System Changes Could Improve Relationships between Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children

The dramatic increase in the number of women in state and federal prisons in recent decades has led to calls for gender-responsive policies and practices that address the needs and circumstances of incarcerated women and recognize the central role that motherhood plays in many incarcerated women’s lives. This brief describes the results of a project undertaken by researchers from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration to inform the development and implementation of policies and practices that address the needs of incarcerated mothers in Illinois and reduce the impact of incarceration on their children. The study highlights ways in which incarceration creates barriers to parenting and limits contact between incarcerated mothers and their children. It also draws attention to programs across the country that are working to address those barriers and mitigate the negative impacts of incarceration on both mothers and their children.

What We Did

Researchers interviewed a sample of 42 incarcerated mothers at Logan Correctional Center in Illinois to learn about the experiences of being a parent while in prison; conducted an environmental scan to identify programs that are addressing the needs of incarcerated mothers and children across the country; and interviewed program administrators, other researchers, and advocates to learn more about how the needs of incarcerated mothers and their children are being addressed and the barriers to addressing those needs.

What We Found

  • Mothers at Logan Correctional Center are constrained in their ability to parent and face multiple barriers to maintaining relationships with their children.
  • Parenting programs have not been consistently available and not all mothers are eligible to participate in the programs that do exist.
  • Mothers need help keeping in contact with their children from Logan Correctional, especially children living out-of-state or in foster care, but correctional staff are not always responsive to their requests for help.
  • Mothers identified regular contact with their children as vital to their mental health and expressed a need for mental health services that can help them cope with the range of feelings they experience as parents in prison.
  • Mothers must carefully manage relationships with their children’s caregivers; those who had at least one child in foster care reported negative experiences with the child welfare system.
  • Programs for incarcerated mothers and their children often depend on funding from multiple sources.
  • Few programs are evidence-based and resources for evaluation are limited. However, many programs collect data from participants to inform implementation.

What It Means

The Illinois Department of Corrections and correctional systems in other states could help incarcerated mothers maintain relationships with their children and enhance their ability to parent from inside prison by:

  • Facilitating communication between mothers and their children by mail or phone;
  • Improving visitation policies and procedures;
  • Enhancing parenting programs;
  • Increasing the availability of support services; and
  • Providing alternatives to incarceration.
Addressing the Needs of Incarcerated Mothers