Skip to content Skip to footer

Creating Community-Based Alternatives to Incarceration: A Win-Win for Parents and Children

When mothers are sent to prison, their children become collateral captives.

A bill to create community-­based sentencing alternatives for non-­violent primary caretakers of dependent children (House Bill #1382) was filed a few months ago in Massachusetts. The mover behind this bill was Andrea James, a formerly incarcerated woman and founder of Families for Justice as Healing. According to James, the goal of the bill is “alleviating the harm to children and primary caretaker parents caused by separation due to incarceration of the parents, while reducing recidivism and strengthening family unity and communities.” Citing a report issued by Erika Kates, Ph.D, of the Wellesley Centers for Women, James emphasizes that an estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of incarcerated women in Massachusetts are mothers, over half of whom likely lived with their children prior to arrest.

My own strong support for this proposed legislation grows out of the research I have conducted for the past decade among Massachusetts women who have been incarcerated. The majority of these women were primary caretakers of dependent children at the time that they were incarcerated, and the consequences of incarceration were and remain overwhelmingly negative for the children, their mothers, and often for the entire extended family.

When mothers are sent to prison, their children become collateral captives, following their mothers into the institutional circuit and often ending up in foster care or living with an extended family member who may be less able to parent than the incarcerated mother.

While many foster families take in children for all of the best reasons, other foster care settings seem to set children up for life-long problems. Many of the women I know struggle to care for children who at the age of eighteen (released from child welfare services) have come back into their lives, angry and wounded from years separated from their mothers. According to the Government Accountability Office, children in foster care frequently are prescribed psychotropic drugs at higher levels than allowed by the FDA. Foster children have been found to be prescribed cocktails of powerful antipsychotic drugs just as or even more frequently as the most mentally disabled children, and at twice the rate of children not in the foster care system. Risperdal, Seroquel and other drugs that were developed for schizophrenia are prescribed regularly even though schizophrenia is extremely rare in children. Even children under one year old have been prescribed these drugs, many of which have side effects of drowsiness, rapid weight gain and carry the risk of creating metabolic problems. In fact, children who spend time in foster or institutional care are disproportionately likely to later spend time in juvenile detention centers and eventually to transition into correctional institutions.

In other cases the children of incarcerated mothers are given into the custody of family members. While this scenario can be better than foster care– and it’s the one that mothers often prefer – it carries its own set of problems. When Tonya was locked up her mother received custody of her daughter. And while the child was raised by a loving and well-intentioned grandmother, she simply was too old and frail to set appropriate boundaries for an angry adolescent. While Tonya can’t know for sure that things would have turned out differently if she’d been able to stay with her daughter, she is morally certain that she would not have sent her daughter to a locked program for “difficult” adolescents, a program from which her daughter fled – to the streets – on her eighteenth birthday.

Tonya’s mother is kind and well-meaning, but the fact that the majority of criminalized women experienced abuse during their own childhoods means that there are grave risks that their children will be placed with the very same family members who had committed or allowed (tacitly or explicitly) the abuse of their mothers. In one especially nightmarish case, Francesca saw her children given into the custody of the brother who had sexually abused her as a child.

For mothers, separation from children is experienced as a severe and ongoing trauma, compounding the trauma of their own childhood abuse. Some mothers spend their time in prison frantically trying to keep tabs on their children’s well-being, a task made near impossible by restrictions and costs on telephone calls. Even while incarcerated, mothers work to parent from a distance by arranging care with relatives, keeping on top of child welfare services regarding appropriate placements, setting up visitation, checking to see if children are doing their homework and if they have been taken to the doctor for check-ups, and trying to arrange adequate housing for the family once they are released. These mothers describe feelings of extreme helplessness, anxiety and panic, often leading to increased prescriptions of psychotropic medication.

At the other extreme, some mothers tell me that, “Once my kids were gone, I had no reason to try to stay clean. I was off and running [that is, increased substance abuse].” As Kahtia explained, permanent loss of custody while in prison sets them up “to hit the streets running” – looking for drugs – when they are released. Kahtia knows about these problems from just about every angle possible. She herself was subjected to horrific sexual abuse as a child. She “lost” her first children “to the system” when she was on the streets as a young adult. Over the past eight years her life has calmed down; she has settled into a reasonably good relationship with a decent man, and together they parent two children. A few years ago, however, Kahtia’s past caught up with her and she was sent back to prison on an old warrant.

