Mothers Behind Bars—powerful new report card

Thursday, November 04, 2010

At ACRJ, we think a lot about Strong Families. We talk to people and hear their contributions to the Strong Families stories project.  We think about the kind of changes we need to make in policy and in our culture to support all families to thrive.  And we think about our own extended families and the web of relationships, resources and networks that support us.  

As we explore these questions, it becomes clear that Strong Families build strong communities, and that this support nourishes each of us on the long road of life, shoring us up in the hard times and celebrating our success.  And it is clear that there are a few keystones in this structure.

One is access to ample resources to support the basic functioning of a family: food, shelter, care and safety.   Another is the ability to remain together to provide and share that support.  There are many things that can get in the way of that--one of the harshest is the detention and incarceration of mothers and fathers.

Mothers Behind Bars, a report by The Rebecca Project for Human Rights and the National Women's Law Center, sheds light on conditions behind bars for mothers.  It also adds illuminates a few sweeping and essential steps we can take toward reversing the crisis. 

The report points out, through a combination of detailed research and an insistence on seeing the big picture, the interlocking problems of over-incarceration and under-treatment.  The report explains:
The U.S. has over one and a half million people incarcerated, a higher per capita incarceration rate than any other nation in the world....We encourage states and the federal government to take a serious look at the types of investments in social services, education, mental health care and drug treatment and addiction prevention to stem the tide of over-incarceration.

Twenty-five years ago, the presence of women--especially mothers--was an aberration in the criminal justice system.  Following the introduction of mandatory sentencing to the federal drug laws in the mid-1980's, the number of women in prison has increased by 400%.  The percentage of females incarcerated for drug offenses now surpasses that of males.  Most of these women are non-violent, first-time offenders.

The shared narrative arc of incarcerated women and mothers behind bars is that of repeated experiences of brutal sexual and physical victimization, generally begun during girlhood.  In the absence of access to mental health services, many of those vulnerable mothers turned to self-medicating with illegal substances.  rather than being treated for trauma, depression, addiction and the other indelible injuries of violence, those mothers have been displaced into the criminal justice system.
In addition to setting the stage and helping readers put their findings into a meaningful context, the report issues grades for all fifty states on prenatal care, shackling, and family-based treatment as an alternative to incarceration.  Some states also have some prison nurseries, which they evaluated.  The authors note that while prison nurseries are better than nothing, alternative, family-based treatment programs are best for mothers and their children.

The report points to ample evidence that recidivism is lower, foster care costs are reduced, and other outcomes are improved when mothers can get care and treatment and still be with their children.

It also reminds us over and over of the immeasurable benefits of treating  people who are hurt, of keeping families together, and ending devastating cycles of pain and loss.  "Redirecting the massive resources currently devoted to imprisonment will save far more than money; it will strengthen families, improve the quality of lives, and help millions escape the indignities that are inherent in imprisonment."

Thank you, The Rebecca Project for Human Rights and National Women's Law Center for this meticulous and moving report.

No comments:

Post a Comment