Inmate Mothers Research Paper

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Despite recent laws and policies that have been developed to reduce domestic violence, this serious problem continues to have a significant impact on society that will quite possibly be passed on to future generations. It is currently estimated that two to eight million domestic assaults occur each year (Wallace 1999). More striking is that one-half of all the women in the United States will become victims of battering sometime in their lives. Other indicators also suggest that women are victimized by their partners at a rate five times greater than that for men (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000). In addition, while there is no exact number of children who experience domestic violence directly or indirectly, a national study on family violence estimated that ten million children are exposed to violence within their families (Onyskiw 2003). This may help explain (at least in part) why female inmates report more often than male inmates higher rates of violence.

National and smaller sampled studies have consistently found that female inmates have significantly higher rates of being victims of physical and sexual abuse as children, as adults, or as both, compared with their male counterparts (Beck 2000; Gable and Johnson 1995; Greenfeld and Snell 1999). In fact, female offenders are more likely to have experienced violence in their lives than the general population (Beck 2000). Women who are imprisoned for violent crimes are also more likely to report abuse as well. In examining histories of abused women, some studies have found that they come to the attention of the justice system earlier than nonabused women. For example, a study conducted in Oregon found that 50 percent of the abused women had been arrested by the age of fifteen compared with only 11 percent of the nonabused women who had been arrested. In addition, the Oregon study found that a large portion (60 percent) of these abused women had run away at least four times compared with only 15 percent of the nonabused women who reported running away (Oregon Department of Corrections 1993, as cited in Pollock 1998). In examining female offenders further, one characteristic is particularly noteworthy: 70 percent are mothers of minor children.

Similar to the general population of female offenders, inmate mothers also have higher rates of physical and sexual abuse as compared with inmate fathers and the general female population (Mumola 2000). Inmate mothers come from extremely troubled family backgrounds that are also reflected in their adult lives. For many, there is a substantial family history of violence, neglect, incarceration, and addiction, which, among other consequences, significantly influences the likelihood of the women continuing the cycle of violence. Indeed, one study found that 85 percent of the women had been physically abused during their childhoods and that more than a quarter of these women had been placed in foster care (Dalley 2002). More significantly, 46 percent of these same women reported becoming involved in abusive relationships later in their adult lives (Dalley 2002). For many inmate mothers, life prior to imprisonment is so uncertain and at times so dangerous that imprisonment is viewed as a safety valve (Ferraro and Moe 2003). This is especially the case for those women in battering situations who feel that there is no protection from their abusers.

The negative consequences of violence on children’s physical and emotional well-being can be devastating (Brazelton 1992; Earls and Reiss 1994; Wallace 1999; Widom 1996). An important and recently recognized phenomenon is that regardless of whether children witness family violence or actually experience the abuse firsthand, they are more likely to grow up and react to their own children or spouses in the similar ways. Thus, childhood survivors of domestic violence situations develop predispositions toward violence in their own families and are at risk of becoming either victims or batterers as adults (Wallace 1999; Widom 1996).

The critical developmental disruptions and impairments that accompany child abuse and neglect set in motion a series of events that increase the likelihood of children failing to achieve important developmental milestones, which in turn may result in developing psychopathologies (Wolfe 1999). Although not all children who are abused will develop psychopathologies, they are clearly at a higher risk than nonabused children (Cicchetti, Ganiban, and Barnett 1990). Children who are physically and sexually abused often have ‘‘irreparably damaged self-esteems’’ and find it difficult to trust anyone again (Hart and Brassard 1987). These children often exhibit a wide range of behaviors and emotional problems, including sleep disturbances, compulsive behaviors, suicidal thoughts or gestures, phobias, and other emotional disorders. This was the situation of many of the inmate mothers when they were children (and has now become the situation for their own children). Their poor self-esteem and other problems are perpetuated into their adulthoods as they continue the pattern of becoming involved in abusive relationships with their partners (Gable and Johnston 1995; Pollock 1998). In fact, most studies have found that at least one-quarter to one-third of the women who reported being physically and sexually abused as children also reported that they were subsequently involved in abusive relationships as adults (Beck 2000; Greenfeld and Snell 1999; Mumola 2000). This suggests that a similar prevalent cycle of abuse and violence that exists among the general population also exists generationally among inmate mothers.

