Abstract: Reclaiming Visions of the Future: Incarcerated Mothers and the Right to Parent with Dignity (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Reclaiming Visions of the Future: Incarcerated Mothers and the Right to Parent with Dignity

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Encanto B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Celina Doria, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Gina Fedock, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Marion Malcome, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background: Approximately 80 percent of women involved in the criminal legal system are mothers. The mass incarceration of women has generated various structural barriers to parenting, including shackling during childbirth, funnelling children into the child welfare (CW) system, and limiting access to communication with their children while incarcerated. From a reproductive justice framework, these barriers contribute to forms of racialized and gendered dehumanization of incarcerated parents. In spite of the many reproductive oppressions they experience, incarcerated women also employ numerous strategies of resistance to navigate these often dehumanizing barriers and reclaim their right to parent with dignity. This study explored incarcerated mothers’ envisioned futures (e.g., their plans, hopes, and fears) and examined how they use envisioning their futures as a strategy of resistance that re-affirms their humanity and dignity.

Methods: This research draws on 42 semi-structured interviews conducted with incarcerated mothers within a large, Midwestern state prison. A purposeful sample of 50 incarcerated 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, 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 the research team and included open and fixed coding in iterative processes to identify themes and patterns in the data.

Results: All interviewed mothers spoke of the future in relation to the embodiment of mothering. For some women, the future holds the promise and hope of reunification and healing with children; it holds motherhood as envisioned, yearned for, hoped for, and as promised to their children. Women described how the future carries the possibility for fresh starts—to “become” a mother again, rebuild relationships with distant children, or to start anew by caring for grandchildren. The future, as imagined, also contains fear, from the hardship of facing their children’s feelings of anger and resentment to navigating logistical barriers like access to housing, transportation, and financial support that make mothering possible. Some women acknowledged the pain of not being able to reunite with children upon release due to the termination of parental rights and how they resist this loss. These incarcerated mothers’ visions of the future highlight the various ways in which motherhood identity is negotiated, reclaimed, yearned for, and contested in the face of reproductive oppressions.

Implications: These findings highlight and provide depth to a crucial aspect of reproductive justice: securing and protecting the right for incarcerated mothers to parent safely and with dignity. While enduring reproductive oppressions, their visions of the future offer possibilities of healing, reunification, and the reclamation of motherhood identities. These envisioned futures provide insights for social work research, practices, and policies that are needed in furthering reproductive justice for incarcerated mothers.