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Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, Women in Prison in Ma, 2005

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March 2005

Erika Kates
Paige Ransford

Carol Cardozo

Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy
McCormack Graduate School of Public Policy
University of Massachusetts Boston


“The family is probably this country’s most valuable weapon in fighting crime. Prisoners who
receive visitors, maintain family ties, and are released to a stable home environment are more
likely to succeed in leading productive, crime-free lives.”

The National Context
In 2003, over 101,000 women in the U.S.
were incarcerated in federal and state
prisons (exceeding 100,000 for the first time
in history). Another 80,000 were held in
local jails, for a total of 182,000 women in
prison. While this is a relatively small
number compared to almost two million
incarcerated men, it is nevertheless a
significant number. Further, there has been
a steady and rapid increase in numbers of
incarcerated women (in 1980, 11,000
women were held in state and federal
prisons) and the annual rate of increase for
women is now greater than it is for men (5
percent compared to 3 percent).

supportive contact visiting between mother
and child; b) support for and monitoring of
children separated from their mothers; and
c) assistance for parents in understanding
how to interact with their children and to
become better parents.
Yet most children have little if any regular
contact with their incarcerated mothers. The
1997 national study also showed that 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. It also revealed that the number of
family contacts appeared to have declined
over the previous two decades.

In the absence of accurate data, we applied
the findings of studies showing that typically
60-80 percent of women in prison are
mothers of 2.3 children. We estimate that
136,000 of the 182,000 incarcerated women
were mothers of approximately 314,000
children under the age of 18 (20 percent of
whom were under the age of 5).

Most children are affected deeply by this
separation. Even children who have
experienced neglect may want information
about and some communication with their
mothers. In addition, many children are also
separated from their siblings.
Children’s responses to this separation vary
according to many factors—including their
ages and the information they have been
given. Generally, children between the ages
of two and six are more likely to experience
separation anxiety, guilt, and shame,
whereas older children may experience
withdrawal and rage.

Because 65 percent of women inmates were
the primary caretakers of their children
before being incarcerated (compared to 25
percent of male inmates), the children of
mothers in prison experience far greater
dislocation than do the children of male
prisoners. A national study in 1997 revealed
that 53 percent of children of women
inmates were placed with a grandparent, 28
percent of children went to their fathers, 25
percent went to other relatives, and 10
percent were placed in state custody.

Caregivers may create a “conspiracy of
silence” as they try to protect children from
what they consider embarrassing
information. Children sense this silence,
often interpreting it to mean their parents
are in danger, have rejected them, or that
they (the children) did something to drive
the parent away. Alternatively, caregivers
may lie to children, telling them that their
mothers are in the hospital or away on a

Maintaining Family Connections
Child welfare experts argue that three
critical components are necessary to
maintain the parent-child bonds between
mothers in prison and their children: a)


Without skilled intervention, children can
develop serious behavioral problems and
negative coping patterns, including poor
school performance, sexual aggression,
gang involvement, substance abuse, and
juvenile delinquency (one study found that
29 percent of the eleven- to fourteen-yearolds with mothers in prison subsequently
were arrested and/or incarcerated).

o Women’s personal histories often impede
family connections. It is widely
documented that women in prison have
experienced widespread abuse (emotional,
physical, and sexual) and have a high
incidence of drug abuse and mental health
o The length of women’s sentences affects
family connections. However, it is not only
the longer sentences that create problems
for family members. Research shows that
women who commit the types of offenses
that typically receive short sentences are
often recidivists and that their chances of
reunification decline dramatically each
time they are incarcerated.

Obstacles to Family Connections
The following factors, often in combination
with one another, have been identified by
researchers as creating obstacles to family
o The isolated location of women’s state
prisons, combined with poor or
nonexistent public transportation, creates
a significant barrier to maintaining family

o The dearth of data on women in prison
and their children restricts the
development of family connections policies
and resources. The lack of information on
the quality, quantity, and effectiveness of
prison programs and resources is also
problematic. Difficulties also arise from
women in prison who withhold data on
their children for fear their children will be
removed from their custody.

o Restrictive corrections policies governing
visits and phone contacts; the lack of
timely legal advice on child-custody
issues; inadequate substance-abuse and
mental health treatment; insufficient
parenting resources; lack of good-quality
pre- and postpartum care; the removal of
infants born to women in prison; and in
general the lack of availability of genderbased programming and gender-sensitive

Creating a Family Connections
Policy Framework
“Recognizing the centrality of women’s roles
as mothers provides an opportunity for the
criminal justice, medical, mental health,
legal, and social service agencies to develop
this role as an integral part of program and
treatment interventions for women.”

