Thanks to JPI Intern Madeline Titus for both authoring this blog post and creating an incredible podcast, Mothers in Prison, where she interviews three women all deeply connected to this issue.
While millions will be celebrating Mother’s Day this Sunday across the country, many of those celebrations will be limited due to the impact of the criminal justice system. Sixty-two percent of women in prison and 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and more often than not, they are their children’s primary caretaker.
Even as criminal justice reform has gained momentum in the U.S., women and various gender identities are often not included in the conversations. The history of mass incarceration is deeply tied to identities of race, age, gender, and socioeconomic status. While justice policy has traditionally taken a ‘one-size fits all’ approach, current reforms need to be tailored to the unique needs of different identities are their experiences, including many women’s experience in prison as mothers.
Before we can effectively tackle needed reforms, we must first understand the historical context of women in prison. Historically, incarcerated women were often treated in exile and in harsh conditions. For example, in Auburn State Prison in New York, in the 1820s women were often confined to the attic with their only interactions being with other incarcerated men and male prison guards who were known to be physically and sexually abusive. Many of these horrific conditions led to the push for separate female facilities, resulting in the first facility for women at in Ossining, New York in 1839; and the first female only prison in 1873, in Indiana.
With the rise of female only prisons, a new field of scholarly work began emerging in 1895, female criminology, which examined women, prison, and deviance largely through existing societal gender norms steeped in the sexism of the era. Scholars such as Cesare Lombroso published research arguing that, ‘women who engage in criminal behavior are at different levels of sinfulness, and that they are more masculine in appearance, cold, calculating and have manipulative personalities.’ W.I. Thomas argued in the early 1900s that ‘women were morally inferior’. And in the 1920s Sigmund Freud’s theories of sexuality lead him to conclude that, ‘women who are deviant are doing so to become more masculine in an attempt to make up for their biological inferiority.’
Although these theories seem ridiculous now, they established the basis for policy and practice in corrections systems throughout the country. As a result of limited research on women’s experiences combined with the ever-present Jim Crow laws of the south, two distinct corrections institutions for women emerged in the 20th century: “reformatories” and “custodial institutions.” White women were often sent to reformatories for rehabilitation where they received vocational training in cooking, sewing, and cleaning, so they would be able to reenter into society with workforce skills. Women of color, however, were more likely to be sent to custodial institutions, which were often seen simply as warehouses, and reserved for those not amenable to rehabilitation. In addition, women from custodial institutions were often sent to work on state-owned plantations in horrible conditions, reminiscent of slavery.
As time progressed, racialized policies resulting in extreme sentencing and the targeting of people of color as part of the ‘War on Drugs’ resulted in the mass incarceration that has emerged in late 20th and early 21st century. Today, drug and property offenses are more than half the charges for which women are incarcerated, while violent offenses account for only about a quarter of incarcerated women. As criminal justice policy reform is taking hold around the country, women are too often being left out of the reform conversation and ultimately left behind, with many states experiencing historic growth in female incarceration while male incarceration rates are declining.
Similar to what was seen in the early 20th century, women today are still being compared to men, when in reality they have different lived experiences and are incarcerated for different reasons. Effective policy needs to take into consideration men, women and other gender identities, in addition to race and socioeconomic status. There still remains a significant lack of academic and political interest in researching women’s involvement in the justice system, and the research that is being done, often makes broad generalizations and fails to acknowledge gender as an important factor. This results in policy recommendations that are largely based on male experiences and simply applied to women and other gender identities, regardless of their effectiveness.
Many justice system-involved women have experienced violence, trauma, and mental and physical health issues that have contributed to their situations and life choices. They often struggle with finding housing, employment and stability as a parent, facing limited programming and stigmatization. With women currently the fastest growing segment of the prison population, it is time we start thinking differently about women in prison.
As we seek reforms to address mass incarceration in the United States, it is critically important to keep in mind what it means to be a woman caught up in the justice system, and especially a mother. As Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboys Industries stated that, “the ultimate measure of health in any community might well reside in our ability to stand in awe at what folks have to carry rather than in judgement of how they carry it.”
On this Mother’s Day let’s stand in awe of mothers, and recommit ourselves to ensuring that incarcerated mothers and all women are treated with the dignity, respect, and fairness in the justice system that they deserve.
Interested in learning more? Listen to our podcast on Mothers in Prison where we talk to three women all deeply connected to this issue.