The number of adults under some form of correctional supervision has been increasing steadily. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2006 more than 7 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole. This accounts for 3.2 percent of all adult residents in the United States. Prison authorities at the federal and state levels had more than 1.4 million inmates in custody. More than 1.5 million children under the age of 18 have parents incarcerated in state and federal prisons; children under the age of 5 years old made up 22 percent of these children.
Research indicates that when a family member goes to prison, the whole family suffers. Incarcerated females are more likely to have been the primary caretaker, so what happens to their children is different than for children of incarcerated male parents. For males, the children are more likely to be with their children’s mother. Children of females in prison are often placed in the care of other family members, typically grandparents (usually grandmothers). In many states, family members are not eligible for foster care money, so poor families who cannot afford another mouth to feed may not be able to take on this burden. The children may then be placed in foster care, where siblings may be separated and uprooted from all that is familiar to them. For some of these children, this may be the first time that they have been away from their mothers for any length of time.
Incarcerated parents, particularly mothers, face the problem of how to maintain the bond they had with their children before incarceration. Interestingly, males tend to get more visits from their children under the age of 12 years old than females. The mothers of the children of male prisoners tend to bring the children to see their fathers. Because mothers who are in prisons are usually the primary caregiver, they are less likely to have their children visit them. There are other reasons as well. Though their numbers have been increasing at a more rapid rate than their male counterparts, females still make up a significantly lesser proportion of the prison population. Most states have only one women’s prison, often in rural and/or suburban areas far from where these women lived. There tends not to be public transportation to the facilities. So even for those substitute primary caregivers who would like to bring the children to visit their mothers, it is a daunting, if not impossible, task. Another factor that may explain the lack of children visiting their imprisoned mothers is the stigma attached to a woman in prison. Some women inmates do not want their children to know that they are imprisoned, so they make up stories to explain their absence, saying they had to “go down South” or that they will be away for a while or that children are not allowed where they are.
Most research on parents in prisons focuses on the female. The majority of females in prisons are single parents, so their parental role is more obvious. Traditionally the male parental role has not received as much attention as that of the mother, but recent research shows that the long-term consequences of having either parent (or both) incarcerated are just as serious. Also, with an emerging pattern of intergenerational crime, in some prisons the parent and the child, and in some instances even the grandparent, are in the same institution. Parents in prison, for the most part, do not want their children to repeat their mistakes. Experts thus recommend the implementation of programs in prison that work toward maintaining and improving the parental bond between children and their incarcerated parents.
Mothers and fathers in prisons have similar concerns, but females face some gender-specific problems of parenting. Recent surveys by the Bureau of Justice found that 6 percent of women who enter jail and 5 percent of those entering prisons are pregnant. Health care for incarcerated women in general is horrendous, but for pregnant women, additional problems arise since there is little to no prenatal care. Women wishing to terminate a pregnancy (usually those in jails) may have stumbling blocks placed in their paths, and women who want to continue their pregnancy (usually those in prisons) may be encouraged to abort. Women who do continue the pregnancy may find themselves in situations threatening to themselves and or their fetus. Sometimes correctional officers may tell them that they are not in labor when they really are, thereby putting their babies in danger of being born without proper medical attention. Those who make it to the hospital find themselves shackled to the bed as they give birth, even when a correctional officer is in the room. Some women have their babies immediately taken away and placed in a foster home. Few prisons allow new mothers to keep their babies with them, even though research on such programs as the one at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility show the positive impact of letting mothers keep their babies for the first 18 or 24 months.
Incarcerated parents face challenges similar to parents in the outside world, but they also have additional hurdles. As more and more people become imprisoned, society must be cognizant that the long-term punishment of parents also punishes their children. Society in general, and children of incarcerated mothers in particular, may be better served by keeping nonviolent female offenders with children in community-based programs where they can pay their debt to society yet continue their roles as primary care-givers of their children. For those women who must be incarcerated, programs that maintain and strengthen the parent-child bond should be created. Parenting classes, visitation programs, nursery programs, and programs such as Girl Scouts Behind Bars are just a few of such programs. In addition, all re-entry programs should have a component that deals with parenting, especially for female offenders.
Policies and laws that are more holistic and systematic are needed to deal with this social problem.
- Bloom, Barbara and David Steinhart. 1993. Why Punish the Children? A Reappraisal of the Children of Incarcerated Mothers in America. San Francisco: National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
- Dressel, Paula, Jeff Porterfield, and Sandra K. Barnhill. 1998. “Mothers behind Bars.” Corrections Today 60(7):90-94.
- Johnson, Elizabeth and Jane Waldfogel. 2002. Children of Incarcerated Parents: Cumulative Risk and Children’s Living Arrangement. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Mumola, Christopher J. 2000. Incarcerated Parents and Their Children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Sabol, William J. 2007. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2006. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, November. Retrieved March 28, 2017 (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p06.pdf).
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