o Other state agencies’ policies also affect
family connections. Although child-welfare
agencies may require that children in their
care or under their supervision maintain
contact with their mothers, the availability
of staff and the isolated locations of
prisons may prevent regular contact.
Adoption policies designed to prevent
languishing children of speed in foster
care may lead to the speedier termination
of custody of women in prison; lack of
mental health and public health agencies’
involvement in prison programming may
limit women’s treatment options; and
welfare policies restricting benefits (cash,
housing, and food) for women with
criminal histories affect their chances of
reunification with their children.

o Women in prison have traditionally been
either ignored or marginalized, and not
until the past decade has the language of
gender-specific practices been even widely
discussed. The lack of a comprehensive
family connections policy framework
restricts both the development of family
connections policies and the means by
which to assess them. In the absence of
such a policy framework, we created the
Family Connections Policy Framework. It
has four components intended to span all
phases of involvement women may have


with law enforcement, criminal justice,
and corrections systems.

with them. We were unable to obtain these

o PREVENTION refers to policies designed
to prevent the separation of family
members in the first place by reducing the
numbers of women who are incarcerated,
especially for nonviolent offenses

o We know that on January 1, 2003, there
were 535 women in MCI Framingham
(Massachusetts’ only women’s prison).
This number represented only 6 percent
of the total inmate population, but
indicated a 7 percent increase over 2002
(compared to a 2 percent decrease for
men in the same period). Our survey
revealed that the average daily count in
2003 was over 660 women, but we know
that the total number of women passing
through the state prison during the year
was closer to 4,000. We know, too, that
approximately 80 new court commitments
were made to MCI Framingham, that
another 900 new commitments were
made to the houses of correction, and
that 114 pregnant and postpartum women
were held in MCI Framingham.

o ANTICIPATION refers to protocols to
anticipate the separation of mothers and
children at the points of arrest,
arraignment, and sentencing.
o ACCOMMODATION refers to policies to
facilitate family connections once women
are incarcerated, and addresses contacts,
therapeutic intervention, and parenting
o REUNIFICATION refers to policies to
ease women’s transition from prison to
the community, and to reunification with
their children.

o In the absence of more detailed data on
mothers and children, we combined
several data sources to estimate that a
total of 9,000 women were held in MCI
Framingham and the houses of correction
in 2003. We think that approximately
6,900 of these women in prison were
mothers of about 16,000 children.

o INFORMATION is generic to all four
components and addresses the availability
of data to inform policy needs
assessments, planning, implementation
and evaluation.
o We apply the Family Connections Policy
Framework to Massachusetts policies.
Since we are concerned here with
incarcerated women, we analyze the
INFORMATION components.

o Further, we identified the inmate
characteristics that are likely to affect
family connections. Women in MCI
Framingham are somewhat older than
women in houses of correction; they are
more likely to be women of color, to have
lower levels of education, to have
committed drug offenses, and to have
longer sentences. Women held in the
houses of correction are somewhat
younger and are more likely to be
incarcerated for “other” offenses,
including indecency, prostitution, and
driving under the influence of alcohol or
other substances.

Exploring Family Connections
Policies in Massachusetts
Before we describe family connections
policies, we provide a context for them by
describing Massachusetts’ current women’s
prison population and corrections facilities.

Mothers in Prison in Massachusetts

o Clearly, women in both MCI Framingham
and the houses of correction have a high
level of drug- and alcohol-related
offenses. In addition, a recent fact sheet
revealed that over 60 percent of women in
DOC custody have open mental health

In order to know how many children are
affected by mothers’ incarceration, we
wanted to know how many mothers are
incarcerated annually, how many children
they have, and how much contact they have


alcohol treatments. WIT is a minimum
prerelease facility, housing mostly women
from Essex County who have served
county time in Framingham. On any given
day, WIT holds 20-24 women, the
electronic monitoring unit holds 20
women, and the sobriety program holds
another 12 women.

o Over half of the women in MCI
Framingham have maximum sentences of
over 3 years (with 15 percent having
sentences longer than 10 years),
compared to almost 90 percent of the
women held in county facilities who are
sentenced to 12 months or less.

