There is much written about the problem of mass incarceration in the United States. We, in the ‘Land of the Free’, incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country in the world, even some with the worst human rights records, including China and Russia.
There is an oft- forgotten footnote to this incarceration marathon. The discussion around mass incarceration rightfully recalls, young male members of minority groups. However, between 1983 and 2009, the population of women prisoners in the U.S. increased by as much as 500%, compared to an increase in the male inmate population, for the same period, of 280%. The face of the majority in this rising population of women prisoners, belongs to women of color.
This problem is important, especially to minority communities, i.e., African American and Hispanic. Most women prisoners are mothers, and 67% of them were primary, custodial caregivers to dependent children (under 18) prior to their incarceration. So, What About the Children? Correctional policy is not likely to consider this question.
When a mother goes to prison, it affects the whole community. First, the children must be cared for. Let’s look at a couple of scenarios: When a father goes to prison, the children remain with the mother; when the mother goes to prison the father takes over care for his children in only 28% of cases. The choices that are left are 1) the children are left in the care of relatives or, worst case 2) placed in foster care. In either case, these children are left without a parent. There is the problem of maintaining contact between the mother and her children. This is the most severe pain of imprisonment for women prisoners as they never stop thinking of themselves as mothers and having responsibility for their children’s well-being.
Reference scenario #1 – the children are with relatives – Even though this is the optimal situation, there are expenses involved, there are impositions on time and space in that home and responsibilities relating to schooling, nurturing and discipline. The caregiver, usually a grandmother, is often living on a small fixed income. They are eligible to and often do, apply for food stamps, Medicaid and all avenues of assistance for children. How about visits to see Mom? Most states have one prison for women. Take Kentucky for instance. The women’s prison is in the western part of the state. If the children are living in a more eastern or southern area of Kentucky; with visits on the weekend and hoping to optimize the opportunity, most families will travel to the area, visit one day, stay at a hotel and visit the next day and return to their home. This entails costs for the trip (gas, food, lodging) that no government entity pays for. These children are with relatives who love them, but there are still stressors and upheaval in the life of the child and the caregiver.
Reference scenario #2 – the children are placed in foster care. 11% of women prisoners report their children being placed in foster care, compared to 2% of men. They no longer have any semblance of ‘home’. It is not difficult to imagine the myriad problems that arise from such placements. Siblings may be split up, there is instability, and children are sometimes moved more than once while waiting for Mom to be released. Without mentioning the sexual victimization, physical abuse and neglect that sometimes occurs, suffice it to say, this is not ideal. Additionally, The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, signed into law by president Clinton, allows states to file for termination of parental rights if children are in foster care for over 15 months. Under this law, if the mother is incarcerated for more than 15 months, and cannot arrange permanent care by a relative, she could lose her children.
I mentioned some of the problems borne by the community, such as public assistance paid for by the tax-paying public. However, there are others to be considered. Children of incarcerated parents often, understandably suffer emotional problems. They are bullied and shamed by other children who are aware of their situation; and they are more likely to have problems in school, up to and including school failure and drop-out. Incarceration has been shown to be generational and the children are more susceptible to substance abuse and delinquency.
Most women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. However, judges’ hands are tied by sentencing guidelines which do not allow them to go below certain minimum sentences. It is more expensive to incarcerate a woman prisoner than a male prisoner because of medical/emotional issues and sometimes childbirth. These matters could be addressed more economically in the community and family unity could be maintained if policy-makers and legislators considered the children.
Joyce Carmouche, U.S. Department of Justice (Retired)
Adjunct Professor, Eastern Kentucky University