The Ethics of Treating Mothers in Prison

Mental Health Prison BeLatina

The overall number of Americans in jail has been increasing at a rate of 500% since the 1980s. We now boast the largest number of incarcerated people in the world — around 2.2 million — followed distantly by Rwanda, then Russia. Notably, the number of women in jail has increased at more than twice the rate of men. While this trend is troubling and much work remains to improve the conditions in correctional facilities overall, we must prioritize a much improved  treatment for mothers and women who become mothers in jail.

Despite a drastic rise in the female prison population (700 percent since 1980), little has been done nationwide to study and address the needs of convicted women or to consider whether the correctional system needs to adapt. Going to to jail is the result of being found guilty in criminal court in this country, but being treated humanely while serving out a sentence remains every person’s right. When handling a mother who goes to jail, society has a double duty to do right by both her and her children.

Understanding the Stats

It is calculated that somewhere between five and ten percent of women who enter prison each year are pregnant and around 2,000 babies are born yearly to mothers in jail. An even greater percentage, about two thirds, are already mothers when sentenced. Failure to consider that women, whether criminally culpable or not, are often also mothers, is a cruel and unusual punishment for both the culpable adult and her innocent children.

Historically, mostly men went to jail and prison protocols were developed in anticipation of a male, often violent population. But currently, women are going to jail at twice the rate of men, with around 1.2 women being held in custody by the state. Less than half of them were convicted of violent crimes and are serving time for property or drug offenses. This fact alone should suffice to highlight the need to reformulate certain aspects of prison life for women.

Social justice warriors, like the Rebecca Project, clamor for necessary reform in prison protocol for mothers and their children. More recently the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have added their take on perhaps the single most obviously excessive practice — the use of the same restraints they would on a male prisoner, applied to women in labor for transfer to the hospital. Not surprisingly, they have deemed this an unnecessary and medically dangerous practice.

Psychologists, sociologists, and doctors all agree, there is very little risk that a woman in labor would be inclined or able to escape on foot from armed guards. The use of restraints at the wrists, ankles, and waist of a woman in labor is measurably traumatic to both mother and baby: by preventing the mother from adjusting positions and responding to her body’s cues, both of them can be harmed or even die. What happens after the birth of the baby is no improvement.

A Realistic Tragedy

Consider for a moment that the women who birth their babies in jail will likely have their infants taken from them after only 48 hours, sometimes sooner. Many go on to lose parental rights over their babies, as their sentence length might interfere with state guidelines for retrieving their child out of the foster care system. The road to being reunited with the babies their birthed while serving their sentence is tenuous.

Mother In Prison BeLatina

For mothers with older kids, the situation is no less grim. Less than five percent of children whose mothers go to jail are able to remain in their home. Losing either parent to jail always marks a child, but again the scenario is very different for women and men. Close to 30 percent of imprisoned women acted as sole caregivers on the outside. Far fewer men in jail are single fathers. For a convicted mother, the fate of her family is instantaneously threatened as she may also face obstacles regaining custody after her release. This is an English study, but shows the effects of separation on kids of imprisoned mothers.

The trauma that such a separation inflicts on the mother, and particularly on the child, is well documented in mental health and policy studies. Children who are separated from their mothers by the labyrinthine detours of the foster care system or the reality of having short visitations in far away prisons through thick glass, suffer greatly and can grow up to exhibit anti-social and potentially criminal behaviors as a result.  

Their mothers don’t do much better, often suffering depression and anxiety, which make it even more difficult to function in the world outside. This is especially prevalent in our communities, as women of color are disproportionately represented in the female prison populations, with black women being twice and Latinas 1.2 times as likely to be sentenced to jail time for non-violent crimes that their white counterparts. Coupled with the additional stigma that women of color face when re-entering society after jail, the trauma of losing their children makes many of these mothers lose hope and succumb to recidivism and relapse.

There are Ways out of This Vicious Cycle

As more emphasis is placed on the rights and needs of the children of convicted women, some practices are gaining favor over others. For example, kinship foster care or placing the child in the custody of family members, is a much better option when it is available. When a child can live with family while mom serves her time, there is often far more opportunities to build and preserve their bond. These bonds improve the outcome for the whole family: children preserve love and respect for their mother, family members feel useful, and mom builds her sense of purpose in child’s life, and as a result, in the world.

These same principles, reports NPR, inform vanguard programs, such as the one in Washington Corrections Center for Women Facilities, in which mothers are permitted to keep their children with them for a limited time in a residential facility. One of only eight in the country so far, this prison takes minimum security risk prisoners and allows them certain freedoms — like decorating their rooms to be more appealing to their child and preparing meals for them in a communal kitchen — in what is proving to be a highly rehabilitative environment.

While ensuring that they serve their sentence, these programs also double as detox and therapy for addicted mothers. Children spend time in day care daily to allow mom complete her daily work. Aside from that, babies are in their mother’s care all day, every day, helping them form an even tighter bond than they might have otherwise, especially if the mother was addicted. These mothers report feeling empowered by being able to care for their children and the experience gives them the greatest reason to stay clean and out of jail. For the children, the experience is not too far removed from what they would receive in a stable, single-parent home outside.

There is Increasing Anecdotal Evidence that Providing Women and Children These Supports is Hugely Beneficial

Prisons in Massachusetts have also adopted practices that incorporate much more lenient and flexible visitation rights and are moving in the direction of children-in-residence programs. Keeping these families as together as possible is showing improvement women’s ability to become reintegrated into the workforce and not fall back into committing crimes and doing drugs.

In Brooklyn, a residential program called the Drew House allows mothers with custody of dependents and serve out felony sentences, and receive therapeutic support for mental illness and drug addiction. Living in an apartment setting under the guidance of a director and therapists, provides these mothers the housing and financial security she needs to get her life back on track. The Drew House program costs the state less than the same length stint in a traditional prison plus foster care, and this includes the cost of therapy and drug rehabilitation.  

Mother Prison BeLatina
Martha Castro talked about moving on. Credit Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Time

Follow ups to the Drew House and other such programs demonstrate they are effective in mitigating the damage to families of felons. Still, critics worry that the supports will “spoil” mothers into expecting too much after their sentencing, which is ironic considering these supports are already stunningly lacking. The Rebecca Project and other such advocacy groups have long been fighting for legislation that restores food stamp rights to felons, residential and maternity programs, and therapy services for convicted moms and their kids.

The Ethical Treatment of all Prisoners is the Responsibility of the State

As long as we continue to be trapped in vicious cycle in which women of color commit low-level crimes and receive highest-stakes sentences, we will be blind to the fact that mothers are a whole separate category of prisoner. Their fate is intimately tied to that of their children and their children’s innocence must be remembered when legislating and sentencing. Kinship foster care and better visitation rights are steps in the right direction, but we must go further. We must move toward residential maternity programs, preserving families in spite of a mother’s mistakes, and remove the shackles, both literal and figurative, from mothers in jail.