Four Correctional Facilities

Statewide Policies

We made site visits to the following
correctional facilities in 2003. They were
selected to represent diversity of age,
location, size, and purpose.

o The Massachusetts Department of
Corrections has a statewide phone policy
allowing prisoners to make only collect
calls. These calls must be made to a list
of people who have been approved by
correction officials, and no more than
fifteen names are allowed.

o MCI Framingham was established in the
late nineteenth century and is one of the
country’s oldest women’s prisons. The
prison is located in the eastern part of the
state, about forty miles from Boston, with
no direct public transportation to the
prison. It houses women with several
sentencing statuses, including women
awaiting trial, women serving “county
time” (sentences up to two and a half
years), women serving “state” sentences
(two and a half years or longer), women
incarcerated for civil offenses, and women
serving “federal time.” The sentenced
population is held at 125 percent of
capacity, and the Awaiting Trial Unit is
held at 288 percent of capacity.

o The Department of Social Services (DSS)
has clear statewide policies requiring that
children under their supervision—including
those with mothers in prison—regularly
visit their mothers. However, DSS also
implements Massachusetts Adoption Law,
enacted in 1998 and designed to ensure
that children under the supervision of the
department receive permanent
placements—preferably adoption—in as
short a time frame as possible. The
decision to terminate a parent’s custody
may be made if a child has spent fifteen
of the preceding twenty-two months in
foster care. For children under the age of
four, proceedings to terminate parental
rights may occur within six months of
separation from the mother, and for older
children these proceedings may occur
after twelve months of separation.

o The Hampden County House of
Correction, opened in 1992, is a
maximum-security facility located in
Ludlow, western Massachusetts, without
access to convenient public transportation.
It is a coeducational facility, housing over
1,000 men and 150-160 women.

o The Department of Transitional
Assistance’s (formerly the Department of
Welfare) statewide policy, Chapter 5, was
implemented in 1996. It adopts an
optional policy that renders women with
criminal records, especially for drug
offenses, ineligible for receiving cash
assistance and food stamps. Under
Housing and Urban Development policies,
women may also be denied subsidized
housing benefits. These resources are
essential for mothers who wish to be
reunited with their children.

o The Suffolk County House of Correction
opened in 1991, replacing a prison on
Deer Island. Located in central Boston, it
has easy access to public transportation.
It is also a coeducational facility, housing
approximately 1,300 men and 100-120
o The Essex County Women in Transition
(WIT) Program opened in 2000 and is
located in Salisbury on the same site as
electronic monitoring and a drug and


The Four Sites’ Institutional Policies
o The isolated setting and lack of transportation in several facilities place extra burdens on
maintaining family connections and in communicating with attorneys and social workers. Extra
burdens are experienced by the families of women who have not yet been sentenced and are
held in the overcrowded Awaiting Trial Unit at MCI Framingham.
o Visiting policies were different in every institution, but only one county house of correction that
responded to our survey did not permit contact visits between mothers and their children.
However, not one of the sites we visited had a visiting room that was both fully equipped for
children and large enough to accommodate all the families who wanted to use it. Despite the
long trips some children take to visit their mothers and with the extra time required to wait to
enter the facilities, only one venue allows children to bring snacks (clear fluids only).
o Phone call policies, which one might expect to be less problematic than visits, were in fact quite
restrictive. Although one facility had no limits, in general there are restrictions on the number
and length of calls inmates can make, children cannot call in to their mothers, and caregivers
often refuse or block collect calls from incarcerated mothers.
o The presence of clearly written protocols between DSS and some institutions facilitates visits by
children under DSS supervision. Caseworkers who bring children to visit their mothers are not
searched and do not have to wait in line as long as other visitors.
o There appear to be wide variations among the facilities in the availability of parenting resources
and in the presence of experienced personnel working with women on family issues (legal,
emotional, and educational).
o Volunteer groups, such as the Girls Scouts, ministers, religious groups, attorneys, and
community based groups, are a mainstay of support, but their existence is often tenuous
because of their dependence on external funding and institutional authorization.
o Therapeutic treatment appears to be fragmented rather than holistic. Considering the high
incidence of mental illness, substance abuse, and sexual trauma among women, often it is not
effective to address one problem at a time. Yet few correctional facilities have adopted a
gender-specific approach that recognizes that women’s circumstances require special
o Small-scale community-based prereleases centers, like WIT, and the South Middlesex Center,
with connections with community-based programs, appear to be highly conducive to
maintaining family relationships.
o A sizeable obstacle to mothers’ successful transitions from prison to community life is a decline
in supportive resources for families outside prison – especially income, food stamps, and
housing. Participation in work release is a critical resource, especially when security concerns
can be addressed through the use of electronic bracelets. However, we do not know the
extent to which these valuable work-release opportunities are parlayed into jobs after women
are released.


