This Mother’s Day nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children. Over half (58%) of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80% of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail.
Most of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, so punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support. And these numbers don’t cover the many women who will become mothers while locked up this year: An estimated 58,000 women every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.
More incarcerated women are in jails than prisons. Even a short jail stay can be devastating, especially when it separates a mother from children who depend on her.
2,019,900 women are jailed in the U.S. each year. 80% are mothers.
Most (80%) of the women who will go to jail this year are mothers. Beyond having to leave their children in someone else’s care, these women will be affected by the brutal side effects of going to jail: Aggravation of mental health problems, a greater risk of suicide, and a much higher likelihood of ending up homeless or deprived of essential financial benefits.
Women who are pregnant when they are locked up have to contend with a healthcare system that frequently neglects and abuses patients. A 50-state survey of state prison systems’ healthcare policies found that many states fail to meet even basic standards of care for expectant mothers, like providing screening and treatment for high-risk pregnancies. In local jails, where tens of thousands of pregnant women will spend time this year, healthcare is often even worse than in state or federal prisons.
It’s time we recognized that when we put women in jail, we inflict potentially irreparable
damage to their families.
Most women who are incarcerated would be better served though alternatives in their communities. So would their kids. Keeping parents out of jail and prison is critical to protect children from the known harms of parental incarceration. Research studies* have documented harms caused by incarcerating mothers:
- Traumatic loss marked with feelings of social stigma and shame and trauma-related stress
- More mental health problems and elevated levels of anxiety, fear, loneliness, anger, and depression
- Less stability and greater likelihood of living with grandparents, family friends, or in foster care
- Difficulty meeting basic needs for families with a member in prison or jail
- Lower educational achievement, impaired teacher-student relationships, and more problems with behavior, attention deficits, speech and language, and learning disabilities
- Problems getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy diet
- More mental and physical health problems later in life.
Incarceration punishes more than just individuals; entire families suffer the effects long after a sentence ends. Mother’s Day reminds us again that people behind bars are not nameless “offenders,” but beloved family members and friends whose presence and absence matters.
I’ve written Weblog posts about the origins of American jails and prisons and how they’re based in part on Biblical and theological views of human nature; and the supposed values of incarceration to correct criminal behavior. Despite research evidence to the contrary, many of our criminal laws and correctional policies are difficult to change. It is time to give up our insistence on punishment and “just deserts” for non-violent offenders. Justice policies focused on restorative justice are more effective, with less harmful consequences to individuals, families, and communities.
Until we can change those outmoded and excessively punitive laws and policies, it seems wise and prudent for more of us to follow another teaching from Holy Scripture:
“…I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).
*[This blog is a summary of a report by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer in Prison Policy Initiative. Supporting data and reference sources are available in the original report.]
Thank you for reading my blog posts in criminologytheologyconnection.com. I appreciate your interest in this topic and always enjoy reading your comments and feedback. ~~Rich Lawrence