Mothers In Prison

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April Rivera, a four-year-old from Miami, is singing the theme song to Barney with her mother. "I love you. You love me," she chirps. "We're a happy family." Even a purple dinosaur, however, can tell this isn't quite true. April's mom Regla Sanchez, 26, is inmate No. 162850 at the Hernando Correctional Institution, 320 miles away in Brooksville, Fla., and April is looking at an image of her mother on a computer screen. This virtual family visit is part of a new pilot program, Reading Family Ties, run by the Florida Department of Corrections in an effort to help incarcerated mothers and their kids bond. But when her mom disappears from the screen, April's face crumples. "It's hard," says Isabel Strausser, the program's Miami coordinator. "A lot of times kids cry and beg me to let their mothers go."

Florida is attempting to address a disturbing national phenomenon: the explosion in the number of mothers in prison. The population of women in U.S. prisons has risen 650% in the past two decades. Of the more than 149,000 female inmates currently in local jails and state and federal penitentiaries, 70% have at least one child under 18. Since these mothers are often the sole provider for their children, the impact on their kids can be devastating. They get shuttled off to live with relatives or sent to foster homes. Studies show that kids with incarcerated mothers are more likely to refuse to eat, wet their beds and do poorly in school. "Not enough attention is being paid to the trauma on these kids," says Ann Jacobs, executive director of the New York City-based Women's Prison Association.

Contacts between incarcerated mothers and their children are fraught with difficulties. Prisons are often located in remote rural locales, inaccessible to poor families without cars. And in-person visits can take an emotional toll on young children. They must endure invasive body searches just like adults. Then there's the frightening clang of doors slamming shut. Once inside the noisy visiting room, kids must shout at the top of their lungs. In most state and federal prisons, children are allowed to hug and kiss their moms, but in many jails in which women are awaiting trial and sentencing, contact is forbidden. A pane of thick glass separates the mother and child, which can be yet another trauma. Gail Smith, executive director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, described an infant's wrenching visit. "When he saw his mother come out, his little hand went to the glass," Smith says. "But when he realized he couldn't touch her, he just started screaming."

Much of the increase in the rate of female incarceration is a direct result of harsh mandatory-sentencing laws that impose minimum jail times for all drug offenses. Many of these drug offenders are women, frequently poor African Americans and Hispanics, who wind up in prisons built for hard-core male felons, not pregnant and parenting women. "These kids are innocent victims of their parents' misconduct," says David Steinhart, co-author of the 1993 book Why Punish the Children?

Of course, prisons are for punishment, a part of which is losing the ability to raise kids in the outside world. What's more, in cases where the mother has been physically or emotionally abusive, kids may need to be kept away for their own good. Still, the question is whether society can legitimately punish women for their crimes without ruining their children's lives. The fate of these children has great consequences for society. Half of the 1.5 million kids with an incarcerated parent will commit a crime before they turn 18. "We're creating a new crop that gets bigger each generation," says Anne Holt, a consultant for Florida's Department of Corrections.

The problem of parenting in prison often begins with childbirth. The number of babies born to mothers in prison is rising. (Most of these women are pregnant when they arrive; conjugal visits, as a rule, are not allowed.) They generally give birth at the nearest hospital. But since prisons are often far from hospitals and expectant mothers must clear various security hurdles, women inmates are at greater risk of delivering their babies before they can make it to a hospital. A scathing report by Amnesty International helped draw public attention to the sometimes harsh treatment of pregnant inmates, such as shackling them during labor--a practice that has since been outlawed in the state of Illinois.

After childbirth, the treatment is often no better. Most states make no special arrangements for the care of newborns in prison. After delivery, mothers and babies are typically separated--sometimes within hours. The infant is sent to live with a family member or goes straight to foster care. New York, Nebraska and Washington State are exceptions; prisons in these states have nurseries in which infants are allowed to live with their mothers for a year to 18 months. But this raises another difficult question: Is it really better for an infant to be raised in prison, just to be near the mother? No one has studied the long-term effect on kids who spend their early months behind bars, though some initial research suggests that babies don't develop as well there because they don't get the kind of attention and stimulation they need. There are also concerns about children's safety in prisons, which are often not adequately childproof, and about the availability of adequate medical care. Then there are the potential long-term psychological effects. "Our concern is that kids will think prison is normal," says Bobbi Costa, executive director of Families and Friends of Violent Crime Victims in Washington State. "We have to be concerned for our younger generation and what values they are developing."

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