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The Effects of Incarceration on Mothers and their Children: A Critical discussion Research Paper


Historically, women in prison and their children have attracted minimal interest from scholars, policy makers and mainstream commentators in spite of the deleterious effects occasioned by incarceration on inmate mothers, their children and all of society (Luke, 2002). With the dramatic increase in female incarceration rates in the United States due to radical shifts in sentencing and drug policies, however, concern for the population has substantially grown in recent years (Allen et al., 2010).

The present paper aims to discuss the effects of incarceration on mothers and their children, drawing on current literature to analyze these detrimental effects using three theoretical perspectives of human behavior, namely the ecological systems model, family systems model and the rational choice theory.

Statement of the Problem & Justification

A meta-analytic review of literature demonstrates that inmate mothers, their children, and all of society experience damaging effects as a direct result of maternal incarceration, especially in terms of pain and loss occasioned by enforced separation (Greenfield 2011; Holmes et al., 2010; Hagen & Myers, 2003).

But while numerous studies have examined the effects of incarceration on mothers and their children, little is known about the theoretical interpretations to these adverse outcomes, leading to haphazard and disorganized interventions that neither address the real issues nor provide the victims with viable alternatives (Holmes et al., 2010).

The present paper, therefore, aims to evaluate the effects of incarcerated women and their children through the lens of the mentioned theoretical perspectives. The justification is premised on the urgent need to provide theoretical interpretations to these deleterious outcomes of maternal incarceration, with the view to provide viable interventions and inform policy directions aimed at addressing the challenges.

Incidence, Prevalence & Economic Cost

Extant literature demonstrates that the U.S. prison population has increased 500% over the last three decades to stand at 2.1 million people as per figures released in 2010 by The Sentencing Project (Allen et al., 2010). Female incarceration rates, in particular, have increased at an unparalleled rate over the last 30 years and in all the 50 states, making women the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population.

These authors acknowledge that “…as of June 2006, there were 203,100 women incarcerated in jails and prisons – nearly 10% of the total U.S. prison and jail population” (p. 160). An estimated two-thirds of these women in correctional institutions were mothers of young children, and 64% of them had coexisted with their children before they were successfully imprisoned for various offenses.

As noted by Luke (2002), an exact count of the number of children whose mothers are in various correctional facilities is unavailable although estimations from government agencies and direct service organizations provide some useful insights into the magnitude and complexity of the problem.

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that women incarcerated in jails or prisons as well as women on parole were cumulatively “…responsible for the care of an estimated 1.9 million dependent children, 89% of whom were younger than 12” (Luke, 2002 p. 932). It is indeed worrying to note that in excess of 10 million children in the U.S. have had at least one parent incarcerated or arrested at some time during their early developmental years (Luke, 2002).

A strand of existing literature (e.g., Luke, 2002; Allen et al., 2010; Holmes et al., 2010) demonstrates that women and children most inflicted by the social problem of maternal incarceration are among the most subjugated, demoralized and vulnerable of populations, not only in the United States but also globally.

The U.S. Department of Justice cited in Luke (2002) acknowledges that “…women who become incarcerated are usually poorly educated single mothers from communities of color who are living in poverty and struggling to be the sole financial and emotional providers for their children” (Luke, 2002).

Owing to the fact that children are assumed to have the same race/ethnicity as their incarcerated parent, it is obvious that children of color are far more likely than white children to have a mother or father in correctional institutions.

The literature has consistently documented the economic cost of incarcerated women to the society. In 2008, for instance, “…federal, state, and local governments spent nearly $75 billion on corrections, with the large majority on incarceration” (Schmitt et al., 2010 p. 10).

Many incarcerated women are of prime working age and are unable to work upon incarceration, therefore less likely to supply services and talents needed by community for socioeconomic development (Watts & Nightingale, n.d.), and also less likely to cater for their needs once out of prison (Holmes, 2010).These dynamics entrench the vicious cycle of dependency on free social support services, further impoverishing the economic standing of communities.

