In the U.S. in 2023, there are about 172,700 incarcerated women and girls, according to research and advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative. Many are among those prisoners—both male and female—who together have an estimated 2.7 million to 3.6 million minor children. A recent report on a special program for moms and their kids in Illinois cautions that “more children are being separated from their mothers, putting them at greater risk of health and behavioral problems and making them vulnerable to abuse and displacement.”
The number of incarcerated women dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic because of slowdowns in the criminal justice system. But prison and jail populations have returned to pre-pandemic numbers along with a troubling asterisk —women’s incarceration rate has grown at twice the pace of men’s in recent decades.
Programs exist nationwide, but nowhere near the number needed to limit the damage to children separated from incarcerated mothers. Existing programs vary in their focus and scope, but all have a mission to support mothers and children during the difficult period of the mother’s incarceration. Typical programs include parenting classes, in-person visitation, telephone and video visitation, letter writing and preparation for re-entry to life beyond bars. Other organizations provide varying degrees of counseling, advocacy and financial assistance.
Illinois has one of the few programs that provides in-person visitation on a recurring basis for the families of incarcerated women. Reunification Ride, an initiative financed mainly by donations, provides bus service covering the 180 miles from Chicago to the state’s largest prison for women and transgender individuals, Logan Correctional Center (LCC) in Lincoln.
Prisoners at LCC call Reunification Ride a crucial lifeline. Said one, Joshlyn Allen, “Some people don’t get to see their kids at all.” Families can bring only essentials to these visits, such as diapers. So prisoners make decorations, mainly from brightly colored paper, so that children see more than grim prison walls when they reunite with their mothers.
“Incarcerated women tend to be the primary caregivers and often are the breadwinners, meaning children whose mothers are imprisoned are frequently displaced or enter the child welfare system,” according to Prof. Gina Fedock at the University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice.
Fedock studies the “ambiguous loss” of a parent in prison and reports that this loss can cause health issues, developmental delays, behavioral problems and issues with schooling. She points to the value of programs like Reunification Ride that maintain the maternal bond and believes “they can reduce the traumatic effect of parental incarceration on the children.”
Reunification Ride previously operated on public money, a source of funding that dried up in 2015 during Illinois’ two-year budget impasse. The initiative is now funded by non-profits who rely on crowdsourcing and volunteers to keep the buses rolling. Each trip has a price tag of $3,000 to $3,500.
The Reunification Ride initiative is what experts call an “enhanced visitation program” designed to promote a positive experience for children visiting a prison. Without it, children can experience distress when passing through “invasive and scary” security controls, spending time in “noisy and sterile” visiting areas and not allowed physical contact with their mothers.
According to Addressing the Needs of Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children in Illinois, a report from Chapin Hall of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, “Enhanced visitation programs …typically allow for visits of longer duration, with physical contact, in child-friendly environments with toys, games and books. Mothers may receive coaching or guidance on interacting with their children. To be eligible for these programs, mothers may need to participate in parenting classes or support groups, but most have relatively few eligibility requirements or exclusion criteria.”
LCC also offers two parenting programs—Mommy and Me Camp and Operation Storybook. The camp gives children the opportunity to spend part of the day with their mothers at prison while also participating in traditional camping activities. Operation Storybook gives incarcerated mothers and grandmothers the chance to record themselves reading a book, after which the recording and the book are then sent to the child. The only criticisms are that the initiatives are not consistently available and not geared towards mothers of teenagers.
In addition to the camp and book-reading programs, LCC offers parenting groups to mothers, though groups are often moderated by other incarcerated moms. Women who have participated have expressed both concerns about confidentiality and a wish for trained professional leaders.
Additional source: AP News
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