Happy Mother’s Day to all the other moms out there! Your children most likely have bought you a nice card and a gift, maybe some flowers, or perhaps they plan to take you out for a fancy meal to show you how much they love you. Sweet. And just the way it should be. My mom is no longer here, and this holiday is one that makes me sentimental and nostalgic.
But for tens of thousands of American mothers, it is just another day behind bars. There are no flower or PajamaGram deliveries allowed in prison to mark this day.
It is hard to find current and trustworthy statistics about exactly how many women are incarcerated in the United States or how many of them are mothers. One of the causalities of our lousy economy is up-to-date research on such things, but I think it’s safe to say the number of female prisoners lies somewhere between Amnesty International’s figure of 148,000 and the American Civil Liberties Union’s tally, which put the number of American women and girls in lockup at 200,000. A documentary released last year by the University of Pennsylvania put the number of incarcerated mothers in 2007 at 65,600.
For the sake of the one day on the calendar for which we officially honor our moms, let’s put aside the reason these women are incarcerated. This column isn’t about making judgments about how these women got to prison. Each one has a different story, and it would do an injustice to generalize about their cases.
Honestly, some are hardened criminals, but some might be innocent. Others wound up in prison after joblessness, mental illness, childhood sexual abuse or domestic violence led them to get involved in drugs or other crimes. The point here is their fractured American families don’t get to celebrate Mother’s Day together — or any other of the holidays we take as routine events.
Who are these imprisoned women? What is their racial breakdown? According to a published report from last November, “While young African-American women are the fastest growing incarcerated population, roughly 49 percent of all women in prison are white, 28 percent are African-American and almost 17 percent are Latina.”
I know it seems odd — and sad — to think about women in prison during the time our nation pauses to honor the matriarchs of our families. But I think it is important to realize there is an entire generation of children (maybe two generations) that is faced this Mother’s Day with the sad fact that Mom is not around.
It doesn’t take a mental health expert to conclude these kids are likely to grow up with emotional and behavioral problems because their mother was missing from the family dynamic. Many of these kids have been passed around various relatives’ homes or foster care. They may grow into adulthood to repeat their parents’ mistakes. The cycle of crime is well documented.
In the book Motherless Daughters, Hope Edleman writes about the loss a child feels when Mom is absent: “I can tell you based on both personal experience and interviews with hundreds of motherless American women, that losing a mother at an early age is one of the most stressful life events a person can face. It completely rips apart the fabric of a child’s life.”
It didn’t use to be like this, of course. Three decades ago, prisons were populated by a vast majority of males. In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs, and by 1980 there were some 12,000 incarcerated females in U.S. prisons. In 2008, the number had skyrocketed to nearly 208,000. Many of the women arrested and convicted on drug charges left behind children damaged in vitro by their mother’s bad habits.
Lately, America’s prison population has begun to decline, and the number of women behind bars has gone down as well. But for those still there, the challenges are many. These include sexual harassment and attacks by male guards (some resulting in unwanted pregnancies), the indignity of being shackled during childbirth (unbelievably only 10 states have banned this action) and a dearth of programs to keep prison moms in touch with their children.
The message here is simple: We need to care about this topic because female prisoners’ children often become our problem. If these children’s hardships erupt into violence, they will enter our court system. Later in life, if they can’t find a job or a home, we’ve lost another taxpayer — and they become society’s burden. And when Mom finally does emerge from prison, what are parent and child to do if they’ve not been able to have any meaningful contact during her incarceration?
There is a lot that needs fixing in this corner of the criminal justice system, but in the meantime, it is the children that concern me the most.
So, while you reach out to your moms and grandmothers to mark the special day, maybe there’s room at your table for a child who has never known what celebrating Mother’s Day is all about. The only way to stop the unhappy cycle is for those of us on the outside to step outside our comfort zone.