January 30, 2004 - National Geographic Ultimate Explorer

Mothers Behind Bars: What Happens to the Children?

By Brian Handwerk

America's female prison population is booming. In the last ten years the number of women in prison has nearly doubled. As these women serve their time, they're not the only ones to pay a price. Innocent victims are suffering for the crimes of others -- they are the children of mothers behind bars.

According to a Department of Justice study, some 1.5 million minors had a parent in prison during the study year 1999 -- an increase of over a half million kids between 1991 and 1999. Today the number is likely even higher and some suggest that it has approached two million. The average age of these children is eight. Statistics show that many of them will be incarcerated as juvenile offenders, perpetuating a disturbing cycle of hopelessness and crime.

Because the U.S. prison population is overwhelmingly male, most incarcerated parents are fathers. Over 125,000 children, however, had a mother behind bars in the 1999 report -- and that number is growing. The trend raises a troubling and difficult question: Who is taking care of these children?

According to the Department of Justice statistics, which were based on personal interviews in state and federal correctional facilities, it's usually not their fathers. Only 28 percent of the mothers in prison said that their child's father was the primary caregiver while they were imprisoned. Over half said that grandparents were responsible, while others said that their children were with other relatives or foster homes.

Sometimes substitute caregivers improve children's lives; other times they care little for their unwanted burdens. In all cases, the mother/child relationship suffers under such difficult conditions.

Children Behind Bars -- With Their Mothers

The search for workable and healthy solutions is a difficult one, and approaches around the world vary widely. In India's Tihar Prison, Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling found that mothers among the massive prison's 500 female inmates are allowed to bring their children with them -- to live within the prison walls.

The New Delhi prison, one of Asia's largest, allows mothers to keep their children with them until the child turns five. While the environment does have a family orientation it's still very much a prison where kids serve time with their mothers.

The arrangement is not without its nurturing aspects. Female prisoners run a "crèche" for the children -- a sort of playschool where they spend their day from 9 to 5. Sabria, a prisoner who runs the crèche program, explained it to Ling: "We try and give them what is the basic education that the child needs at the age of five," she said, "and their schedule includes everything which is fun. They do exercises and all sorts of activities."

Three square meals a day and decent housing conditions are better than some of these inmates -- mother or child -- might expect on the outside.

At the end of the day, the kids enjoy the bonds of motherhood but they do so within prison walls. Those there since birth know of no other life. And after the age of five, the kids must leave the prison for another home on the outside, a hostel, with relatives, or perhaps even on the street.

Is Prison a Place for Children?

In the United States, opportunities for prison moms to see their children exist on a smaller scale. The majority of the mothers cited in the DOJ study reported never having had a personal visit from their children since their admission to state prison.

In the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel, Louisiana, one of the largest prisons for women in the country, some 75 percent of the prison's nearly 1,000 inmates are mothers. The institution has a program that allows them to spend Saturday or Sunday afternoons with their children. Other states and institutions are experimenting with similar programs to foster the mother/child bond.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates the Mothers and Infants Together (MINT) program for pregnant inmates. Though not all pregnant inmates qualify, many do and are able to spend three months prior to delivery and two months after the birth in a halfway house facility. There, the women learn improved parenting skills and form bonds with their newborns, who are placed with relatives when their mothers return to serve our their sentences.

A few states offer programs where newborns can stay with qualified mothers for varying lengths of time. In California for example, female inmates selected as fit mothers can live together with young children in small community-based facilities.

Louisiana Correctional Institute for women warden Johnnie Jones has been on the job since 1978. He believes that allowing children to spend more time inside the prison could be a good thing.

"I think it would be good," he told Ultimate Explorer. "The reason why I think it would be good is because if you had the women and children here it would be more like a family setting, as opposed to a prison."

The idea has its own challenges as well. Many of the incarcerated mothers were not model parents before they ran afoul of the law. Drug and alcohol abuse are common problems, and only 64 percent of the women in the DOJ study reported living with their children just prior to incarceration.

Some of the incarcerated mothers Ling spoke with generally affirmed that while visits were welcome, "prison is no place for kids." Others were distraught over the unclear fate of children living on the outside.

While these issues are debated, the children suffer. One thing that many people agree upon is that more should be done to be sure that kids with mothers behind bars get the care that they deserve.

"You know prisons, they don't operate in isolation," Jones told Ultimate Explorer. "They operate within a political setting, you see, and what is politically expedient or more acceptable, that's generally what we do. If the community will start clamoring about making provision for women in prison and their children, something will be done about it."

The full 1999 USDOJ study, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children, is available here. (Adobe Acrobat PDF format)

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