WHEN-MOTHER'S IN PRISON
Lunch is over now, and the low table is scattered with the remnants of a children's repast -- bits of tuna fish sandwich, apples, paper cups half-filled with fruit juice. The kids are back to the serious business of playing, their attention now on Legos and Tinkertoys, blocks and paints, books and records. Some of the smaller ones are taking naps.Skip to next paragraph
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It looks like most day-care centers or play schools, mothers chatting quietly or tending their young ones. But there is a distinct difference. This is a prison with guards and metal detectors, body searches and high barbed-wire fences. The women here at the Federal Correctional Institution in Pleasanton, California, have all been convicted of federal offenses.
As the number of women in prisons and jails around the country continues to increase about twice as fast as the number of men, there is growing concern about the effect on their children. There are model programs, like the Pleasanton Children's Center an hour east of San Francisco, and a few others. But they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
When a mother is locked up, say prison officials and other experts, the effect on the children involved is much more devastating than when a father is sent to prison or jail.
Since women remain a relatively small percentage of the total inmate population (about 10 percent), correctional facilities for them are fewer and farther between. They usually are sent much away from home. Most women in prison have young dependent children, an average of two per inmate mother. On the other hand, less than one quarter of the children of male prisoners retain stable relationships with their fathers. In many cases, the father no longer has custody rights and has lost touch with his children.
"Fatherhood doesn't seem to transfer to prison, but motherhood always seems to come to prison with females," says Charles Turnbo, the young and affable warden here at Pleasanton. "For some reason, when a woman comes to prison, there seems to be less family support. It goes back to the old stigma that nice women [don't] get in trouble.
The children share the stigma society -- and often their own relatives -- places on their mothers. Or they may be sent to foster homes where it is hard for them to communicate with or even talk about their mothers. In the case of infants, say some experts, the important "bonding" that takes place between mother and child during the first few months after birth may never occur. With few exceptions, women who have babies while incarcerated are separated from their children very shortly after giving birth.
"I think it's extremely important to consider what's happening to the children," says Phyllis Jo Baunach, who has just completed a study of mothers in prison for the National Institute of Justice, a federal research agency. "We may be affecting another generation."
Milton Rector, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), puts it more starkly: "It guarantees . . . the possibility of children following their mothers into prison."
According to the US Bureau of Prisons, while the number of men in federal and state prisons has gone up 54 percent in the past decade, the number of women has doubled. The number of women in all US prisons and jails now is about 23,000. Many institutions for women do not record whether their inmates have dependent children (an indication of lack of concern, say some critics), but estimates range from 56 to 75 percent. With the high turnover in inmate population, the NCCD figures that as many as 250,000 children a year may be separated from their mothers this way.
The problem grows, but so do the attempts to solve it.
On Mother's Day, 1978, The Pleasanton Children's Center officially opened. Administered by the NCCD with grants from the US Bureau of Prisons and private foundations, it offers mothers here a variety of programs to help them develop and maintain relationships with their children.
There is the children's center itself, staffed by inmates, volunteers, and professional early childhood educator Louise Rosenkrantz. During a regular visiting hours (10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays) a special facility is set up for the children and their mothers in the prison's education building. It is a quiet, homelike place, much different from the regular visiting room which is "real tense . . ., a lot of people, a lot of smoke, and a lot of noise," as one mother puts it.