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Mothering Behind Bars

For many people, Mother’s Day brings memories of making misshapen pieces of pottery in an elementary school art room or gluing colorful bits of ribbon to handmade cards. Mother’s Day is an economic boom for florists and restaurants capturing the “Moms refuse to cook on their special day” crowd.

As we grow older, the second Sunday in May evokes grief over the loss of grandmothers and other mother figures who have made their transition. Yet for 2 million children in the United States, this Mother’s Day reveals the human costs of our addiction to incarceration.

On any given day, there are more than 2.3 million Americans behind bars with more than 7 million under some form of criminal supervision. The racial disparities embedded within the American criminal justice system have gained the attention of scholars, policymakers and activists working to reform the cluster of institutions that systematically devalue Black Lives.

However, it’s necessary to address the intersections of race, gender and hyperincarceration. Although White women’s incarceration rate has dramatically increased over the last 10 years, Black women, particularly poorer and working-class Black women, are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated at a rate that far exceeds their share of the population. Black women comprise 13 percent of U.S. women but are twice as likely to be incarcerated as a White defendant charged with the same offense.

Policy choices rather than crime rates undergird these trends. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions vehemently opposed efforts to reduce the amount of time served for nonviolent drug offenses. During the 2016 election cycle, six states and the District of Columbia legalized recreational marijuana while 28 states and DC legalized medical marijuana. Seventeen states, including Connecticut and Vermont, have moved to decriminalize small amounts of non-medical marijuana, opting for substance-abuse treatment over expensive incarceration.

Though national polls indicate that the majority of Americans support full legalization of marijuana, Sessions, now attorney general, maintains his belief that the most commonly used illicit drug represents a significant threat to Americans’ health and safety.

This shift from promoting decriminalization to harsh punishment may have deleterious effects for mothers of color. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “Drug use and drug selling occur at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, yet Black and Latina women are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than White women.”

The increased number of women involved with the criminal justice system is particularly detrimental to community stability, given that 80 percent of women behind bars are the custodial parent for a minor child. More mothers going to prison means leaving more children behind. The number of children going into foster care has increased in tandem with the number of women behind bars. In the last 20 years, more than 250,000 children in the U.S. have been placed into foster care because their mother went to prison. According to a study conducted by Glaze and Maruschak, 7 percent of Black children have at least one incarcerated parent.

The consequences of this trend are profound. Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and anger management. They are also more likely to develop a learning disability and have disciplinary problems in school. This is intensified for children in state custodial care, where older children and children of color are less likely to be adopted out of the system.

The generational effects of locking up more mothers demands a shift in punishment policies and reform strategies.

Punishing roughly 2 percent of the total U.S. population may not register much concern, but punishment in the United States stretches far beyond the walls of the nearly 8,000 correctional facilities scattered across the country. From shaping access to housing to defining opportunities for employment, the criminal justice system poses severe challenges to the economic, emotional, physical and political well-being of mothers and their children.

I suggest five key ways we can advocate for mothers and children regardless of circumstance:

Eliminate cash bail

Thousands of women languish in American jails without being convicted or sentenced because they can’t afford the cost of bonding out. The lion’s share of women in jail, 60 percent, have not yet been adjudicated. Efforts to eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenses have gained traction in a number of states such as New York, Connecticut and Alaska. Philadelphia’s new district attorney also has pledged to end the practice.

Bail was set at $5,000 for Sandra Bland following a 2015 traffic stop in Texas. Bland died three days after her initial arrest. Though the cause of her death has been highly contested, eliminating cash bail can literally be the difference between life and death for people like Bland and Kalief Browder.

Protect mothers

Each year, approximately 10,000 women are pregnant while locked up. In 32 states, incarcerated women can be restrained while giving birth. Shackles may be applied to hands, ankles and across the laboring mother’s belly. Beyond the humiliation of giving birth while restrained, the American Medical Association documents the severe health risks for both mother and baby. States should protect mothers by adopting and strictly enforcing bans on shackling during labor.

Stop humiliating poor women

Menstrual cycles bring monthly humiliation to many women behind bars. In states such as Arizona, female inmates are given an allotment of only 12 sanitary napkins per month. Additional pads beyond that allotment must be purchased by the inmate via her commissary account. For inmates making less than 25 cents per hour for their labor, overpriced sanitary products become an unaffordable luxury. The lack of access to basic needs such as sanitary napkins poses significant health risks related to infection.

Address trauma

Women in prison have a greater likelihood of having suffered a traumatic event (e.g. domestic violence and sexual assault) than their male counterparts. A study by Covington found that nearly 75 percent of incarcerated women have a history of mental illness. Trauma-informed care for mothers in prison should be provided on a consistent and equitable basis that prevents states from shifting greater resources to men’s facilities and that adequately prepares mothers for life after prison.

A nation of immigrants

Detention has exponentially increased as part of a broader backlash against undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The ACLU and others have documented the prevalence of physical and sexual assaults against women in prison that often go underreported and unpunished due to fear of reprisal. It’s time to affirm women’s power over their bodies regardless of immigration status.

Angela Davis once said that prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. This Mother’s Day, let’s commit our scholarship and activism to addressing social problems that will allow more mothers to freely celebrate with their children.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University, where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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