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Massachusetts DOC Fails to Meet Women's Special Needs

by Michael Rigby

The failure of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (MDOC) to address the special needs of women in prison impedes the effective maintenance of family ties, according to a March 2005 research report by the University of Massachusetts's Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy.

In 2003, 182,000 women were imprisoned in the U.S. Of these, 136,000 were mothers of approximately 314,000 children under age 18, the researchers estimated. Because 65% of these mothers had been the children's primary caretaker before their imprisonment (compared to 25% for male prisoners), the children of mothers in prison experience far greater dislocation than do the children of male prisoners.
Though most experts agree that regular contact with children is essential for maintaining the parent-child relationship, this sadly is not the case for many imprisoned women. The report notes a 1997 national study that found half of the mothers in prison never received a visit from their children, one-third never received a phone call, and one-fifth never received mail.

This separation has devastating consequences on the children. Those aged 2-6 are predisposed to separation anxiety, guilt, and shame, while older children may experience withdrawal or rage. Many also develop serious behavioral problems. One study cited by the report found that 29% of 11 to 14-year-olds whose mothers were in prison were subsequently arrested and/or imprisoned.

The report noted a number of obstacles to maintaining family ties, including the generally inaccessible location of prisons, restrictive policies governing visitation and phone privileges, inadequate substance abuse and mental health treatment, and, upon release, welfare policies that restrict aid to women with criminal histories, especially those convicted of drug offenses.

To counter these obstacles as they apply to female prisoners in Massachusetts, the researchers designed the Family Connections Policy Framework, which spans all phases of involvement women may have with law enforcement, criminal justice, and corrections systems." With regard specifically to women in Massachusetts prisons, the researchers advocate, among other things: 1) fostering mother-child relationships by maintaining family-friendly visitation areas and visitation policies, facilitating phone contact, and encouraging the exchange of letters, drawings, photographs, and audiotapes; 2) expanding opportunities for weekend furloughs, overnight visits, and work release; and, 3) ascertaining the number of women prisoners with children, identifying their concerns, and assessing the children's circumstances.

Unfortunately, the problems faced by women in Massachusetts prisons are emblematic of those faced by female prisoners nationwide. As the report observes, responsible prison administrators must recognize and accommodate the gender-specific needs of women in prisonneeds that should not be ignored simply because they represent a small percentage of the overall prison population.

Source: Women In Prison In Massachusetts: Maintaining Family Connections

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