The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 8, 2013

The Ties that Bind: Helping Mothers Behind Bars

May 8, 2013

Talk with any mother behind bars and it won’t take long before she starts sharing about her kids. Whether parent to a two-year old or a twenty-two year old, an incarcerated woman’s attachments to her children are typically quite strong.  As part of our longitudinal study of prisoner reentry in Texas, we asked incarcerated women what they were most looking forward to after leaving prison. The overwhelming response was “reuniting with my children.” The number-one response for male prisoners?  A tie between “calling my own shots” and “pizza.”

This stark contrast between how women and men view the prospect of returning home illustrates one of many differences in their respective incarceration experiences.  Although all prisoners face major hurdles during the reentry process, several unique factors make women’s challenges distinct from those of men:

  • Women are more likely to get prison time for property and drug possession offenses. They often have serious, long-term substance abuse histories and are more likely than men to have mental and physical health problems, such as clinical depression, asthma, and sexually transmitted diseases, none of which are conducive to a smooth transition.
  • Women often struggle to secure stable employment and housing following their release from prison. They are much less likely than men to have been employed before prison, to receive any job training while in prison, or to participate in job placement services upon their release.  These employment challenges may thwart efforts to find and maintain housing; 59 percent of women had moved at least once in the eight to ten months after release, compared to only 39 percent of men.

Despite these obstacles, most incarcerated women have a key asset that their male counterparts often lack: strong ties to their children. Our research found that women with minor children are more likely to have jobs and less likely to use drugs following release from prison, suggesting their children provide a strong incentive to lead clean and law abiding lives.

The power of these strong maternal ties suggests that policies and programs that maintain and enhance contact with children behind bars are crucial to successful reentry. Policies should be implemented that allow mothers to stay in close contact with their children and family members while they are incarcerated, such as housing them in prison close to their communities, creating family friendly visitation environments,  and allowing for flexible visitation schedules.

By promoting strong family ties, policy makers can help women navigate the challenges they face during reentry and enable them to return to what they look forward to the most: reuniting with their children.

Image from California Prison Industry Authority

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.

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