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The Incarceration of Mothers and Its Impact On Children Proposal

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Updated: Aug 19th, 2019

The work of Smith (2012) attempts to correlate the incarceration of mothers with the concept of structural inequality in present day society in order to show how society itself is to blame for the problems that come about when a mother is incarcerated, released and put back in charge of taking care of her child (Smith, 2012).

Structural inequality in essence is an inherent bias within social structures which can provide some advantages to a select group of people within society while at the same time marginalizing others (Smith, 2012). This can be seen in instances related to racism, education and discrimination wherein certain segments of the population are categorized and marginalized depending on the color of their skin and their particular race.

For example the recent law involving illegal immigration passed by Arizona has in effect created a form of discrimination against many Mexicans living within the country who are in fact here legally (Smith, 2012).

The fact is structural inequality is one of the main reasons behind the continued limitation behind the school system and various careers wherein minorities are in fact being discriminated against due to connotations involving their propensity towards illegal or criminal behavior (Smith, 2012).

While it may be true that some minorities do have difficulties in learning due to their origins the fact remains that such a system actually perpetuates the concept of societal inequality where it has come to be believed that white Americans are more predilected towards success while minorities are leaning towards marginal careers at best.

In fact, Smith (2012) shows that the incarceration of mothers was more prevalent in the case of minorities (60 to 70 percent depending on certain states) to that of the white majority within the country (30 to 40 percent depending on the state).

Smith (2012) attempts to explain such a situation by showing that it is due to the societal predilection to offer different levels of opportunity to different races and classes of people that people tend to turn to crime since all other options are out of reach for them (Smith, 2012). In some cases this impacts mothers which often results in their incarceration in instances where they are caught performing some form of illegal action.

However, Massoglia, Firebaugh & Warner (2013) explains that this is only one part of the problem, when a mother is caught, sentenced to jail and then released once her prison term is over she finds herself not only with a prison record that would deter her from obtaining gainful employment, but such individuals often find that their race contributes to the problem (as seen in the information where it was shown that minorities constitute a majority of incarcerated mothers) (Massoglia, Firebaugh & Warner, 2013).

As a result, this lack of opportunity due to both a criminal record and racial discrimination results in a greater predilection to turn towards crime which would of course result in another jail sentence. Such a situation can and normally does adversely affect the development of a child which results in a greater possibility for the development of adverse social tendencies and criminal behavior.

It was seen in the case of Charles Manson that his deranged mental state was brought about from abandonment issues early on in his life due his mother’s incarceration. She was a noted “career criminal” who often spent long periods of time in jail as a result of numerous criminal offences committed.

This example shows how a child can “inherit” criminal tendencies from his/her mother resulting in the view that anti-social behavior and criminal actions are normal rather than a reflection of adverse social tendencies.

Unfortunately, present day legislation involving incarcerated mothers has yet to address this situation with a sufficient enough solution leading to the development of a new generation of criminals coming from the generation of children who have been exposed to mothers that have turned towards crime and have been incarcerated due to a lack of economic opportunities.

Anthropology and the Incarceration of Mothers and its Impact on Children

One way in which sociological perspective through anthropology helps to show how social inequalities create careers in criminality can be seen in various studies involving population structures and rates of crime. As it can be seen in various inner city neighborhoods in the L.A. area the population structure in several areas is geared towards low income families and the concentration of minorities into a single area.

It must be noted that the rate of crime in certain areas has been proven to go up depending on the income rate of the populations within it. (Burkhardt, 2009) As such, areas with population structures geared towards low income families and people create the possibility for criminal behaviors to occur as a result of desperation or distinct rate influence from people in the surrounding environment.

It is based on this that studies such as those of Burkhardt (2009) which examined how social environments lead to the development of criminal tendencies explained that certain mothers and children are more inclined towards incarceration and the development of criminal tendencies since their very environment encourages the development of negative behavioral traits (Burkhardt, 2009).

Social Work Interventions

Mentioned earlier in this series of papers is the social control theory developed by Travis Hirsche, in it he specially states that all individuals actually have the potential to become criminals, however, it is the “bond” they share with society whether in the form of friendships, recognition of societal rules and norms of conduct, parental influences etc. that prevent them from actually committing a crime (Payne & Salotti, 2007).

It is based on this perspective that social work interventions often focus on the re-establishment and development of the social bond of children with incarcerated mothers so as to prevent the development of criminal tendencies due to a lack of fear over the loss of such bonds.

Hirschi explains the use of such tactic by showing that it is actually quite normal for an individual to desire to commit a crime or even think about it such as desiring to steal an object, injure a person or other forms of criminal activity, however, they are prevented from doing so because of a distinct fear of the impact of this type of activity on their position in society.

Thus, it can be stated that through the development of individual dependence on social bonds as an integral aspect of a person’s personality and perspective, social work interventions help to instill a fear of losing such bonds after committing a particular action which is sufficient enough to deter children from committing a crime (Payne & Salotti, 2007).

Through the study of Allen, Flaherty & Ely (2010) which delved into the aftereffects of social work programs, it can be seen that the purpose of social work intervention is to help instill awareness over the ramifications of actions and how this impacts an individual’s place in society (Allen, Flaherty & Ely, 2010).

In effect, Allen, Flaherty & Ely (2010) views social work intervention on children as a means of helping them develop the necessary “perspective” on their place in society and the value of the bonds that they have with either family members, friends or society as a whole.

To better understand why this occurs, we go back to the views of Hirschi who goes on to state that crimes occur due to individuals either losing or weakening the various bonds which bind them to society and, as such, results in them not caring of the social ramifications of certain criminal actions (Payne & Salotti, 2007).

