empowering the black community by promoting mental health


Motherhood Incarcerated: The Growing Toll on Mothers in Prison and Their Children

Adia Harris, Contributing Writer 


Everyday over 120,000 mothers in this nation wake up removed from their families and children due to incarceration. In addition to the overwhelming psychological challenges brought on by imprisonment, these women are confronted daily with the stark reality of the inability to be physically present in their respective family structures.

Becoming a mother, a primary source of care and support in the life of a child, can undoubtedly be one of the most profound and defining moments in a woman’s life. Research increasingly provides evidence of how the neurological changes women experience in pregnancy, childbirth, and in the course of childrearing are nothing short of a psychological transformation.

And yet, this reality is meted against an incarceration rate for women that has grown exponentially in the last few decades. According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit for criminal justice reform, the number of incarcerated women has increased by 700% with a reported increase of nearly 190,000 more inmates in 2014 than in 1980. Today, 60% of women in state prison have children under the age of 18.

Given the pervasiveness of societal and cultural standards of motherhood, being physically absent from the life of your child is arguably one of the greatest punishments and psychologically traumatizing experiences for an incarcerated mother. The book, The Prison Experience, Special Issues of Women in Prison, contextualizes the mental weight carried by many incarcerated mothers:

Separated from her child by time and space, Helen found her life farther and farther removed from the institution of motherhood. She described a painful conversation she once had with the prison supervisor about her child. He had asked her, “If you care about your kid so much, why are you a bad mother?” She could not answer. She saw the role of mother as lost to her ... In this way Helen remained outside the institution of motherhood but looked to her own behavior for the loss. She never questioned the institution itself.

The institutionalization propagated by the U.S. correctional system on the imprisoned solidly exists for the affected children as well. Statistics from the National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated (NRCCFI)  indicate parental incarceration significantly increases the risk of children living in poverty, experiencing household instability, dealing with behavioral issues and is considered an “adverse childhood experience” (ACE)  due to the unique combination of trauma, shame, and stigma it elicits. Approximately half of the children living with an incarcerated parent are under the age of ten.

An even more compelling reality is how the nation’s corrections system overlaps with the foster care system. Data from the NRCCFI indicates that 15-20 percent of children entering the child welfare system have an incarcerated parent, mothers more often than fathers as they are more likely to be the primary caretaker.  In her UCLA law review article, civil rights sociologist and law professor Dorothy E. Roberts analyzes how both systems disproportionately thrive on the punishment of black mothers and have significant injurious effects on black families and communities; especially when the majority of incarcerated women are mothers and African American children make up 30 percent of the child welfare population.

Sadly, the resources available to help maintain bonds between incarcerated mothers and their children have become more challenged than readily accessible over the last few decades, even as mass incarceration numbers continue to rise. Currently, many public assistance programs such as TANF are not designed to assist relatives that step in as primary caretakers, most prison facilities are not accessible by public transportation, and collect phone calls to prisoners are subjected to excessive surcharges despite the economic burdens incarceration causes on families.

 The biggest takeaways in understanding and supporting the needs of families dealing with the reality of an imprisoned parent are finding a proactive method to facilitate a continued relationship with child and parent, and enacting restorative measures to deal with trauma prior to, during and after incarceration. Below are some resources for parents, caretakers, and family members alike.

Parenting Inside Out: Provides a comprehensive curriculum for caretakers with an evidence-based parenting skills  training  program developed for criminal justice involved parents. 

My Life Chose Me - A Young Mother’s Survival Guide to Surviving the System: an 84-page manual written by the Center for Young Women’s Development and funded by the Zellerbach Family Foundation to help mothers understand and maintain their parental rights.

NRCCFI Directory of Programs Serving Children & Families of the Incarcerated: The National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated provides an extensive directory of programs and services by state.


LaFrance, A. (2015, January 8). What Happens to a Woman's Brain When She Becomes a Mother. Retrieved August 05, 2016, from  http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/what-happens-to-a-womans-brain-when-she-becomes-a-mother/384179/

Incarcerated Women and Girls. (2015, November).Retrieved August 6, 2016, from http://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Incarcerated-Women-and-Girls.pdf

Morash, M., & Schram, P. J. (2002). The prison experience: Special issues of women in prison. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

CHILDREN AND FAMILIES OF THE INCARCERATED FACT SHEET. (2014). Retrieved August 6, 2016, from https://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/nrccfi-fact-sheet-2014.pdf

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). (2016).Retrieved August 07, 2016, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

Roberts, D. E. (2012). Prison, Foster Care,
 and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers. Retrieved August 6, 2016, from  https://www.law.upenn.edu/cf/faculty/roberts1/workingpapers/59UCLALRev1474(2012).pdf

Chandra C.