Based on the reality that a history of domestic violence begets domestic violence, researchers have begun to study the lives of the inmate mothers’ children. Studies have consistently found that the children of inmate mothers also have similar traumatic experiences and disrupted lives, much the same as the women did when they were children. More recent research is also finding that the children’s problems are not the direct result of imprisonment but rather existed prior to maternal incarceration (Dalley 2002; Siegel 2005). Many of these children’s problems include witnessing or being subjected to violence and neglect. They also often have problems with learning, delinquency, physical health, and mental health (Bloom and Steinhart 1993; Dalley 2003; DeAngelis 2001; Gable and Johnston 1995). A further concern for these children is that when they are emotionally and physically cut off from their mothers, they may be more prone to repeating destructive family patterns (i.e., domestic violence, crime, and substance abuse) in their own adult relationships (Gable and Johnston 1995; Laird 1981).

In addition to confronting their daily problems, children whose mothers are imprisoned are more likely to have to adjust to new homes, new schools, and new parenting/caretaking styles than children whose fathers are imprisoned. Most often, female offenders are single mothers whose spouses or significant others are absent, which leaves these mothers with few choices in selecting caregivers for their children during their imprisonment (Mumola 2000). Most likely, the women’s children are cared for by an extended family member, and many children are later placed in the foster care system. As experts have noted, however, placement in the foster care system does not guarantee stability (Gable and Johnston 1995). Children may continue to move from one foster home to another for a variety of reasons. Most studies suggest that these children are difficult to manage because of their often complicated problems and the lack of foster parents who are trained in dealing with these types of problems (Dalley 2003; Pollock 1998; Siegel 2005). Often these children do not receive the long-term treatment and support they need in order to live healthy, productive adult lives. On the other hand, fathers who are imprisoned have more options for child care. Typically their children live with their mothers, stepmothers, girlfriends, or extended family members and are less likely to be placed in foster care (Mumola 2000).

Clearly, these problems will not disappear upon the inmate mother’s release from prison. If anything, the problems will continue to exist and more than likely will increase, thus making the mother–child reunification extremely difficult. Studies have found that for many women and their children, the reunification is a terrible experience. The harsh reality confronting female offenders and their children is that most of them will be reunited with few (if any) new skills to maintain a healthy relationship (Carp and Schade 1992; Morash, Bynum and Koons 1998). The majority of inmate mothers report that reunification is an extremely stressful time. Much of the stress during the initial weeks of release is related to finding employment, housing, and day care (Dalley 2000). Often these women have difficulty managing the daily and necessary routines (working, parenting, and maintaining their household). More importantly, though, they must also focus on maintaining their sobriety and not developing relationships with abusive men. Studies have found that many of these women have a tendency to return to their former lifestyles, either by reuniting with former abusive partners or developing new abusive relationships (Gable and Johnston 1995; Pollock 1998). Compounding these problems is that they must parent often angry, depressed, and resentful children who are distrustful and fearful that their mothers will again abandon them because of drug use and further criminality.

Female offenders need to be taught self-sufficiency, responsibility, and the development of healthy interpersonal relationships in order to live crime-free, productive lives (Carp and Schade 1992). However, in the prison’s artificial world, the inmate mothers are not provided with these necessary life skills and are told what to do, when to sleep, and when to eat. They have no abusive relationships to deal with, children to parent, or concerns regarding employment, housing, or maintaining their sobriety. Without a focus on the real world and its temptations, prison necessarily continues to be a false world destined to encourage recidivism (Dalley 2002).

Despite the fact that numerous studies have documented that inmate mothers have significantly different problems compared with inmate fathers, few prison programs focus on treatment addressing the cyclical nature of domestic violence, abuse, addiction, and imprisonment. But more importantly postrelease programs for these women who were previously in oppressive and controlling environments often reinforce those dynamics. As such, prisons (at least at the end of the prison term) should develop an alternative system that fosters independence and the development of essential life skills. Postrelease programs such as these are the weakest link in all the formal systems today (criminal justice, social services, and mental health).

Clearly, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children need a variety of services from very complicated and bureaucratic agencies, which often creates more havoc and frustration for these families. Moreover, the availability of services and programs for these mothers and their children varies depending on the political climate in the particular state and the attitude that the community has toward prisoners in general but particularly toward female offenders who have children (Gable and Johnston 1995). In a society that views women as the primary caregivers of children, women with a history of incarceration are usually scorned for placing themselves in a position of not being able to raise their children. Coupled with this is the level of understanding that the correctional system and social service agencies have regarding the particular needs of this population. The most compelling finding of all the studies is that the majority of inmate mothers are reunited with their children, though many of the mothers will not be able to succeed in living independent, nonviolent, crime- and drug-free lives or maintain stable relationships with their children. Thus, if the criminal justice system continues to use the current punishment practices instead of establishing interventions that are actually designed to prevent reincarcerations, the continuation of the cycle of violence, addiction, and imprisonment will unfortunately remain an inevitable reality (Carp and Schade 1992; Dalley, 2002; Morash, Bynum, and Koons 1998).

