Editorial: Mothers in Prison; Children in Crisis

Mothers Day 2000. This should be a time to celebrate bonds that develop between mother and child. In a society that professes to foster family values we would expect that the state of California would do all in its power to protect families and nurture the mother/child relationship. But California has more women in prison than any other state, and children are being torn from their mothers and some communities (particularly communities of color) are being completely ripped apart.
The only program that the California Department of Corrections has which has consistently reduced recidivism rates is the community Prisoner Mother Infant Program.
This program, which has been around for more than 15 years, allowed selected women to live with their young children in a group home setting. While the mothers were still prisoners, the children definitely were not. Mothers received parenting training; children received quality care. These programs were contracted to agencies outside CDC. One of the most successful of these programs was in Salinas, as can be seen from the letters from women in the program on pages 4-5. But success doesn’t seem to matter to the CDC, and the Salinas program is being shut down, along with most of the other Community Mother-Infant Programs in the state. The model has been changed to a larger, more “cost-effective” institutional setting.
Approximately 80% of women prisoners are mothers of dependent children. Most of them were sole caregivers before their incarceration. While their mom is in prison, many of the children stay with grandparents, aunts and older sisters. Many are being cared for by friends and many more are in foster care.
All of us who visit women in prison have witnessed small children being searched and x-rayed as they have gone to visit their moms. We have seen children being sent away because they are wearing the wrong clothing or have inquate identification. We have seen the tears as children must leave at the end of a visit without their moms. And we wonder, where are those family values now?
In California, the cutback in family visiting has had a disastrous effect on families of women who are doing life terms. While it used to be that women could spend a 48-hour period with their children and members of their immediate families, the CDC has determined that this is “coddling” life-term prisoners. And where does that leave family values?
The number of women in prison is increasing dramatically. Most women are doing time for non-violent crimes. As long as this society depends on punishment and incarceration to solve deep and complicated problems, women and their children will be separated. This Mother’s Day, as we’re barraged by Hallmark phrases about the importance of motherhood, remember that women in prison are mothers as well, and they have not lost their human right to preserve strong bonds with their children.