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Marian Wright Edelman Headshot

Mothers Rocking the Prison Cradle

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Many mothers who experience childbirth are coached through labor in a hospital maternity ward with supportive doctors and nurses. Their husbands may capture the birth with a video camera. After the baby's bawling first breaths, mother and child bond in a joyous embrace.

Childbirth is not so joyous for the growing number of women who give birth behind bars. It is a time of humiliation, sadness and separation. Before, during, and after delivery, prison mothers are commonly shackled. No one is there to take those first baby pictures. And the infant may be whisked away by a social worker to be given to a family member to raise, or if they are less fortunate, the child goes to foster care. The mother returns to an eight foot by 12 foot prison cell to grieve. The bond between mother and child is broken at the moment of delivery.

There are about 1.2 million parents incarcerated in federal or state prisons or local jails in the United States. The number of mothers in prison grew 88 percent from 1991 to 2002. While relatively few women who are incarcerated give birth behind bars, about two-thirds of female inmates are mothers of minor children. Most women are in prison for non-violent offenses, many of them drug related.

Almost 60 percent of mothers in state prisons lived with their children at the time they entered prison. With few procedures or policies that require or facilitate maintaining relationships between mothers and their children, the criminal justice system often breaks families apart. The majority of incarcerated parents reside more than 100 miles from their homes. While in prison, many mothers only rarely see their children and are not involved in decisions about their welfare nor do they get any help with parenting. Some lose track of their children altogether.

Almost 80 percent of the children with a mother in prison live with a grandparent or other relative who generally receives little public support. About 10 percent of children with incarcerated mothers are in foster care, and in some cases they have entered care before the parent was locked up. But foster care can result in a parent losing the rights to their children permanently because federal law requires, with limited exceptions, that a state file a petition to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 out of 22 months. The timetable is especially problematic given that the average time a mother in state prison is expected to serve is 49 months.

Children can be deeply traumatized by the incarceration of their mothers. They may feel abandoned or blame themselves for their parent being taken away. Even young children may feel the stigma and shame of having a parent behind bars. Studies have documented that children of incarcerated parents are prone to emotional and behavioral difficulties, poor academic performance, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and are more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system themselves. The majority of the 1.5 million children of incarcerated parents are Black or Latino.

The bond between a mother behind bars and her children does not have to be severed. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is in the process of revising its policy on restraining mothers during labor, delivery, and post-delivery. California, Illinois and Vermont are the only states that currently regulate the use of restraints on pregnant women. Other state prisons and jails need to follow suit.

Some states have taken other steps to revamp their approaches to dealing with female offenders. For example, California is moving women from large remote prisons to smaller, community-based centers allowing more frequent mother-child visits. California, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Washington are among the states that have established prison nurseries.

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is another attempt to keep prison mothers connected to their children and involved in their development. The program, currently operating in 17 states, brings mothers and daughters together weekly to monthly for troop meetings. Other programs provide opportunities for parent-child classes as well as overnight and weekend visits. There are models of virtual visitation through the use of tape recorders, video cameras and computers.

Some state legislatures also are working to get a better grip on the numbers and demographic characteristics of these children and design appropriate recommendations for better meeting their needs. Other states are developing protocols for reunifying children in foster care with their parents and engaging parents in decision-making about their children.

Particularly important are efforts to encourage the diversion of more parents from prison into family- and community-based alternatives to incarceration. Some involve diverting non-violent offenders to treatment programs for mental health or substance abuse problems. Alternative sentences include halfway houses and home detention with ankle bracelet monitors to help mothers remain in their children's lives.

Steps to institute alternatives to incarcerating mothers will go a long way toward staunching the flow of future generations of young people into the pipeline to prison. Each step we take in that direction will not only be beneficial tomorrow, it will begin to change our society for the better today.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

Mrs. Edelman will release her new book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, in September 2008. The book will be a look at what's been done and what still needs to be done to make our world safe and fair for all children.

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