See also:


  1. Beck, A. J. Prisoners in 1999 (NCJ 183476). Washington DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 2000.
  2. Bloom, B., and D. Steinhart. Why Punish the Children? San Francisco: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 1993.
  3. Brazelton, T. B. Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development. Reading, MA: Addison- Wesley, 1992.
  4. Carp, S., and L. Schade. ‘‘Tailoring Facility Programming to Suit Female Offenders’ Needs.’’ Corrections Today 54, no. 6 (1992): 152–159.
  5. Cicchetti, D., J. Ganiban, and D. Barnett. ‘‘Contributions from the Study of High Risk Populations to Understanding the Development of Emotion Regulation.’’ In The Development of Emotion Regulation, edited by K. Dodge and J. Garber. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 1–54.
  6. Dalley, L. ‘‘Imprisoned Mothers and Their Children: Their Often Conflicting Legal Rights.’’ Hamline Journal of Public Law and Policy 22, no. 1 (2000): 1–43.
  7. ———. ‘‘Policy Implications Relating to Inmate Mothers and Their Children: Will the Past Be Prologue?’’ The Prison Journal 82, no. 2 (2002): 234–256.
  8. ———. ‘‘Children of Imprisoned Mothers: What Does the Future Hold?’’ In With Justice for All: Minorities and Women in Criminal Justice, edited by J. Joseph and D. Taylor. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003, pp. 121–136.
  9. DeAngelis, T. ‘‘Punishment of Innocents: Children of Parents Behind Bars.’’ Monitor on Psychology 32, no. 5 (2001): 56–59.
  10. Dobash, R. E., and R. Dobash. Violence Against Wives: A Case Against the Patriarchy. New York: Free Press, 1979.
  11. Earls, J. E., and A. J. Reiss. Breaking the Cycle: Predicting and Preventing Crime. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1994.
  12. Enos, S. Mothering from the Inside. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  13. Ferraro, K. J., and A. M. Moe. ‘‘Mothering, Crime, and Incarceration.’’ Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 32, no. 1 (2003): 9–40.
  14. Gable, K., and D. Johnston. Children of Incarcerated Parents. New York: Lexington Books, 1995.
  15. Greenfeld, L. A., and T. L. Snell. Women Offenders (NCJ 175688). Washington DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 1999.
  16. Hart, S. N., and M. R. Brassard. ‘‘A Major Threat to Children’s Mental Health. Psychological Maltreatment.’’ The American Psychologist 42, no. 2 (1987): 160–165.
  17. Laird, J. ‘‘An Ecological Approach to Child Welfare.’’ In Parents of Children in Placement, edited by P. A. Sinanoglu and A. N. Maluccio. New York: Child Welfare League of America, 1981, pp. 97–132.
  18. Morash, M., T. Bynum, and B. Koons. Women Offenders: Programming Needs and Promising Approaches. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 1998.
  19. Mumola, C. Special Report: Incarcerated Parents and Their Children (NCJ 182335). Washington DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 2000.
  20. Onyskiw, J. E. ‘‘Domestic Violence and Children’s Adjustment: A Review of Research.’’ In The Effects of Intimate Partner Violence on Children, edited by R. A. Geffner, R. S. Igelman, and J. Zellner. New York: Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press, 2003, pp. 11–45.
  21. Oregon Department of Corrections. Childhood Abuse and the Female Inmate. Unpublished manuscript. Information Services Division, Research and Analysis Unit, 1993.
  22. Pollock, J. Counseling Female Offenders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1998.
  23. Siegel, J. A. Disrupted Childhoods: The Lives of Female Prisoners’ Children. Unpublished manuscript, 2005.
  24. Straus, M. A., and R. J. Gelles. Physical Violence in American Families. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990.
  25. Tjaden, P., and N. Thoennes. Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey (NCJ 181867). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2000.
  26. Wallace, Harvey. Family Violence, 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.
  27. Widom, C. S. The Cycle of Violence Revisited: Six Years Later (NCJ 153272). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1996.
  28. Wolfe, D. A. Child Abuse Implications for Child Development and Psychopathology, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1999.

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