Children of incarcerated women are less likely to achieve quality education, not mentioning that they are exposed to the real probability of developing various mental and emotional disorders that will have obvious economic consequences for the society in terms of treatment, social support and further entrenchment of dependency culture (DeHart & Altshuler, 2009).

Additionally, the foster care system and care givers are put under significant economic strain as federal and state agencies become enjoined in providing basic needs and necessities to children of incarcerated mothers. There exists evidence to prove that while some caregiver families “…do receive foster care subsidies to help meet the needs of children in their care, these funds are often insufficient, forcing families to fall deeper into poverty and marginalization” (p. 15).

In terms of foster care systems, extant literature demonstrates considerable shortage in federal, state and local financing for foster agencies entrusted with taking care of children while their mothers serve their prison and jail terms (Fryer, 2006). Consequently, the society suffers economically as taxpayers’ money is used to provide the necessary economic stipends for the foster system and foster families to function.

The Ecological Systems Model (Macro Theory)

Bronfenbrenner (1979) cited in Holmes et al (2010) provided the framework for the ecological systems model “…when he expanded on traditional definitions of environment by describing a set of nested contexts that influence individual development directly or indirectly” (p. 77).

The ecological systems model not only acknowledges the importance of the immediate settings in which an individual lives and develops to explain human behavior, but also underscores the fundamental value of the relationships between the identified settings and the larger framework in which these settings are embedded.

The model is grounded on four contexts or settings, namely

  • microsystem – setting in which the developing individual interacts with the physical, social and symbolic features of the environment,
  • mesosystem – setting consisting of two or more microsystems serving as a link between the information, knowledge, and attitudes that exist between a person’s social worlds and relationships,
  • exosytem – remote system that involves settings that do not contain the developing individual but which indirectly influence the immediate environment in which the individual lives,
  • macrosystem – the most intricate and distal system encompassing the overarching social structures, customs, values and beliefs that define a particular culture or subculture at a point in historical time (Holmes et al., 2010).

At the microsystem level, it is clear that the child’s entire life is rearranged after the mother is incarcerated, which then leads to trauma, psychological distress, aggression, negative developmental outcomes, and exposure to poverty (Holmes et al., 2010).

These children lack opportunities to foster healthy relationships with the incarcerated parent, not mentioning that they experience negative emotions such as fear and frustration upon seeing a parent in the prison system and lack of social support from the community. Incarcerated mothers, on the other hand, are ill-prepared by the prison experience for the resumption of their roles and duties as parents, leading to detrimental effects to their self-esteem and personal responsibility.

In addition, imprisonment does not only undermines the confidence and security of mothers in their attempts to discharge their parental roles once out of prison, but also occasions many psychological hurdles such as loss of self-efficacy and weakened opportunity for identity development, leading to adverse feelings associated with suspiciousness, anger, irresponsibility, aggression, and emotional disconnection.

At the mesosytem level, incarcerated mothers and their children are more likely to become ostracized and the target of stigma and negative attention by neighbors and other community members, leading to psychological distress and hatred. Additionally, extant literature demonstrates that “…higher rates of incarceration and reentry often result in high residential mobility rates that disrupt social networks and create an atmosphere of mistrust, isolation, and low self-esteem” (Holmes et al., 2010 p. 79).

This in turn may lead to an even greater social disorganization and loss of social capital on the part of ex-convicted mothers, not mentioning the constrained opportunities for children to institute and maintain positive social relationships which are instrumental to their physical and emotional development.

Children of incarcerated mothers with living relatives may be sent to stay with them for the period the mother is in jail, further disrupting their social interactions, educational pathways, as well as emotional and psychological stability.

A majority of these relatives actually struggle to keep up with the high costs involved in sustaining their own families, implying that they may view these children as an additional burden to their already constrained budgets (Fryer, 2006). Such an orientation in effect opens the door to more trauma and suffering for the children, not mentioning that they lack the financial and material resources needed for normal growth and development.

