Why we should care about incarcerated mothers

According to data compiled by the Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, 82 percent of the 16,000 women jailed from Cook County each year are mothers. [Photo courtesy Cook County Sheriff's Department]

According to data compiled by the Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, 82 percent of the 16,000 women jailed from Cook County each year are mothers. [Photo courtesy Cook County Sheriff's Department]

The dramatic increase in the number of incarcerated women in Illinois in recent years has raised concerns on multiple levels. The most troubling of these issues is the impact on what are variously referred to as the secondary victims, or the unintended victims, or—more troubling still—the invisible victims of the criminal justice system. The children of incarcerated mothers.

There are significant reasons why we all should see them, why we must be concerned about them and about the social costs of their potentially fractured lives.

As has been documented in the Columbia University Social Work Review, children of incarcerated mothers experience a wide range of consequences — some of which can be destabilizing and enduring. There is the separation from what often is the primary — if not only — caregiver. There is the sense of abandonment that separation causes. The grief, the shame, perhaps even the trauma of having seen a mother arrested. The confusion and uncertainty of being bounced around the foster care system, or left with relatives who are not prepared for additional and unanticipated family members.

According to statistics compiled by Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), about 82 percent of the 16,000 women jailed from Cook County each year are mothers, and 80 percent of the women are charged with non-violent crimes. Many are sent to downstate prisons where they have more limited chances for family contact. CLAIM has urged the state to consider community release for the estimated 40 percent of women who would qualify.

Distance can operate as a “second sentence” for women, Piper Kerman wrote in the New York Times last August. Kerman, whose prison memoir, “Orange is the New Black,” inspired the popular Netflix series, noted the overwhelming commonality among the diverse population of women in prison. “What was universally important to all of us were our lifelines to the outside world—our spouses and partners, our friends and family, and for many women, their children,” she wrote.

Even after a mother is released, returned home and reunited with her family — even then, there can be constant fear among the children that it all might happen again, that the mother will be taken away. This can lead to troubled behavior in school and ultimately to an altogether new support system. The one that owns the streets.

The problems related to incarcerated mothers and child care have intensified over the last generation. Following changes in criminal justice emphasis, the number of children with mothers in state and federal prisons more than doubled – 131 percent — to 147,000, between 1991 and midyear 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of the 65,600 mothers in prison, three quarters of them reported providing the daily care for their children and one half said they were the sole financial support. Of women held in state prisons, drug (63%), property (65%) and public-order (65%) offenders were more likely than violent (57%) offenders to be a mother.

As a result of the mandatory minimums imposed by the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs, sentencing no longer involves a judge’s discretion. They can’t take into account such life factors as family care issues, or in the case of drug offenses, alternative sentencing, including the placement of offenders closer to home, where family contact can be continued. In Illinois, the nearest women’s facility is in Decatur, a three-hour drive from Chicago. Assuming a visitor has access to a car. Poverty, after all, is another factor — even at the onset with crimes of hunger (like shoplifting) contributing to the increased number of women in the system.

For mother and child, the trauma can start early. At birth. Currently, nine states — including Illinois — provide in-prison nurseries. Some argue that keeping infants in prison is a violation of their due process rights (they haven’t been charged, tried or convicted, after all). But the benefits appear to outweigh these concerns. Evidence points to a reduction in recidivism for mothers who are given the chance to bond with newborns in prison.

In Illinois, the Decatur Correctional Facility operates a program called Moms and Babies, which is limited to women convicted of non-violent crimes who do not have a history as a parent with the Department of Children and Family Services and are within two years of release. Mothers participate in parenting classes and receive post-release support. A key component is the approval of the biological father or the immediate family members.

Re-entry for the mother still can be problematic. Clearly, if women are going to have a viable transition back into society after prison release, they will need support. But access to public assistance can be an issue. Former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform law attached public assistance to the war on drugs, allowing states to limit or even ban cash assistance and food stamps for people with drug convictions. Illinois has a total ban on the cash assistance program and imposes some limitations on food stamp assistance.

With mandatory minimums, distant imprisonment and limited access to public assistance after release, drug offenders—the vast majority of women in the system—are getting squeezed at both ends of the criminal justice system, facing increasingly limited ways to rebuild their families.

If we truly are committed to leaving no child behind, then we need to develop more progressive ways to address the impact on families of mothers placed into the system. It would be an investment likely to yield social dividends for us all.

Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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