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Record Numbers of Incarcerated Mothers Bad News for Women, Children, Communities

Tonya Drake, 35, a mother of four, had no criminal record or history of drug use when she was sentenced to 10 years in prison at the Dublin Federal Penitentiary in Northern California, for mailing a package that contained 232 grams of crack cocaine. (Photo: Monica Almeida / The New York Times) It is well known that the United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized country. And while it is true that the prison population is predominantly male, the number of female prisoners has risen more than 800 percent in the last three decades, outpacing the approximate 400 percent increase in the male prison population during the same time period.

It is well known that the United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized country. And while it is true that the prison population is predominantly male, the number of female prisoners has risen more than 800 percent in the last three decades, outpacing the approximate 400 percent increase in the male prison population during the same time period.And according to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice report “Hard Hit: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women, 1977-2004,” in 1977, the United States imprisoned ten out of every 100,000 women , while in 2004 that number had increased to 64 out of 100,000. And because women tend to be caretakers, particularly of children, the effect their incarceration often has on families can be disastrous.

The Roots of Mass Incarceration

“The rise of what we now know as mass incarceration happened on the heels of the civil rights movement and the various liberation movements in the U.S.,” says Vikki Law, author of “Resistance Behind Bars: the Struggles of Incarcerated Women.” Lower-income communities began to be policed more heavily as a way to prevent people from getting organized, says Law. The war on drugs had kicked into gear by 1982, which “wasn't focused across the board on everybody,” says Law. “There were specific images, like the black mother on crack and crack babies.”

Because women tend to be nonviolent offenders, a large factor in the increase has been the popularity of mandatory minimum drug laws, which were seen as a tough-on-crime measure during the war on drugs.

“The Rockefeller drug laws mandated that first-time offenders for drugs got mandatory sentences,” says Law. “Which meant that if you were, say, in a car with your boyfriend who happened to have two to four ounces of narcotic drugs, you could be charged and sentenced to 25 years to life even if it was a first-time offense.” Minority urban women were disproportionately affected by these draconian laws, as more affluent white women tended to have greater access to drug treatment centers and better legal representation.

Furthermore, because women are usually low-level players in drug deals, they often don't have information they could use to negotiate a plea deal, says Executive Director Georgia Lerner of the Women's Prison Association, an advocacy organization devoted to helping women who are or have been in prison. “It's never the queen pin, it's the king pin.”

Poverty is also a factor in the rise of women being imprisoned, because people sometimes resort to criminalized means to make ends meet. “In the 1990's [there were] a lot of cuts to social welfare programs,” says Law. “So you suddenly see that [what] would keep a family of three – say a single parent with two children – afloat in terms of welfare and aid to families and dependent children and food stamps and housing benefits, are suddenly getting slashed.” Women in prison are also more likely not to have completed high school, which undoubtedly has an effect on their ability to provide food, rent and basic necessities for themselves and their children. Also, Law noted that many women were thrown off of the welfare rolls during the Clinton administration's welfare reform, and there was a marked correlation between women being removed from the welfare rolls and the scores of women entering prison.

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“Much of what we know about women's pathways into crime has to do with earlier trauma, has to do with mental illness, addiction, relationships, so they're often involved in crime through the relationships they have with men,” says Lerner. “And poverty is a big driver for plenty of women, so they're committing little crimes over and over again.” For the drug addict or petty dealer who was trying to make extra money to pay rent, says Lerner, going to prison fails to address the underlying factors that led to incarceration in the first place.

The percentage of women incarcerated varies from state to state, with Oklahoma being the highest (129 out of 100,000 women) and Massachusetts and Rhode Island being the lowest (11 out of 100,000 women). Two-thirds of female inmates are convicted of nonviolent offenses and nonviolent offenders are more likely to have children. Nonviolent offenders are also the ones most likely to end up in a vicious cycle of reimprisonment.

“People who commit violent crimes are locked up longer and are less likely to reoffend,” says Lerner. “People who commit nonviolent drug and property crimes tend to go in and out [of prison] over and over, because if it's addiction or economic issues driving the crime, it does not get solved, it only gets exacerbated by people being removed from the community.”

Many people are also unable to afford legal help when arrested, which increases their odds of ending up behind bars. “There's a big difference between having a private attorney who can represent you and having publicly appointed counsel,” says Lerner, who also noted that defendants who are able to make bail are statistically less likely to end up convicted. People of color are overrepresented in poverty-stricken communities, says Lerner, which are usually also neighborhoods where high schools tend to have high dropout rates and children are likely to enter kindergarten unprepared. In this we see how education, or lack of it, can affect a child's chances of ending up in prison as an adult: high school graduates are 70 to 75 percent less likely to end up involved in the criminal justice system.

