Bonding Through Bars: Time To Tear Down Those Walls

Incarcerating mothers punishes their children, as well. It’s time to reconsider the whole practice, says Samantha Sarra.

The health of future generations is linked to our stories of incarceration. Children of incarcerated mothers are more likely to encounter extreme poverty, trauma and grief, and to be victims of violence. Those facts demand a reconsideration of the policy of incarcerating mothers.

With 2.5 million children in the United States who have a parent in prison, mass incarceration has become a crisis in the health and future of our children. When a woman is convicted of a crime, it is not only she who is sentenced, but also her children. In the United States, there are more children with incarcerated parents than there are people in prison.

Bonding Through Bars (BTB) is an international research initiative that brought together delegates from five continents to explore how to help protect the health and parent-child bond of incarcerated mothers.

“When a mother is imprisoned, frequently the father does not continue to care for his children, resulting in large numbers of children being institutionalized,” according to BTB delegate Brenda van den Bergh, who works for the World Health Organization in the European regional office. “Separation of mother and child can cause long-term developmental and emotional harm for the child and can affect the mother’s physical and mental health.”

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has been signed and ratified by 193 countries. The CRC recognizes a child’s right to “know and be cared for by his or her parents.” It also mandates that a child be given “the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child.” International law demands that we protect the rights of children, and children with parents behind bars are some of our most vulnerable. Unfortunately, despite having signed the CRC, the United States is one of the only countries in the UN not to have ratified it.

When we do not hold protecting the rights of children paramount, we allow them to fall through the cracks of criminal justice systemic failures. Another BTB delegate, Chesa Boudin, is a lawyer and Rhodes Scholar. When he was 14 months old, both his parents were arrested and sentenced to prison. His mother, Kathy Boudin, is an assistant professor in social work at Columbia University and a pioneer in the area of protecting the mother-child relationship in prison and parenting from a distance.

In Chesa Boudin’s 2011 study on children of incarcerated parents in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, he found, “When judges sentence people to prison, and when administrators determine visitation policies, minor children are often ignored . . . Incarcerating parents of minor children is not just an issue for those sentenced to prison; the practice also generates third-party harms for the children, their caregivers, the welfare apparatus of the state, the prison system and the law.”

The same study found that we can look to already-established international precedents to protect the health and promote bonding of incarcerated mothers and their children. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child requires that parties “provide special treatment to expectant mothers and to mothers of infants and young children” when convicted of criminal offenses and “ensure that a non-custodial sentence will always be first considered when sentencing such mothers.” It further requires that parties “establish and promote measures alternative to institutional confinement for the treatment of such mothers.”

In Italy, criminal law makes allowances for house arrest for pregnant women or women with young children. And courts in England, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji have all explored sentencing options which take into consideration the best interests of the child, including alternatives to removing the children from the custody of their mothers. A recent decision by the BC Supreme Court in Canada found that a mother has a right to have her baby with her in prison.

The voices and stories of these children and their families’ need for support are too often silenced under the clamor of judgment, punishment, and in many cases, prejudice toward their mothers.

The incarceration of mothers is directly tied to socioeconomic factors, and the majority of women in prison are survivors of physical and sexual abuse. They are disproportionately women of color and disproportionately lower-income women. Yet, as a society, we do not condemn the budget cuts to social services that mothers need to raise their families or the rampant violence against women that is too often silenced or ignored. Instead, we criminalize the most vulnerable.

“We’re talking about a situation rooted in women’s economic, social and political inequality. Women who are at greater risk for victimization . . . and essentially the criminalization of poverty,” says Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Societies in Canada Kim Pate.

Given the oppression and inequality directly tied to the incarceration of mothers as well as the far-reaching health and social consequences for children, we need to be saying no to putting mothers behind bars. Debbie Kilroy, executive director of Sisters Inside in Australia, agrees: “The women have been battered down; we are treated as second-class citizens. I am an abolitionist; I am not about fixing, reforming and tinkering around with prison. I think it’s time to tear down the walls, not keep them propped up.”

Other countries have had more equitable approaches to justice and its relationship to parental incarceration. In 1994, South Africa offered special remission of sentences for mothers with minor children under the age of 12. “Nelson Mandela freed all the women who were mothers,” says Pate. “He understood the legacy of imprisoning the mothers punished not just the mother, but also her children and all generations to come.”