Baby and Me Behind Bars: Number of Moms in Prison Grows

9 years ago
In a blog post entitled "Mothers Rocking the Prison Cradle," Marian Wright Edleman, President of the Children's Defense Fund, wrote that mothers are one of the fastest growing prison populations in the country. She wrote a poignant description of what it's like for some women who bear their children behind prison walls:

Childbirth is not so joyous for the growing number of women who give birth behind bars. It is a time of humiliation, sadness and separation. Before, during, and after delivery, prison mothers are commonly shackled. No one is there to take those first baby pictures. And the infant may be whisked away by a social worker to be given to a family member to raise, or if they are less fortunate, the child goes to foster care. The mother returns to an eight foot by 12 foot prison cell to grieve. The bond between mother and child is broken at the moment of delivery. (Marian Wright Edleman at HuffPo)

baby and mom in prisonBut what if the system worked differently? What if women who had not been convicted of violent crimes and who had to serve short sentences were able to bond with their babies, even keep their babies with them?

Recently I listened to the first part of an NPR Morning Edition series called "Who's in Prison?" It discussed the growing number of mothers in prison, first telling the audience that in America right now one in every one hundred adults is incarcerated. In the print introduction NPR posted a correction. The fact is not one in every 100 adults is behind bars but that more than one in 100 American adults are serving time in the federal, state, and local prisons. (Also see Incarceration Nation here at BlogHer.)

The NPR story focused on an Ohio program that lets some of its inmates keep their babies with them:

At the Ohio Reformatory for Women, a dozen babies are spending time behind bars. Too young to say the word "crime," they are participants in a program that enables inmate mothers to raise their children in their cells. (NPR)

When I heard about the prison with baby program, I felt it was good on the surface. But something about the program disturbed me. I asked myself, "What if it gets out of hand? What if what seems like a compassionate solution to mother/child separation ends up keeping children with their mothers in prison for longer periods of time?"

I also thought of the how often blacks land in the prison system in disproportionate numbers and how quickly this compassionate system of keeping mommy and baby together could look, after a time, more like slavery: a woman born in chains bearing a child who remains with her, and so, not free. According to Edleman's post on mothers rocking prison cradles, "The majority of the 1.5 million children of incarcerated parents are Black or Latino."

The mental connection to slavery is not as big a leap as some people might think. With prisons under scrutiny for taking advantage of prison labor, a practice abused in the past, and disparities in sentencing for minorities compared to whites, prison/slavery analogies are not uncommon. But mostly, I wondered about the pain of mothers who must leave children behind to serve prison terms.

So, I talked to Babz about my gut feelings regarding babies in prison. She is a member and the author of the blog Lovebabz: A Life in Transition. In addition, Babz is an African-American woman who holds of a Masters of Public Administration from City University in New York where she was a National Urban Fellow. She also has a BS in Marketing from Barber Scotia College in North Carolina. Formerly she held the position of Executive Director for a housing program.

Babz is a professional, an inspirational woman, someone who's always moving forward. She's also the mother of four children, all adopted, and a former resident of a federal prison camp. She spent 29 days confined for misappropriation of federal funds, a crime that would normally get a slap on the wrist for a person not in the political spotlight as she was at the time, she thinks.

She told me that she moved $48,000 around in a housing program budget in a way considered to be inaapropriate by authorities. No, she did not go on a spending spree, buy a Lexus for personal pleasure, or funnel money to a lover. And when she went to prison for those 29 days in October 2007, she left her children behind in the care of friends, church members, and their father. So, Babz knows how it feels to be in jail and unable to tell a child, "Don't worry. Mommy, will be right there." She's lived it.

"On face value, I think (the Ohio mothers program) is wonderful," Babz said. "I'm not ever going to say that you should not keep a mother with her child. But, Nordette, they didn't end up in prison because they're bad mothers."

She thinks that many women end up in prison because they lack better opportunities, solutions to life challenges, and access to a financially sustainable living. She feels policy makers should study what caused the women to end up in prison in the first place.

According to the Ohio warden, Sheri Duffey, as quoted by NPR, about 75 percent of the women at the Ohio facility are mothers, and so "the prison offers parenting classes." The women who have been allowed to keep their babies with them (and only if their sentences are short) receive other beneifts.