By helping children understand the presence of such bonds and to value them, they begin to understand the ramifications of losing them resulting in a more positive behavioral orientation.

Parent and Child Counseling

As indicated by the ecological systems model stated within Holmes et al.

Incarcerated mothers 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 undermine 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 (Holmes et al. 2010).

Not only that, on a micro-system level the ecological systems model also shows that a 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).

It is based on this that studies such as those by ( ) recommend counseling for both mother and child in order to create an effective transition from when a mother is incarcerated to the point that she has to be able to take care of the child that was left behind.

From the point of view of McGee (2009), counseling is a justifiable method of social work intervention in the case of incarcerated mothers since it helps to prepare them for the rigors of child care (McGee, 2009).

McGee (2009) explains that one of the main problems in present day practices involving incarceration is that while “the system” (i.e. the courts and judge) is all too willing to place a mother in jail for a crime she committed and is also just as willing to reunite her with her child due to its predilection to believe that the biological mother would be the best candidate to raise the child in question, the fact remains that insufficient methods of proper transition are implemented to ensure that the mother actually has the capacity to raise a child properly (McGee, 2009).

McGee (2009) states that “all too often when mothers are released from prison and are put back in charge of their children they find themselves at a loss as to what to do or what practices to implement due to the time they spend away from their children”(p.1-2).

Another aspect of the ecological systems model that should be taken into consideration is the previously mentioned impact at the mesosytem level wherein 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). In such cases, children are unable to develop the necessary social bonds as described by Hirsche resulting in the immergence of criminal tendencies.

Siegel (2011) even goes on to state that the disruption in the development of social networks between a child and society at large encourages adverse social predilections and behaviors (Siegel, 2011).

Thus, from the perspective of Siegel (2011), counseling is a necessary action to help children and their mothers to better understand their current situation and to potentially implement some form of “normalcy” despite their adverse circumstances which could lead to the development of proper social behaviors.

The last aspect of parent/child counseling in social work interventions takes into consideration the need for children to adjust to their mother just as their mother needs to adjust to them.

For example, the ecological systems model states that 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).

Combined with a child’s own adverse experience from being apart from their mother which could have resulted in the development of an assortment of negative personality traits, it thus becomes necessary to implement some form of counseling on the child to not only enable them to develop a more socially inclined personality but to adapt to the potential “eccentricities” (i.e. mentally debilitating problems) that may have arisen in the case of their mother.


Another potential avenue of approach in social work intervention comes in the form of utilizing families as a means of preventing children from developing the “wrong” type of behavioral predilection. Under this particular type of intervention it is often thought that by being with family a child can develop and grow under the assistance of relatives thus encouraging the development of social bonds.

Unfortunately, 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.


In the study “Saturday morning at the jail” by Arditti et al. (2003) a series of semi-structured interviews were conducted utilizing 56 caregivers who have brough children to meet their parents in jail for 20 minutes.

The results of the study supports the assumption of this paper that it is necessary to implement some form of family counseling to create a period of transition since incarceration creates a “divide” so to speak between parents and children as a direct result of the parent’s incarceration (Arditti et al., 2003). On the other end of the spectrum is the study “Staying straight” by Kenemore and Roldan (2006) which examined 12 form ex-offenders.

It was shown that broad psychological problems did exist and was not helped by having such children stay with their families since it was shown that there was a distinct lack of support from these family members to help these children develop the necessary social bonds (Kenemore and Roldan, 2006).

This is not to say that the family support method of social work intervention is wrong, rather, a more accurate interpretation would be that it does not work all the time.

Reference List

Allen, S., Flaherty, C., & Ely, G. (2010). Throwaway Moms: Maternal Incarceration and the Criminalization of Female Poverty. Affilia: Journal Of Women & Social Work, 25(2), 160-172.

Arditti, J. A., Lambert-Shute, J., & Joest, K. (2003). Saturday Morning at the Jail: Implications of Incarceration for Families and Children. Family Relations, 52(3), 195.

Burkhardt, B. C. (2009). Criminal Punishment, Labor Market Outcomes, and Economic Inequality: Devah Pager’s Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. Law & Social Inquiry, 34(4), 1039-1060.

DeHart, D. D., & Altshuler, S. J. (2009). Violence exposure among children of incarcerated mothers. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 2(5), 467-479.

Fryer, L. J. (2006). Silenced voices: Stories of incarcerated women. Women Studies, 35(6), 545-565.

Holmes, T.R., Belmonte, K., Wentworth, M., & Tillman, K. (2010). Parents “in the System”: An ecological systems approach to the development of children with incarcerated parents: In Y.R.

Harris, J. A. Graham & G. J. O. Carpenter (Eds.), Children of incarcerated parents: Theoretical, developmental, and clinical issues (pp. 68-90). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.

Kenemore, T., & Roldan, I. (2006). Staying straight: lessons from ex-offenders. Clinical Social Work Journal, 34(1), 5-21.

Massoglia, M., Firebaugh, G., & Warner, C. (2013). Racial Variation in the Effect of Incarceration on Neighborhood Attainment. American Sociological Review, 78(1), 142-165.

McGee, Z. (2009). From the Inside: Patterns of Coping and Adjustment among Women in Prison. Conference Papers — American Society Of Criminology, 1.

Payne, A., & Salotti, S. (2007). A Comparative Analysis of Social Learning and Social Control Theories in the Prediction of College Crime. Deviant Behavior, 28(6), 553-573.

Siegel, L. (2011). ACP Criminology. (11 ed.). New York, U.S.A: Cengage Custom.

Smith, J. M. (2012). Maintaining racial inequality through crime control: mass incarceration and residential segregation. Contemporary Justice Review, 15(4), 469-484.

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