o We have no accurate data on the number of mothers and children affected by mothers’
imprisonment. We do not know how many children visit or maintain contact in any way, or
how well they are doing.
o WIT maintains data on inmates’ characteristics, children, activities, and programmatic options.
However, in general the large amounts of data collected by state and county correctional
facilities are not necessarily relevant for family connections, or even consistent with each other.
o Women’s reluctance to reveal they have children is an obstacle to family connections. It is an
unfortunate irony that inmates who are reluctant to reveal they have children out of fear of
losing custody of them are more likely to lose custody because they do not maintain contact
with them, resulting in a “catch-22 situation.”
o We do not know the extent to which other state agencies generate data that address the family
connections of women in prison. We think it unlikely that the data necessary to facilitate family
connections are analyzed and discussed within and between agencies.
o We do not know how many children receiving welfare benefits are unable to apply for cash,
housing subsidies, health care or food stamps, or how many women whose children are in DSS
care lose custody of their children each year.
o Our study was limited by the fact that it did not include a review of data from the Department
of Public Health. The Department has instituted important programs for women prisoners and
has numerous data on HIV/AIDS, however, we did not examine the (significant) issue of
HIV/AIDS among women prisoners and the special implications it has for family connections.

We concur with the following quote from the Harshbarger report on the overall status of

“Women [in Massachusetts] generally have many fewer options (especially relative to their
greater needs) than men do. Even though there are fewer women in the system, the state must
respond to their needs…There should be a dedicated external review of the unique issues
pertaining to female offenders.”
And recommend the following comprehensive, long term and short-term strategies.

Comprehensive Strategies
o Acknowledge that female offenders in general and women in prison in particular have special
needs that are largely overlooked within the criminal justice and corrections systems, and that
it is unacceptable to marginalize women based on the rationale that they constitute only a
relatively small proportion of the prison population. Delineate areas of responsibility for
developing and maintaining gender specific approaches.
o Apply the Family Connections Policy Framework we developed in this project to assess the
current status of family connections policies. Commission a thorough review of current


resources and policies throughout corrections facilities and undertake a detailed inventory-quality and quantity—of existing resources in prisons serving women and family connections.
o Develop system-wide, gender-specific, and holistic treatment approaches that not only address
parenting programs but also address women’s histories of emotional, sexual, and physical
abuse, as well as their drug and mental health problems.
o Assess the effectiveness of all resources and policies through timely and consistent evaluations
of participation levels, quality, relevance, and satisfaction; enable follow-up studies to measure
program/policy impacts. Acknowledge and reward innovative and successful programs.
o Encourage correctional personnel to share innovative approaches and to communicate with,
and learn from, one another. Establish collaborative relationships among corrections, state and
private agencies to prepare women to gain access to treatment, housing, jobs, education,
childcare, and financial resources on their reentry to the community.
o Review state public assistance and housing policies regarding mothers’ eligibility for benefits
and subsidies.
o Expand the focus of the Family Connections Policy Framework to include the PREVENTION and
ANTICIPATION components.

Short-Term Strategies
o Expand transportation options to facilitate and increase prison visits.
o Establish contact visits for families at all facilities. Create family-friendly visiting rooms with
sufficient space to accommodate all families.
o Allow children to bring snacks into correctional facilities or have food available for them.
o Encourage mothers to engage in age-appropriate reading and play with children.
o Facilitate phone contact between mothers and children.
o Establish consistency of services and visits by volunteer and outside organizations.
o Encourage mothers and children to exchange letters, drawings, photographs, and audiotapes.
o Supervise visits and provide support to families that have a history of difficult relationships with
children and other family members.
o Increase opportunities for weekend furloughs overnight family visits, work release, and
utilization of community services.
o Use visits as a teaching tool: create instructive, supportive preparation and debriefings around
family visits.


o Permit women awaiting trial and serving nonviolent sentences on parole to be monitored with
electronic bracelets, allowing them greater freedom of movement to visit family members.
o Conduct confidential interviews with women in prison to ascertain the number who have
children, identify their concerns, and ascertain children’s circumstances.
o Provide accessible information to family members on regulations affecting family connections,
e.g., phone and visiting policies, and transportation options.
Finally, 2004 brought a number of positive changes. With a new Corrections Commissioner, an
active female offender specialist, and comprehensive reports from two distinguished
Commissions—Criminal Justice and Corrections—we are optimistic that the time is ripe for
discussion and action to improve awareness of the special problems of women in prison and to
highlight the importance of maintaining family connections both for these families and for