Over-Incarceration of Mothers Takes Serious Toll on Children

01.11.20

The number of people incarcerated in the U.S. has exploded from 200,000 in 1972 to 2.2 million today. Nearly half of all Americans have experienced incarceration in their family—and the consequences are especially harsh for children.

At least five million children have had a parent incarcerated, The New York Times reports, with black, poor, and rural children disproportionately affected.

Children with an incarcerated parent suffer lasting effects on their well-being. They face increased risks of psychological and behavioral problems, insufficient sleep and poor nutrition, unstable homes, and higher odds of entering the criminal justice system themselves.

The toll incarceration takes on children is often much worse when their mother is imprisoned. Since 1980, the Times reports, the number of women incarcerated in the U.S. has grown by more than 750%—at twice the rate for men. More than 60% of women in state prisons, and nearly 80% of those in jail, have minor children. Unlike fathers who are incarcerated, most incarcerated mothers are single mothers, solely responsible for their young children.

“To have a mother in prison is like a primal wound,” Brittany Barnett told the Times. Six years ago, she founded Girls Embracing Mothers, a program that provides monthly visits and counseling for girls and their incarcerated mothers in Texas. The program has worked with 52 incarcerated women—all but two are single mothers.

Texas is among eight states where the number of women in prison has surged in recent years while the number of incarcerated men has fallen, the Times reports. With more than 12,000 women in prison, the majority of them for nonviolent crimes, Texas incarcerates more women than any other state.

Four out of five women in Texas prisons—more than 10,000—are mothers. The average sentence for women in the state’s prisons is nine years for a drug conviction and more than eight years for theft offenses, which amounts to a significant portion of a child’s life. Black women are disproportionately incarcerated in Texas, where they comprise 12% of the population but make up 26% of incarcerated women.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services reports that, since 2016, parental incarceration has played a role in nearly 20,000 children entering the state’s foster care system every year.

The Times reports that Texas lawmakers passed “a series of so-called dignity laws” last year “in response to the growing number of incarcerated mothers, and amid growing public pressure over a series of inmate deaths and scandals involving the treatment of imprisoned women.” The new law requires the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to study how its visitation policies effect relationships between incarcerated people and their children.

Visiting a parent in prison can be painful and confusing for children, with frightening security scans and visitation rules that forbid parents from touching their children. A daughter who participates in the Girls Embracing Mothers program told the Times about visiting her mother in prison when she was five—too old to sit on her mother’s lap under the prison’s rules. “The guards would say no touching,” she recalled. “We’d have to sit on opposite sides. It was really hard for me to understand.”