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Mothers Behind Bars

Mother’s Day needs to become a call to arms against the continued oppression and trauma of incarceration experienced by both mothers and children.

For mothers behind bars, the prison walls are held up with patriarchy, racism and poverty. Injustice is the mortar that holds together the bricks of the prison industrial complex and the handcuffs worn by female inmates are still tightly linked to the shackles of slavery and oppression.

A law passed by the New Jersey Legislature in February 1804 declared the children born to slave mothers to be “free” at birth, but they still remained bound as servants to their mother’s owners until their 20s. Two hundred years later and true abolition has yet to take place with the continued racialized criminalization of poverty and mothers behind bars, whose children remain bound to generational cycles of trauma and discrimination.

The legacy of children being entangled in the repercussions of legislation continues as Republican Governor Bill Haslam passed a law last month in Tennessee criminalizing women for their pregnancy outcomes. The law, which will disproportionately affect already marginalized mothers, would make it a crime to carry a pregnancy to term if you struggle with addiction or substance abuse. The punitive prosecution of pregnant mothers, charging them with criminal assault rather than creating better access to health care, was a move opposed by major medical associations, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union.

By passing this bill, Gov. Haslam has disregarded the best interests of babies, who, when separated from their mothers in prison, will be deprived of the benefits of breastfeeding, bonding and attachment, which we know lead to better health outcomes.

The majority of women in prison are survivors of physical and sexual assault, and the criminal justice system re-victimizes them. Rather than investing in safe and accessible health care and treatment for those who need it most, the law continues to be used as a weapon against women.

In Mississippi, Rennie Gibbs was charged with “depraved heart” murder after experiencing a stillbirth when she was 16 years old. The prosecutor claimed – without any scientific evidence – that the stillbirth was caused by Gibbs’ cocaine use. Despite the fact that Mississippi Lowndes County Circuit Judge Jim Kitchens dismissed the murder charge against her at the beginning of April, Assistant District Attorney Mark Jackson suggested the state was still considering obtaining a manslaughter indictment against Gibbs in an upcoming July grand jury session.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women Executive Director Lynn Paltrow said in response to the case: “The biggest threats to life – born and unborn – do not come from mothers, but rather from poverty, barriers to health care, persistent racism, environmental hazards . . . and prosecutions like these increase risks to babies, by frightening pregnant women away from care, and use tax dollars to expand the criminal justice system rather than to fund programs that actually protect the health of children.”

The war on drugs has become the war on women and the war on low-income and low-status people. This translates into rapidly growing numbers of women behind bars. In recent years, Latin America’s population of imprisoned women has almost doubled.

Spain has seen its female prison population increase tenfold over the last 30 years, leading it to have the highest rates of female incarceration in all of Europe. With one in two women serving sentences for minor trafficking crimes, drugs are the number one cause for their imprisonment.

The majority of incarcerated women around the world are mothers, and womens’ crimes commonly reflect prior life experiences of childhood molestation, rape, incest and domestic violence. Moreover, given that the prosecution and sentencing of women is also largely informed by class, race and economic disparities, the mass incarceration of mothers has very serious consequences for the coming generations of children caught up in these tides of inequality.

Understanding that incarcerated women have unique needs associated with economic inequality, domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, primary childcare responsibilities, specific health-care needs and socio-economic disparities, in 2010, the United Nations adopted the Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (The Bangkok Rules).

Despite the obvious need for gender-specific treatment for incarcerated women, policymakers and criminal justice practitioners have been slow to incorporate and implement The Bangkok Rules, and only two countries – Thailand and the United Kingdom – have thus far agreed to integrate the rules into national policy.

The Bangkok Rules encourage policymakers, sentencing authorities and legislators to reduce the unnecessary imprisonment of women. One example of a gender-sensitive alternative to prison is counseling with on-site child-care facilities. This solution would actually allow mothers to address the root causes of their involvement in the justice system while continuing to care for their children, a chance at breaking the generational cycle rather than perpetuating it.

The Bangkok Rules were initiated by the Government of Thailand under the leadership of HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha, who took the plight of women behind bars under her wing. The Bangkok Rules have also been championed by the organization Penal Reform International, which offers education, implementation and monitoring resources. In Sierra Leone, hip hop artist Star Zee collaborated with the nonprofit Advocaid to shoot a music video at the women’s prison to help educate and empower women about the Bangkok Rules and their rights.

Culture is also a significant factor in understanding the nature of women’s crimes, which are often linked to multiple layers of discrimination and deprivation: whether in India, where mostly mothers and daughters have been imprisoned for dowry crimes; in Australia and Canada, where the overrepresentation of Indigenous women behind bars stems from colonialism; or in Afghanistan, where women can receive sentences of up to 15 years for “moral crimes,” such as refusing an arranged marriage or leaving an abusive husband.

Histories of previous victimizations and sexual assault narratives are not considered in the policies and practices of prisons that re-traumatize women with invasive and degrading strip searches. Mothers who are survivors of sexual violence have to get re-violated by the state before each visit with their children. A recent report delivered to the Human Rights council of the UN by the organization Conectas, denounced the Brazilian prison system for its practice of subjecting relatives of those in detention, including infants, to hand searches inside their genitals.

Most women behind bars around the world are mothers. Their offending behavior is a response to pain arising from personal, generational and cultural trauma. Our children’s futures demand that we work against the political economies and patriarchal violence that are the root causes of women’s incarceration. Mother’s Day needs to become a call to arms against the continued oppression and trauma of incarceration experienced by both mothers and children. Let us finally put to rest the echoes of slavery and break free our children from the bondage of trauma.

In the wise words of First Nations Elder Lee Maracle: “We are all about ‘all my relations.’ This is the centre point of our legal systems. Everyone in this country, in order to be a ‘decolonized’ citizen, must ascribe to this and protect the mothers of our nations and the future mothers of our nations, so that we may live within and transmit to everyone our laws and our relational teachings, that we may all live in peace. Anything else contributes to genocide.”

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