Why Mother-Child Alternatives to Incarceration Are Vital

Have you ever seen a toddler suddenly separated from the mother? A tiny tot, whose mother set her down for a moment, put her arms around the legs of a nearby shopper in a crowded store, only to look up and realize she had the wrong woman. Panic quickly set in; the reaction was not only “Where’s my mom?” but a piercing wail that said, “I’m gonna die!” The mom quickly picked up her child, who was soon soothed. The cause of that panic is based in one of our most basic human experiences: bonding and attachment.

Every baby needs at least one solid attachment that they can count on. Attachment takes place through a stress and stress-reduction cycle. Babies get hungry and they let us know by crying. The primary caregiver, usually the mother, feeds the baby and the baby learns to trust that the mom will be there to provide sustenance and comfort. Without someone there to feed them reliably, babies in fact would die. This first experience of learning to trust someone forms the basis for all of our later relationships, our sense of self, and our capacity to function in the world without undue anxiety. Mother-child bonding is most critical in the first six months of a baby’s life, and continues until the child is about age six.

Child development experts tell us that the worst thing that can happen to you as a child, short of severe physical harm, is to lose your mother. It’s not impossible to repair the mother-child relationship, or to adjust to another caretaker, but the experience of thousands of mothers and children shows us that the damage often is long-lasting and takes a tremendous amount of work, love, patience and assistance for children to overcome.

Why, then, do we insist on incarcerating mothers for even the pettiest, most nonviolent offenses? The rate of women’s incarceration grew at one-and-a-half times the rate of men’s incarceration from 1980-2010, by 646%, according to the Sentencing Project. This is not due to an increase in women committing violent crimes, but a result of mandatory minimum sentences and the so-called War on Drugs.

This growth in women’s incarceration fails to consider the impact on the children who lose their mothers. Clearly the harm to families and to our communities done by mother-child separation far outweighs the harm that these mothers have done. Despite a great deal of lip service, we still do not have sentencing policy that takes the needs of children into account when sentencing their mothers.

Many advocates for women prisoners, myself included, believe that ending women’s incarceration might be, strategically, an effective leading edge to jump-start an end to mass incarceration of women AND men. In all my years of promoting community programs to keep mothers out of prison and to maintain mother-child bonds, my greatest frustration has been the great addiction that policymakers have for prisons and prison-based programs as the main, sometimes the only, approach to even minor, nonviolent crimes. The profound damage that the resulting mother-child separation does to children and families is unspeakable. Yet despite the evidence that mother-infant programs are successful and cost-effective, few have been implemented, let alone fully funded. Sometime it feels as though policy makers want to perpetuate family separation, harm to children, and punishment at the cost of rehabilitation.

The establishment of prison nurseries is not a viable answer. It is common for women, whose past trauma is usually a cause of their addictions and crimes, to be re-traumatized in jail or prison so that they are put at risk of relapse upon release. Most women, having experienced the ways in which correctional officers treat them and their visiting family members, and having suffered the lack of timely medical care when they need it, would not consider keeping babies with them inside prison walls despite how much they want to bond with, and breastfeed, their infants. Nor should any mother have to make that choice. Eligibility for prison nursery programs in most states is identical to eligibility for community release, and mothers strongly prefer being able to maintain their family bonds in nurturing, community-based settings. Studies of mother-child programs in the community find that alternatives that keep moms and kids together while providing family-based treatment are far more effective as well as less costly than prison nursery programs.

Last week, the Washington Post published a great op-ed by Patricia O'Brien, associate professor at Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It described the growing movement to close women’s prisons in the U.K. and noted that the reasons for ending women’s incarceration in the U.S. are similar: “Any examination of the women who are in U.S. prisons reveals that the majority are nonviolent offenders with poor education, little employment experience and multiple histories of abuse from childhood through adulthood. Women are also more likely than men to have children who rely on them for support — 147,000 American children have mothers in prison.”

What are some viable options? Mother-child programs are highly effective: women take part in gender-specific, trauma-informed, tailored programs that address the root cause of their offenses, and services address the children’s needs. Residential programs should be available near the woman’s extended family; day programs should be used when the mother has housing she wants to maintain. Restorative justice practices should be available to allow women the dignity of addressing harm they have caused to the community or to their families and children, and to find an appropriate path toward healing. The Women’s Treatment Center in Chicago had a zero recidivism rate in the first ten years of their program for mothers in correctional custody; they work with the entire family to build healthy dynamics and prevent relapse. Seattle’s promising LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program has been successful in keeping people out of jail and prevents the chaos and harm that even brief incarceration can cause.

Children’s needs should be considered when setting bond, and mothers should be released on their own recognizance whenever possible. At sentencing, any consideration of the impact on children of the mother’s incarceration should lead us to community-based options that are restorative, preserving rather than destroying families and ending the present practice of producing more crime through incarceration.  

If we care about children, we must do better than incarcerating mothers.

Gail Smith


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