Being a parent is hard enough. There’s no doubt about that. Now imagine becoming a mother while behind bars — or being a child brought into the world while your mother is incarcerated.
For thousands of women, this is their reality. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 219,000 women were incarcerated in 2017, and while it’s difficult to find current data on how many of those women are pregnant, in 2004, a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that 3% of women in federal prisons and 4% of those in state prisons were pregnant upon arrival. If those percentages were projected onto the 2017 population, it would mean that roughly 6,500 incarcerated women are pregnant.
In comparison to the total number of women in prison, that number doesn’t sound all that significant. But let’s realize that is roughly 6,500 children who will be born to women currently incarcerated. As a father of three whose father spent time in jail, I can say I find these statistics to be significant. And honestly, I think you should too.
Unfortunately, visiting my father in the Utah County Jail are some of the most vivid memories of my childhood. I remember that each cellblock was named after a ski resort—Alta, Solitude, Snowbird, and Sundance. I remember that we always met him in the Solitude corridor; it was stagnant and dry and not what I’d expected. I remember the corridor was always clean and church-quiet, and that Dad always sat behind Plexiglas, arms crossed reverently, wearing a white crew neck T-shirt that was visible through the V-neck of an orange jumpsuit. Boyish heart-breaking freckles spackled his cheekbones and contrasted with his small-pitted eyes and dark eyebrows. Sometimes we spoke, but other times, we just sat and looked at each other, both of us wishing the situation was different.
I empathize with any child trying to maintain a relationship with a parent who’s incarcerated.
We talk a lot about giving children a good start in life, and coming into this world with your mother incarcerated sounds like a good reason to double down on that child, and give them more rather than less. But the sad fact is, most children being born to incarcerated women in the U.S. are getting the opposite in both medical care and after birth support.
In “Pregnant and Behind Bars: how the US prison system abuses mothers-to-be,” Victoria Law discussed the poor treatment of incarcerated pregnant women. She describes women giving birth on filthy, blood-stained mattresses. She tells of women receiving no prenatal care, guards refusing to believe women were in labor even after their water broke, and one women giving birth while her feet and hands were shackled. Women tell stories of being malnourished while pregnant, or when they were given additional food, it was often expired.
The article is a tough read, particularly for anyone who knows the struggle and uncertainty that comes with bringing a child into the world. Incarcerated pregnant women shouldn’t be forced to forgo basic human rights, nor should their unborn child be forced to suffer due to a lack medical attention or parenting education.
Ultimately, Law’s article advocated for changes in the prison system, and fortunately, some prisons and independent non-profits seeking to do just that. For example, at The Justice Home in New York, local mothers can be provided prenatal medical care and an alternative to incarceration.
The Montana Women’s Prison Parenting Program provides parenting classes, support groups, community resource information and identification, mother-child visits and a monthly Kids’ Day event for mothers incarcerated in the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings.
KULR News in Montana interviewed several pregnant mothers currently benefiting from The Montana Women’s Prison Parenting Program. Many of them told stories that are a refreshing contrast to the stories above.
“I’m confident that I’m going to be able to transition and go into the community and be a good mom. I have the tools now. I’ve learned a lot about how to be a good mom,” one woman in the program said. “They’re like having a second mom around.”
Furthermore, this program is looking beyond pregnant women, and seeking to provide incarcerated parents with the resources they need. For example, they offer a Kids’ Day once a month when mothers and children can spend time together in a home-like environment. When I think back on visiting my father in jail as a teen, speaking to him though a phone with a steel cable, both of us separated by bulletproof glass, I cannot help but wonder if our relationship at that time might have been better with a more homelike environment. The thought that these children have the chance to meet with their mothers in a non-incarcerated setting sounds remarkable.
One mother even said, “When the kids come here, it’s not like it’s a scary place to come to. It’s homey and there’s games and there’s toys.”
The courses and support programs for mothers are also giving many incarcerated moms the skills and desire needed to make long-term change that will ultimately benefit themselves and their children.
The reality is that incarcerated mothers and their children deserve programs like this, and there is no reason mothers should be subjected a lack of medical care whether they are incarcerated or not. As humans, we should all be interested in the development of all children, and push for more prisons to follow the lead of programs like The Montana Women’s Prison Parenting Program.