Incarcerated Mothers of Young Children: Planning for Reentry and Reunification



Incarcerated Mothers of Young Children: Planning for Reentry and Reunification

Hilary Runion, Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Many young children in the United States have a mother in prison: Recent statistics suggest more than one million incarcerated individuals are parents to more than 2.7 million children. As a doctoral student, I am exploring the reentry process for the mothers of these young children—specifically, planning for reunification after incarceration. This process often elicits a multitude of emotions, concerns, and questions for mothers and their children.

Relationships are one of the main components to understanding maternal incarceration and reentry. Some developmental psychologists believe women are drawn toward creating and maintaining meaningful relationships; incarceration can sever these relationships and cause difficulty for those seeking a sense of connection with others. Perhaps one of the most important relationships to consider during maternal incarceration and the reentry process is the relationship a mother has with her child’s caregiver—the individual who assumes the parental role while a child’s parent is incarcerated.

Research has found that family members often step into the role of caregivers to minor children during maternal incarceration. The caregiver role is important because the caregiver serves as the gatekeeper between the child and his or her mother during incarceration, regulating the amount and type of communications between them. Visits, phone contact, and the exchange of written letters during incarceration can help maintain the connectedness mothers have with their children; but these activities need to be supported by the caregiver. If a mother feels a strain in her relationship with the caregiver, it may challenge her ability to maintain a relationship with her child. Incarcerated mothers often can do little to maintain relationships while incarcerated, which is a common source of frustration, sadness, depression, and helplessness.

The mother-child reunification process that follows incarceration can be complex in that mothers may feel unprepared to step directly back into their parental roles. Some mothers take additional time to work on their personal recovery while others quickly resume parenting. In order to assist mothers during the planning stages of release, a more holistic model is needed within correctional facilities. A men’s reentry model (typically focusing on job training and related areas), commonly used in correctional institutions, does not address the critical needs and lack of support women experience during incarceration.

Through my work I have learned that incarcerated men and women have different experiences prior to incarceration and different needs when planning for reentry and reunification. Although little research has been done to investigate the trajectory factors that contribute to female incarceration, we do know that incarcerated women are more likely to report prior mental health issues, substance abuse, and victimization. In order to effectively support women during their incarceration and reentry process it is important to examine the experiences of women prior to incarceration.

More research and a holistic model tailored for the successful reentry of women is much-needed. Holistic programs could help address the sense of loss that incarcerated mothers experience regarding relationships, aid in planning an effective and successful reentry, and combat recidivism. This, in the long term, would benefit both mothers and children, and the communities in which they live.

Hilary Runion is a graduate student in the Human Development and Family Studies program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Hilary’s academic research experience began at DePaul University in Chicago, where she worked with ex-offenders within the first three years following their incarceration.


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