When "Mom" Is Behind Bars

As we celebrate mothers in May, it pains me to remember that women are the fastest-growing group of incarcerated parents. Mothers of Bedford, a new, award-winning documentary in PBS's America Reframed series, explores the nuances of this difficult situation affecting mothers and families. Filmmaker Jennifer McShane spent four years following mothers incarcerated at Bedford, a maximum-security prison in New York. We see scenes that surprise us -- a child's birthday party, a Mother's Day celebration, the universal frustrations of parenthood -- and remind us how much these women have in common with parents all over the world.

I remember that when my children -- a daughter and a son -- were little, I hated to be away from them. Even if it was a benign reason like my job that kept us apart for more than a day, feelings of guilt would descend. Would they wonder where I was? If I missed an important event in their lives, would they understand?

How would those feelings be magnified if the separation went on for years, and I knew it was all my fault?

Moms in prison deal with this reality day after day. The number of women in prison increased by 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, rising from 15,118 to 112,797. About two-thirds of women prisoners have children under 18. It's true that these moms have made poor choices that brought them to prison -- and in some cases made them unfit to nurture their children -- but it's short-sighted to simply write them off. As depicted in Mothers of Bedford, the vast majority still love their children, desire to have connection with them and have the potential to overcome their failures to be wonderful parents.

I feel heartbroken whenever I visit a women's prison. I know that the ladies there have broken the law and need to face justice, but still, I seem to see my own daughter in every face. Every woman in a jumpsuit is someone's child, someone with potential and hopes. I also think about all the children on the outside who are missing their moms, and who might never see them during their incarceration. I think about the four to six percent of women who are pregnant when arrested, and will be separated from their children hours after they are born.

Above all, I wonder about the life journeys that brought the women here. While they have made bad choices, searing themes run through their histories: sexual, emotional and physical abuse endured as children or adults; struggles with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness; and abandonment by a parent, husband or boyfriend. They were often victims before they were criminals.

Many people with hard lives do not go to prison; a sad tale does not excuse a criminal act. But understanding the stories of moms behind bars helps us put their actions in an appropriate context. These women have lives beyond their worst mistakes. They have pasts -- but also futures that can be much brighter with corrections strategies that are truly rehabilitative, both during and after their sentences. These restorative strategies include addiction recovery, treatment for mental illness, education, faith- and values-based programs that support life transformation and programs that help keep families together.

Dealing wisely with the issues that bring mothers behind bars doesn't just improve their outcomes. It promises enormous benefits for their children as well. The majority of women in jail or prison were the primary, and sometimes sole, caretakers of their children prior to their arrest, which means that their sons and daughters have a good chance of going into foster care. These boys and girls are some of the most at-risk in all of society, prone to depression, anxiety, trauma-related stress and a host of behaviors that are likely to put them on the wrong side of the law one day, as well. Finding alternatives to traditional imprisonment for nonviolent female offenders, and preparing mothers for lives as law-abiding citizens and effective parents, are the best things we can do for these vulnerable children.

When budgets are tight, there is a strong temptation to cut educational and rehabilitative programs in prisons. But innovative alternatives to traditional prisons yield enormous dividends for women, children and families. In recent years, despite the recession, residential programs have developed that actually allow women to keep their young children with them in supervised, home-like settings while they complete their sentences. Programs like these allow women and their babies to form the deep bonds that form the basis of lifelong, nurturing attachments. This helps keep children out of the foster care system and gives moms a powerful motivation to pursue a law-abiding future.

In a documentary about a residential parenting program in the state of Washington, an incarcerated mother named Samantha articulated the desired results well: "Prison saved me," she said. "I've learned my lesson, and nothing's going to take me away from my kids. I've found something more important than getting high: forming a relationship with someone who loves me."

Another effort that promotes reconciliation, Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® Christmas program, is now in its 32nd year of operation. It allows hundreds of thousands of parents each year to send a Christmas gift to their children via local volunteers. This facilitates a meaningful -- and sometimes transformative -- opportunity for connection among the members of a prisoner's family. But it was the love of incarcerated mothers that inspired the program in the first place. A Prison Fellowship state director had been inspired by mothers behind bars in Alabama, who, when they had nothing else to give, collected toiletries to present to their children at Christmas. Angel Tree doesn't make moms behind bars into loving parents -- it just allows the love that's already there to find a healthy, vibrant expression.

By and large, incarcerated mothers love their children and regret the mistakes that separate them. It's in the best interest of women and families not merely to warehouse women in prisons, but to recognize and develop the enormous potential that's already there. We should focus limited corrections resources on programs that help connect them to their families, deal with the deep roots of criminal behavior, address the wounds underlying self-destructive behavior and equip them with solid parenting skills -- so that, like mothers everywhere, they can work to build a better future for themselves and for their children.