Mass Incarceration Impacts Mothers and Their Children

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Seventy-five percent of women serving time in prisons or jails are also primary caregivers for children. While these women are incarcerated, their children often live in foster care. Women of color are particularly impacted: According to a 2010 study produced by Pew Charitable Trusts, one in nine black children has a parent incarcerated, compared to only one in 57 white children. In an October 2018 report for Women’s eNews, Sage Howard writes that, “adding the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] to the US Constitution would help ensure that women are paid equally, thereby providing greater financial resources for women most affected by mass incarceration.” Howard’s article documents how mass incarceration impacts not only the women who are incarcerated, but also “the people who need them most,” their children.

Howard describes these children—some 2.4 million of them—as “the hidden victims” of their parents’ incarceration. Children whose mothers are serving time may only be allowed limited visits, or no visits at all, in some instances. This lack of support can have “harsh effects” on children’s wellbeing, impacting their financial and mental health.

A federal law, the Adoption and Safe Families Act—passed in 1997 by former President Clinton—gives states the right to terminate parents’ rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the most recent 22 months. The purpose of the act, Howard reports, is to prevent children from spending long periods in foster care, in practice “thousands of mothers have lost their parental rights to their children since the average sentencing time for a mother is 36 months.” The result is often permanent separation, with children placed in homes with strangers who are paid to care for them, or in state agencies where they run the risk of never being adopted.

In addition to the passage of the ERA, Howard considers other possible solutions. For example, courts could take into greater consideration primary caretaker status when determining bails and sentence. Instead of sending women to jail and separating them from their children for long periods of time, we can use more resources like drug treatment, mental services and health services.

Source: Sage Howard Sage, “How the ERA Can Keep Incarcerated Mothers in Their Children’s Lives,” Women’s eNews, October 31, 2018,

Student Researchers: Dominic Borgo, Lusila Cruz, Jessica Fenech, Lucy Valdez (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (Sonoma State University)