The children’s father continued to care for the children while she was locked up, but he couldn’t bring them to visit her in prison because of his own problematic legal background (he was an undocumented immigrant at the time). Kahtia’s favorite aunt took on the job of driving the children for visits until she, unexpectedly, passed away. A terrible loss for Kahtia and her daughters, the most immediate consequence was that there no longer was a way for the children to visit. Kahtia contacted Child Welfare Services for assistance, but was told that it was not their responsibility to bring the children to see her because Kahtia and her husband had not lost custody. Kahtia and I spent many hours writing letters and making phone calls trying to arrange permission for me to bring the children to visit, but to no avail. After two months without personal contact her relationship with her children deteriorated. Her older daughter, now almost three years old, refused to speak to her on the phone and Kahtia became increasingly depressed and anxious. Following months of “making progress” (her therapist’s words), Kahtia attempted suicide three months before the end of her sentence, was put in solitary confinement to “calm down” and was denied the early release that previously had seemed likely.

Myths circulate about criminalized women: that they are “bad” mothers who cannot possibly be positive caregivers for their children. The women I have come to know through my research do not fit popular dichotomies in which motherhood is idealized or demonized. Like most mothers everywhere, they embrace normative cultural ideologies of “good” mothering. They endeavor to enact those ideologies in their daily life; they are judged in light of those ideologies; and they interpret their own actions as those of a “good” mother. Mothering is central to their thoughts, feelings, conversations, choices, strategizing, actions, and self-presentation. They beam with pride at their children’s accomplishments, stay up at night with them when they are sick, regularly put their children’s needs before their own and try their very best in difficult circumstances. Some have ended up in jail for attempting to protect their children from abuse or for stealing in order to feed and house their children.

Most incarcerated mothers count the days until they can be reunited with their children. But the post-incarceration reality for mothers is far from easy. In prison women may fantasize about being perfect mothers to angelically behaved children, but realize upon release that they are not perfect and that their children are not angels. Relationships need to be renegotiated with children who may be angry that their mothers left and afraid that their mothers will leave again. Mothers may be surprised at how much their children have grown and changed. They may feel overwhelmed upon moving from a setting (prison) in which everything is decided for you to a setting where you are responsible not only for all of your own needs and decisions but also those of your children. Those who lack economic resources may especially struggle with caring for children while also trying to get their own lives back together, all in an environment of poverty. These challenges are compounded even further for the many mothers who leave prison without immediate access to appropriate and secure family housing.

As a sociologist I am aware that diverse types of household and family arrangements can be found around the world. There is no one right way of raising children. Yet I also am aware that children need stability and consistency in order to thrive. Creating community based sentencing alternatives for primary caretakers of dependent children will allow many more children to benefit from the on-going presence of their mothers at the same time as it will allow mothers to develop the resources, skills and support networks that they need in order to be effective parents.

For these reasons, I urge all who are concerned about the well-being of families in Massachusetts to call or write to their senators and representatives urging them to support House Bill #1382. This bill would require a sentencing judge to determine whether a person is a custodial, primary caretaker of a dependent child, and eligible for consideration under this bill, and if so, the court shall order a community-based, non-incarcerating sentencing alternative. Such sentences shall take into consideration a myriad of services, based on individual assessments, including individual and group counseling services, relapse prevention workshops, vocational and educational groups, medical, housing and financial assistance, domestic violence intervention and workshops, parenting skill development (if applicable), entrepreneurial and empowerment seminars and recreation and leisure activities.

I am not naive enough to think that these services and programs will solve the problems of poverty, homelessness and violence. Not all alternatives to incarceration are benign, and many reinscribe the same sorts of injustices that plague the prison system. But I do think that this bill is a good start.

For more information on how to voice your support of this bill, email [email protected].

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $48,000 in the next 8 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.