidivism. Little data exists, however, because few such programs exist. Says Jacobs, "I'd be surprised if alternative incarceration programs are serving 300 women a year."

"We need to develop a network of community-based residences that provide drug treatment and family preservation services," Jacobs continues. "Then you can do what the criminal justice system wants [reduce recidivism], child welfare wants [keep families together], and drug treatment wants [keep people clean]; and do it all at once."

A Movement Toward Mothers?
I have two sons, 16 and 18, and I've begun to go home on furlough and it has been very hard to reconnect to them.

A survey of state correctional facilities by the National Institute of Justice showed that administrators recommend more services be made available to address the myriad problems confronting incarcerated women and their families.

Non-profits are on the scene too. The nationally recognized program, Girl Scouts Behind Bars, incorporates contact visits with learning experiences between mothers and children in a relaxed atmosphere. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been trying to help the 10 percent of prison mothers whose children have been placed in foster care, and the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project in New York counsels mothers on their rights—and obligations— to children while in jail.

But too few correctional facilities have caught up to the needs of their burgeoning female populations, many say.

"What's holding us back is that people don't believe you can transform a life through a therapeutic community for women, " says Sharrell Blakely. "But you can."

For more information on incarcerated women and their children, see:

*All voices of incarcerated mothers from "Parenting from Inside/Out: The Voices of Mothers in Prison," a publication of the Children's Center, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Bedford Hills, New York.

Julee Newberger is the former assistant managing editor at Connect for Kids.