Mothers Behind Bars: What Happens to the Children?

Updated January 30, 2004

America's female prison population is booming. In the last ten years the number of women in prison has nearly doubled. As these women serve their time, they're not the only ones to pay a price. Innocent victims are suffering for the crimes of others—they are the children of mothers behind bars.

According to a Department of Justice study, some 1.5 million minors had a parent in prison during the study year 1999—an increase of over a half million kids between 1991 and 1999. Today the number is likely even higher and some suggest that it has approached two million. The average age of these children is eight. Statistics show that many of them will be incarcerated as juvenile offenders, perpetuating a disturbing cycle of hopelessness and crime.

Because the U.S. prison population is overwhelmingly male, most incarcerated parents are fathers. Over 125,000 children, however, had a mother behind bars in the 1999 report—and that number is growing. The trend raises a troubling and difficult question: Who is taking care of these children?

According to the Department of Justice statistics, which were based on personal interviews in state and federal correctional facilities, it's usually not their fathers. Only 28 percent of the mothers in prison said that their child's father was the primary caregiver while they were imprisoned. Over half said that grandparents were responsible, while others said that their children were with other relatives or foster homes.

Sometimes substitute caregivers improve children's lives; other times they care little for their unwanted burdens. In all cases, the mother/child relationship suffers under such difficult conditions.

Children Behind Bars—With Their Mothers

The search for workable and healthy solutions is a difficult one, and approaches around the world vary widely. In India's Tihar Prison, Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling found that mothers among the massive prison's 500 female inmates are allowed to bring their children with them—to live within the prison walls.

The New Delhi prison, one of Asia's largest, allows mothers to keep their children with them until the child turns five. While the environment does have a family orientation it's still very much a prison where kids serve time with their mothers.

The arrangement is not without its nurturing aspects. Female prisoners run a "crèche" for the children—a sort of playschool where they spend their day from 9 to 5. Sabria, a prisoner who runs the crèche program, explained it to Ling: "We try and give them what is the basic education that the child needs at the age of five," she said, "and their schedule includes everything which is fun. They do exercises and all sorts of activities."

Three square meals a day and decent housing conditions are better than some of these inmates—mother or child—might expect on the outside.

At the end of the day, the kids enjoy the bonds of motherhood but they do so within prison walls. Those there since birth know of no other life. And after the age of five, the kids must leave the prison for another home on the outside, a hostel, with relatives, or perhaps even on the street.

Is Prison a Place for Children?

Continued on Next Page >>


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