Critical consequences of lack of resources for children of incarcerated mothers can be observed in low educational levels achieved by these children and their incapacity to control anger and frustration, often vented towards society (Holmes et al., 2010). Indeed, these children are likely to carry feelings of betrayal by society into their adulthood.

At the exosystem level, research has found that incarceration has long-term effects on the physical and mental health of ex-convicted mothers, and that it worsens pre-existing medical and/or emotional conditions in a manner that further erodes the mothers’ parenting capacities and enhances the probability of recidivism (Holmes et al., 2010), resulting in severe strain on parent-child relationships (DeHart & Altshuler, 2009).

Additionally, due to stigmatized social status associated with loss of work experience and education upon entry into the prison system, ex-convicted mothers may experience difficulties findings new forms of employment, leading to loss of social capital and elevated feelings of guilt, responsibility, depression, anxiety and discomfort (Holmes et al., 2010).

Lastly, at the macrosystem level, it is indeed true that communities form an ill-informed perspective that people who commit crimes and pass through the prison system are no longer capable of contributing positively to society and hence engage in social stigmatization towards convicts or ex-convicts as a way to legalize normative exclusion (Jenner, 2009). Indeed, this exclusion has already been achieved in several states, which have developed and executed laws prohibiting ex-convicts from voting and/or accessing social welfare benefits or other types of public assistance.

Conceivably, not only do such permanent sanctions affect the day-to-day living of children of incarcerated mothers owing to the fact that stigma is transmitted inter-generationally, but the denial of rights to their mothers translates into denial of rights and resources to children, further aggravating their exclusion from participating in normative society (Holmes et al., 2010).

At the macrosystem level, it is also important to consider the effects of the foster care system on children and their incarcerated mothers since the care system can be defined as a social structure. Available literature demonstrates that “…incarcerated mother’s children, who range in age from a few days old to age eighteen, may be sent to live with relatives, placed in foster homes with strangers, or placed in institutional settings such as group homes” (Levy-Pounds, 2006 p. 14).

Owing to this arrangement, children living with their mothers at the time of the arrest often face trauma resulting from being separated from their mothers, not mentioning that they often face additional emotional and psychological distress originating from the break-up of families and placement in entirely foreign environments that fail to provide the parental warmth needed for normal personal development, but also forces the children to wade through these foreign systems with little or no access to resources and little control over their lives in general (Holmes et al., 2010).

Children sent to live with strangers in foster care placements due to the incarceration of the mother and lack of available relatives often face a myriad of challenges, including severe emotional and psychological distress originating from the trauma of being separated from their primary caregivers, uncertainty originating from being displaced from their homes, as well as stress, anxiety, and fear triggered by placement in unfamiliar environments and separation from other siblings (DeHart & Altshuler, 2009).

Additionally, as acknowledged by Levy-Pounds (2006), “…these children may experience a form of post traumatic stress disorder and may experience perpetual grieving or mourning processes, which can manifest as feelings of sadness, anger, hurt, and extreme emotional anxiety.

Not surprisingly, therefore, these children are likely to engage in substance and alcohol abuse and early sexual activities as coping strategies to deal with the strain, anguish, hopelessness and frustration resulting from having a mother in prison (Holmes et al., 2010). Moreover, these children are more likely to suffer shame and exhibit low self-esteem and elevated insecurity because of stigma associated with having an incarcerated mother, lack of attachment, and placement in broken foster care systems (Myers et al., 1999).

Moving on, it is imperative to note that “…children in foster care face the likelihood of being shuffled from foster home to foster home with little regard for the impact that such constant disruption will have on their emotional, mental, or physical health” (Levy-Pounds, 2006).

While foster care was initially envisaged to provide a safe environment for the displaced children, knowledge about sexual and physical abuses of children in foster homes is increasingly filtering through into the public discourse, with available statistics demonstrating that sexual abuse for children placed in foster homes occurs at a rate of more than 28 times the rate of sexual maltreatment in the general population (Levy-Pounds, 2006).

