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Renata Cobbs Fletcher Headshot

How Much Progress Can We Make with Our Mothers in Prison?

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Last month, the Department of Justice released an alarming and little known statistic: the population of women prisoners has been growing at twice the rate of men since 1980, and in 2006 it increased at its fastest clip in five years. Because women are often the bedrock of their families and neighborhoods, this trend is damaging to entire communities. We must take immediate steps not only to curb women's rising incarceration rates but also to make sure that once they are released, women have the resources they need so they don't end up back in prison.

Mass recidivism is a dire problem for the entire prison population: of the 650,000 men and women released this year from prison, two thirds will be rearrested within three years. Fortunately, cities and states have started to make prisoner reentry a legislative priority. Orlando has announced that it will employ ex-prisoners on upcoming public works projects. Michigan recently tripled funding for its prisoner reentry initiative. This groundswell of local support has even created federal momentum: the Second Chance Act -- which would increase access to drug treatment, job training and education, and establish a federal reentry task force and resource center -- has passed the House and is currently being deliberated in the Senate.

But as we work to capitalize on this encouraging start, we must take care to design reentry programs that specifically address the needs of women prisoners. In addition to the obstacles all ex-prisoners habitually face, women returning from prison contend with a host of additional impediments, including:

Greater pressure to support a family. At least two thirds of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons are mothers of children under the age of 18; most of these women lived with their children, often as a single parent, before going to prison. Upon release, many of them must immediately support their children financially, provide day-to-day care for them, and reestablish bonds that have been weakened by months or years apart.

Fewer economic resources. Though they often have achieved equal or higher levels of education than their male counterparts, formerly incarcerated women are particularly lacking in job skills and have more precarious economic circumstances. Sixty percent of female inmates in state prisons were not working full-time at the time of their arrest (compared with 40 percent of men). Their weaker work histories in turn lower their earning potential; two thirds have never had a job that paid more than $6.50 an hour.

Histories of sexual and physical abuse. Forty-eight to 88 percent of women inmates suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to prior physical or sexual abuse. Many women also are sexually abused during their incarceration by male prison guards. Not only can these traumas lead to or worsen drug and alcohol dependencies, they can also make holding down a steady job even more difficult than it is for male ex-prisoners, due to memory problems, depression and anxiety disorders.

While these challenges are formidable, promising program models do exist, and any piece of reentry legislation should seek to emulate them. For example, a pilot program for young women prisoners in Idaho is developing strategies around the theme of empowerment -- which is critical for women with histories of abuse, victimization, low self-esteem and poor decision-making. The corrections department in Vermont is also implementing a prisoner reentry program designed exclusively for women.

Women's recidivism rates threaten not just their own well-being, but that of their entire community. As of 2004, more than 300,000 children had mothers who were incarcerated. These children are six times more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. If we want to decrease the number of prisoners tomorrow, we have to help the mothers of today.