Mothers Behind Bars

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report “Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children,” the number of children under 18 with a mother in prison grew 131 percent between 1991 and 2007, when approximately 65,600 mothers were incarcerated. Mothers are more likely than fathers to be their children's primary caretaker and to be single parents, so the mother's incarceration inevitably disrupts the lives of their children, as they must then be cared for by someone else.

“A lot of women who end up in prison were already single parents at the time of their incarceration, [so] they might not have strong family ties,” says Law. “A lot of women who are in prison have histories of abuse, either childhood and/or adult abuse, which means they might not have the same connections and trust in their families that men who end up in prison do. So their children are actually five times more likely to end up in foster care than [those of] men in prison.”

During the Clinton administration, the Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act was put into place, which was intended to free children from foster care for adoption if the child had been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. Unfortunately, this had the effect of permanently separating children from incarcerated mothers, whose parental rights were mandated to be terminated irrevocably after 15 months. Even if the mother was able to show she was able to care and provide for the child upon release, says Law, there was simply no way to get her child back. Eleven percent of mothers in prison report their children being placed in foster care, while 42 percent reported the child's grandmother as being the primary caretaker during her stay in prison.

Even in the majority of cases where a family member or friend is able to care for the child (very few fathers assume full-time care while a mother is in prison), this still may involve changing schools or neighborhoods and disrupting the child's life, and the absence of the mother while in prison inevitably causes anguish.

“No matter what their mother did – they could have seen their mother selling drugs or working as a prostitute in front of them – it does not matter, children love their mothers; they are attached to their mothers; it is pretty devastating to break that bond even if logic tells us that this person could not possibly be an appropriate parent,” says Lerner.

In Search of a New Life

Prisons, as opposed to being places where people can be rehabilitated in the hope of establishing law-abiding lives and becoming productive members of society, are typically warehouses to store people until their time has been served. Furthermore, in these cash-strapped times, budget cuts often mean slashing what few services exist, such as educational, drug treatment or mental health programs.

“In Colorado now, they're actually cutting their educational and vocational courses from something like a few months to eight-week sessions,” says Law. “Even though studies have shown that education is the number one factor in whether or not somebody goes back to prison.” And because higher numbers of men tend to be violent offenders who pose more of a risk to society, it will often be decided that resources and programs will be given to men's rather than women's prisons. Nowadays, ironically, squeezed state budgets may mean fewer people end up behind bars, as states simply can't afford to house as many people as they used to.

Other states may be rethinking their approach of using incarceration as an all-purpose solution to social ills and instead are using alternative methods to deal with problems such as drug addiction. “In New York, our incarceration has gone down significantly and a lot of that is because much of the population in the state prisons was coming from New York City and so much of the crime being sentenced to state prisons was drug related,” says Lerner. New York now has several specialty narcotics prosecutors and drug courts and a large network of drug treatment and services that work to offer alternatives to incarceration, says Lerner. Judges are more willing to use these measures than incarceration because people who complete treatment are less likely to end up back in the criminal justice system.

Once released, women face many barriers to rebuilding their lives. A job can be difficult to obtain with a prison record, and even though it is technically illegal to discriminate unless the crime was directly related to the work being performed, the criminal background checks many employers routinely do often mean former inmates have trouble finding legitimate work. Other obstacles exist as well. For instance, in the state of New York, says Law, women with prison records are not qualified to live in public housing.

“About half of the women who enter prison have not completed high school and about half have not had a legal job within the last year,” says Lerner. “So when they come out of prison, they probably still have not completed a high school equivalency diploma and they haven't gained any job training or work experience in most cases.” In one odd New York case, women had the option of training to be hairdressers or barbers in prison, but then the state had a regulation against obtaining a barber's license if one had a prior criminal conviction, and parole regulations prevented the women from moving to another state.

“Corrections budgets have become a huge part of state budgets,” says Lerner. “[It's] crazy because corrections was created to remove people from community … not to be a school, a doctor's office, a mental health clinic, a drug treatment provider and a job training center.” Unfortunately, this is what the prison population often needs in order to become law-abiding and contributing members of society, says Lerner. “If prisons are going to do a good job of preventing people from coming back, they need to figure out how to make those things available. It's certainly not what they were created for and we're asking a lot of the system.”

Ultimately, as we look at the numbers of Americans being incarcerated, we have to ask ourselves if prisons in their current state are making society safer or less so, even though many may label measures to reintegrate prisoners back into society as being “soft on crime.”

“There has to be a belief that people who enter prison can come out of prison being better,” says Lerner. “That's a change. It's not something we've asked people to think about.”