Incarcerated mothers, on their part, suffer from the psychological anguish arising from the possibility of permanently losing their children as current legislative statutes in many states allow for the adoption of children if their mothers will be incarcerated for long periods of time, or if they demonstrate incapacity to change (Allen et al., 2010). Children given up for adoption against their wish are likely to suffer long-term trauma and emotional breakdowns.

Family Systems Theory (Micro Theory)

Introduced in the 1950s by Dr. Murry Bowen, the family systems theory is premised on the assumptions that families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals (Allen et al., 2010), and that to understand a particular individual, we must understand the family system of that individual since it is difficult to understand people in isolation from one another (Wilderman, 2010).

The theory has been largely effective in explaining human actions and behavior by relying on the concept of circular causality, which essentially implies that “…in family systems, each family member’s behavior may have as much to do with the systems or groups of which we are a part – and the patterns that get established within these systems – as it may have to do with the personality and behavior of each person within the system” (Broderick, 1993 p. 17).

To understand the effects of incarceration, it must be assumed that the mother and the child are located in a family system. The network of relationships within the family system will therefore be fundamental in determining the effects of incarceration.

For instance, in a family system experiencing familial instability, poverty, child abuse and neglect, marital discord and conflict, or father absence, children are likely to be fundamentally affected by these elements since they are part-and-parcel of the system, leading to poor child-parent relationships, incapacity to engage in informal social networks, aggression, frustration, unpredictability, and increased problem behaviors as internalized through the family system (Fryer, 2006; Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2002).

The incarcerated mother is likely to destabilize the family system, particularly owing to her past behaviors prior to incarceration and also due to the stigma attached to incarceration, leading to adverse experiences of psychological distress, trauma and social destabilization.

Rational Choice Theory (Social Justice Approach)

The rational choice theory is nested on the assumption that “…rational self-interest behavior should be more readily observable than other forms of behavior that do not, on average, offer equivalent benefits” (Samaha, 2006 p. 76). Importantly, the theory presupposes that people make decisions according to what they believe is (even if its not) in their self-interest, and that antecedents, consequences, and personal expectations to any given situation shape the decision-making process and social exchange (Bouffard et al., 2010).

In social and behavioral sciences, theorists assume that that the desire for self-interest determines social exchange, and that certain constraints such as unequal material resources or lack of equal opportunities contribute to non-rational behavior (Pratt, 2008; Samaha, 2006).

Henry (2003) acknowledges that “…the deterrence argument is based on the arguments of economic rational choice theory and the classical assumption that offenders are self-interested, reasoning, rational cost-benefit calculators” (para. 12).

The rational choice theory can be used by policy makers to show how mothers respond to situational factors favorable to crime, including drug dealing and prostitution, to be able to surmount various life challenges and constraints entrenched in society. For instance, a mother may end up in prison for dealing with drugs to cater for her financial responsibilities.

In this context, the desire to have financial independence to cater for their families acts as a stimulus proposition to deal with drugs. In line with the aggression-approval proposition, ex-convicted mothers and their children are more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior and elevated levels of hatred toward the community not only because they are less likely to receive the social and material rewards arising from being members of the community, but also due to various forms of punishment leveled against them in terms of stigmatization, degradation of informal social relationships, and lack of social support (Pratt, 2008).


The present paper has successfully utilized the ecological systems model, family systems model, and the rational choice theory to not only identify but also comprehensively explain the effects of incarceration on mothers and their children.

Regardless of the causality of the effects, it is clear that addressing the problem of incarceration and its challenges on mothers and their children require multi-dimensional efforts that take into consideration the theoretical interpretations of these challenges.

It is only by doing so that social workers and other relevant stakeholders will be able to develop the capacity to execute effective intervention measures that address the root causes and provide viable solutions.


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