Methods: The first phase of this study was a survey to all incarcerated women within a Midwestern state prison. Within the sample of 832 women who completed the survey, 390 women (46.9%) were mothers of minor-age children. Women completed measures of childhood and adulthood experiences including details about parenting with each child. The second phase of this study was semi-structured individual interviews with mothers of minor-age children who had completed the survey. A sample of 50 mothers was selected and stratified based on factors including race, CW system involvement, and contact with child. A total of 42 women participated in the interviews. They ranged in age from 23 to 52 years old and almost half identified as White/Caucasian, 41 percent as Black/African American, 10 percent as Hispanic/Latinx and 2 percent as Asian. Life history calendars guided the interview process to elicit women’s experiences during their time incarcerated. Thematic analysis was conducted with interview data and included open and fixed coding in iterative processes to identify themes and patterns.
Results: All interviewed mothers spoke of experiencing forms of powerlessness in regards to parenting while incarcerated. Specifically, some women of color detailed the ways in which racism permeates all aspects of prison life and impacts their parenting practices. Women’s descriptions of involvement in the CW system ranged from using temporary guardianship as a protective action to experiences of termination of parental rights. A majority described harmful experiences including being deprived visits with children and lack of transparency about processes. Women who had lost their parental rights and/or were not in contact with their children described a particular form of grief for which no programmatic resources exist. Overall, mechanisms of isolation exist within the prison context that constrain parenting, including forms of stigma, environmental hazards, defunct phones, restrictive mailing practices, abusive staff interactions, tensions with caregivers, and limited parenting resources. Women outlined needed changes to facilitate improved relationships with their children.
Implications: Incarcerated mothers face barriers, deprivations, and losses related to parenting. Their needs span changing how they are treated on a daily basis to changing the isolation of imprisonment. These findings highlight the need for decarceration efforts and to reduce the harms occurring at the intersections of CJ and CW systems involvement.