By Lauren Caruso*
In the United States, more women are incarcerated now than have been at any point in the nation’s history. An overwhelming number of these women face incarceration for the first time as a result of non-violent drug crimes and most were first victims of violence. As many incarcerated women are also mothers, conditions of their incarceration have a debilitating effect on the development of children and families. A recent report, Mothers Behind Bars  released by The Rebecca Project for Human Rights and the National Women’s Law Center, provides an eye-opening analysis of the egregious conditions of confinement for pregnant and parenting women. Mothers Behind Bars also offers a state-by-state report card that analyzes federal and state policies on prenatal care, shackling, alternative sentencing programs and prison nurseries. States were graded based on these main indicators, as well as the impact state policies have on mothers, children, and families. On Monday, November 8th, NCRW intern and staff members participated in a webinar that discussed the contents and methodology of the report, as well as the implications it has on advocacy agendas across the country.
The assignment of overall state-by-state grades, based on the average grades of prenatal care, shackling, and family-based treatment, indicates an urgent call for reform. Twenty-one states received either a D or F, both a failing grade. Twenty-two states received a grade of C, and seven received a grade of B. One state, Pennsylvania, received the highest grade of A-.
Advocates cite outdated male-centered policies as reasons why conditions for incarcerated mothers and their children are so poor. The report also finds that similar to state systems, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Corrections have failed to recognize distinct differences in gender- and family-specific implications of incarcerating pregnant and parenting mothers of minor children.
The inadequacy of a male-centered criminal justice system extends beyond incarceration. Sentencing alternatives, release services, and reentry programs for mothers with minor children are few and far between, leaving mothers, children, and families with very few resources to cope with and recover from incarceration.
*Lauren Caruso is an NCRW intern and a Master of Public Administration candidate at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, specializing in public and nonprofit management and policy.