Breaking Down Maternal Walls for Formerly Incarcerated Mothers
September 8, 2023 | By Janet Garcia-Hallett, PhD
Onika was gang-raped at 14 years old by her brother’s friends, and she contracted HIV. Her parents’ denial of her victimization led to suicidal thoughts, anger, and substance use as a coping mechanism—all before becoming a teenage mom and being incarcerated for drug charges.
After her husband left her for another man, Laura struggled to make ends meet as a single mother—which only worsened her depression and led to multiple DUIs that eventually resulted in prison time.
Pregnant during her incarceration, Madison was shackled at her hands and ankles during labor, and then forced to have two correctional officers in the delivery room as she gave birth to her daughter.
After her release from prison, Carolina—like many other mothers—hoped, tried, and had failed to regain custody of her children.
Although these are fictitious names for the anonymity of the women, the people and stories are true.
The bulk of my work focuses on supporting women and mothers in the criminal legal system. I am an advocate, a criminologist, a professor, a proud mom of three, and an award-winning author. My nonfiction book, Invisible Mothers, highlights the voices of one of the most traditionally silenced groups: mothers of color in the prison system. The book is based on months of traveling throughout New York City, interviewing formerly incarcerated mothers of color about their experiences before, during, and after incarceration. Instead of presenting the perceptions of others about them, the book shares the narratives of the mothers as a transparent window into their lives navigating motherhood.
Formerly incarcerated mothers actively combat the label of “bad mothers.” They work to gain a role in their children’s lives, make up for lost time, improve their children’s circumstances, and care for their grandchildren as second chances to broken relationships. Although these mothering efforts are often overlooked or ignored by outsiders, Invisible Mothers shares how formerly incarcerated women do motherwork despite feeling like there is a noose around their necks post-incarceration.
The hold of the criminal legal system is, in part, due to how it overlaps with other systems like the child welfare system in which women are forced to show their “fitness” as mothers to recover any children removed from their care. Invisible Mothers discusses how standards of mothers’ “fitness” are weighed against them because of unfortunate circumstances of poverty deemed as “neglect.” This can be due to things like their social position as mothers of color or barriers with getting housing after incarceration. In large cities like New York City, there is much more demand for affordable housing than there is available housing, so more attention should be given to viable pathways where women can secure suitable housing for themselves and their children.
Invisible Mothers also shares mothers’ stories in searching for employment with criminal records while also mothering through financial challenges after incarceration. Some people may be familiar with the concepts of the “glass ceiling” that blocks women from moving up in their careers and the “maternal wall” that blocks mothers from job opportunities and career growth because of negative evaluations for managing childcare as primary caregivers. Yet, discussions about these barriers and any actions to address them are rarely applied to system-impacted mothers. When they find employment, these work opportunities tend to come with unpredictable schedules, late work hours, mandatory weekends, and little flexibility during family emergencies that pose more problems for mothers trying to regain custody or rebuild relationships with their children.
Lastly, Invisible Mothers shares mothers’ stories with substance use and their experiences navigating motherhood while also in recovery. Given that most incarcerated women have some history with substance use, many are involved in treatment programs post-incarceration. Although these programs are intended to provide support, they may have the opposite effect as they focus on what mothers shouldn’t do (concentrating on further punishment) instead of providing them with the suggestions of what they could do to improve their circumstances. Too often, social service providers cause mothers more harm than good when they further kick them while they’re down, instead of helping them back up.
Much of the current discussions around formerly incarcerated women and mothers tend to emphasize classes, mentorship, and training to “teach” them healthier thought processes or force them into behaving in certain ways. Yet, this individualized focus cannot fix systemic oppression that leads to incarceration and thrives off of other people’s suffering. What we need is systemic change.
Janet Garcia-Hallett has a PhD in criminal justice and is an assistant professor in the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. Her book Invisible Mothers: Unseen Yet Hypervisible after Incarceration explores how mothers of color navigate motherhood after incarceration and is a finalist for the 2023 Media for a Just Society Award in the book category.