Children whose mothers are incarcerated are at higher risk of a range of adverse consequences, including dropping out of school and ending up behind bars themselves. Indeed, a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggested that parental incarceration can have as many negative impacts on a child’s well-being as child abuse or domestic violence.
Maintaining family ties can help ease the trauma of separation for mothers and children, an Urban Institute study noted. But institutional barriers — such as courts and child welfare agencies that oversee custody decisions and prisons that regulate parents’ access to their children — keep families apart, Umeh said.
“How do you consider yourself a mother when someone else tells you how and when you can see your children?” she says.
Umeh’s interview subjects largely reflect the national profile of incarcerated women. Most are African-American women convicted of non-violent offenses, ranging from drug-related incidents to what Umeh calls acts of “economic survival,” like a mother who stole children’s clothes from a Walmart. . And like many women trapped in the criminal justice system, Umeh said incarcerated mothers often experienced abusive childhoods themselves.
However, even behind bars, many mothers in Umeh’s survey sought ways to cling to their maternal identity, with some even choosing not to let their children visit them. “It may not look like traditional mothering,” she explained, “but they say, ‘I always do the act of mothering by protecting my children, even if that means protecting them from me and my environment.'”
And for most, their burden does not end with their release. Umeh recalled a woman who, after a series of misdemeanors, was stripped of her nursing assistant and bartending licenses. She was forced to lie about her criminal record while applying for a job as a waitress, but was fired when her employer found out. “What does reintegration mean if you cannot reenter the labor market? Umeh said. “How do you go on with your life? »
The next phase of Umeh’s research will focus on mother-child reunions and feature the contributions of institutional actors – social workers, child protection officers and judges – across the justice system in family from Washington, DC. In the meantime, she plans to adapt her research to a book project. She is already introducing women’s stories in her undergraduate class on black feminist perspectives and criminal justice.
Intense interviews can be tiring, Umeh said, often leaving her emotionally drained. “It takes, it takes a toll,” she admitted. Yet she was sustained by the resilience of the women who entrust their stories to her. Even in their most difficult times, she noted, most were determined to chart a brighter course for their family’s future.
“It’s moving to see how determined they are to get their kids back, to start new jobs, to stay sober,” she said. “We know they face an uphill battle. But their optimism is inspiring.