When Mothers — Even the Famous — Go to Prison, Children Suffer, Too

For the vast majority of women, being a parent is rarely considered a mitigating factor to keep them out of prison or jail. Roughly 173,000 women are incarcerated in the United States, with Black and Latino women held at roughly twice the rate of White women. Nearly 60% of women in prison are parents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The vast majority of women detained in local jails — roughly 80% — have children. And for some, parenthood begins behind bars, with 55,000 pregnant women incarcerated each year. These women may have only hours with their newborn before they are separated and returned to prison or jail.

Separating mothers from their children has devastating consequences for both parties, research shows. Prisons and jails are ill-equipped to deal with the physical and emotional challenges of pregnancy and the vulnerable period after birth. Mothers who wind up in prison are far more likely than their male counterparts to have their parental rights permanently terminated. And parental incarceration is considered by public health experts to be an adverse childhood experience that can inflict lifelong harm on children’s health and well-being.

So, some states are starting to rethink the practice of incarcerating parents. Twelve states now have laws to reduce the impact of parental incarceration, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. These legislative efforts include requirements that parents be detained closer to home or programs to divert parents from prison or jail altogether. Many formerly incarcerated women advocating for these bills say they are a good first step to reducing the collateral traumas of incarceration.