- Mothers behind bars are invisible to most of us, to the extent they are not thought of at all.
- They are ridiculed as the ultimate “bad” mother who has violated the basic maternal commitment to care for her children by engaging in wrongful criminal activities.
In truth, mothers’ pathways to imprisonment are complex and often rooted in issues of sexual and physical violence. According to our research, most imprisoned women, including mothers behind bars, were first victims of violence. The shared narrative curve of locked up women and mothers behind bars is that of repeated experiences of brutal sexual and physical victimization, generally beginning during girlhood.
Experts say that in the absence of access to mental health services, many of these vulnerable mothers turned to self-medicating with illegal substances rather than being treated for trauma, depression, addiction, and the other indelible injuries of violence, these mothers have been displaced into the criminal justice system. Twenty-five years ago, the presence of women—especially mothers—was an abnormality in the criminal justice system.
Following the introduction of mandatory sentencing to the drug laws in the mid-1980s, the number of women in prison has risen by 400%. The percentage of females imprisoned for drug offenses now surpasses that of males. Most of these women are non-violent, first-time offenders. This relatively recent phenomenon of criminalizing mothers for trauma and addiction, precipitated by the war on drugs and mandatory minimums, as well as the dearth of programs for pregnant and parenting mothers, have wreaked havoc on family stability and children’s well-being.
Most imprisoned mothers have minor children and were, before their incarceration, the primary caretakers of their children. Maternal imprisonment wrongly leaves the child behind, without recognition of a child’s fundamental need for his or her mother. Prison rules and regulations, harsh and dehumanizing for all who are confined, were originally developed to serve an overwhelmingly male population convicted of violent crimes.
Unsurprisingly, the system also generally fails to account for the needs of the children left behind. Unfortunately, discourse on criminal justice policy, review of conditions of confinement, alternative sentencing, and reentry reform tend to either ignore or marginalize the significance of the growing number of imprisoned women, especially those who are parenting.
There are few prison-based programs specifically designed for pregnant and parenting women. The inadequacy of services for these women is not limited to imprisonment settings but affects women at every point in their involvement with the criminal justice system. Pre-trial diversion and release services, court-sentenced alternatives, and re-entry programs for mothers are restricted in number, size, and effectiveness because the system was developed to serve men.