The Achieving Baby Care Success program began in June 2001. The 12 mothers currently participating live in a special wing of the prison. The babies sleep in identical cribs in their mothers' cells. Between prison roll calls, mothers take their children to the in-house nursery for scheduled activities. (NPR)

That's all well and good. But Babz thinks the program doesn't get to the root of the problem: "If you can put this (type of program) into place while they're there, why couldn't you have had something in place to help before they got there?"

Good question since some educators fear America is moving toward spending more money on prisons than it does schools.

Babz said that the women she met while she served time in the prison camp remain on her mind. She acknowledges that her evidence of who's in prison and why is anectdotal, but she said the majority of the women she encountered were in prison for drug-related offenses, often drawn into the lifestyle of their boyfriends.

Duffey, the warden, made similar statements to NPR, and one woman interviewed in the piece said she was there for drug traffiking. Her husband also serves a prison sentence for the same crime. Most of her children are with relatives, but through the Achieving Baby Care Success program her baby stays with her in her cell.

So, why is the female population increasing and as a result more mothers going to jail?

A 1991 New York Times afticle (the date shows that this problem is not as new as it appears) presented speculation that feminism is partly to blame for more women serving harsher sentences.

Criminal-justice experts attribute the difference to changing attitudes toward women. The pattern stems from a combination of feminism, the emergence of crack, a political hard-line on drugs and the troubled economy. (NYT)

I don't know if I'd agree that feminism is partly responsible as much as I'd say backlash against feminism is partly responsible, the tendency to be harder on women with the attitude that "You wanted the rights of a man so take this like a man." I think the system's embraced precedents built on a justice damn you and your little babies too philosophy.

I don't have any answers for mommies and babies in prison. Only time will tell if the prison baby academy solution works to keep fewer mothers from returning to jail
as Warden Duffey hopes it does. Life as it is, however, bites. The NPR reporter asked the inmate moms about prospects for their futures on the outside. They had few. One hopes she can go back to school, and another hopes she can find a job and get help from family. Having criminal records will make achieving these dreams a daunting task.

I think the inmate mommy and me program bears watching for both success and failure, scrutiny to ensure that babies don't grow into toddlers and toddlers into pre-schoolers in the name of God knows what, something beautiful on the surface but ugly at its core perhaps. To switch metaphors, it has the markings of a double-edged sword.

Babz has a similar opinion, and she told me that the privatization of prisons, making money through prison labor, is an industry unto itself. Whenever profit becomes a goal in the guise of a solution to social ills, people may fall through the cracks, and increasingly profit and prison go hand in hand.

Despite her troubles and the time spent away from her children, Babz believes she's blessed. Speaking of women who've received harsher sentences and who have no support systems in place she said, "But for the grace of God there go I."

While in prison, she heard inmate mothers on the phone talking to their own mothers, the grandmothers keeping their children and who faced financial threats to safety each day. From jail cells these women tried to manage crises such as their own mothers and their little ones about to be evicted from low-income housing.

"I mean these grandmothers would be getting evicted right while their daughters talked to them on the phone," said Babz. The daughter's drug conviction may have meant the whole family could be kicked out of a federal housing project.

Her children were not in that type of danger, and she and her husband (the couple is going through a divorce right now) decided not to tell the children that she had been sentenced to prison camp, the same kind of place in which Martha Stewart served her sentence. At the time her chldren were ages 10, 8, 5, and 6, and they were told that mom was away on business.

However, Babz knew her children would get the care they needed.

"It (being away from the children) was hard. I had to put it out of my mind and trust that the village that I built would be enough, would be sustaining. If I had had to go through that time and worry about them, I couldn't have done it," she said.

You may read the Lovebabz: A Life in Transition blog at this link, where Babz speaks from her heart and maintains forward motion.

And for another member's thoughts on incarceration disparities, please read Candelaria and also consider Why is Shaquanda Cotton in Prison? by Kim Pearson.

Photo credit: From a good Reuters piece, "From Inside a Women's Prison"

Nordette is a Contributing Editor whose personal blog is on another site at this link.

This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.

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