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A Thematic Analysis of Parenting Experiences of Women in Prison

Published onAug 23, 2023
A Thematic Analysis of Parenting Experiences of Women in Prison


Although there is growing literature examining system-involved mothers, little is known about their parenting experiences and coping mechanisms. Using Braun and colleagues’ (2006; 2022) reflexive thematic analysis approach, this qualitative study examines the parenting experiences of forty-four mothers incarcerated in a Midwestern correctional center. The data were gathered from interviews with incarcerated mothers and included accounts of the women’s experiences before and during their incarceration. The narratives illustrate how background experiences (i.e., sexual and physical abuse, drug dependency, and childhood experiences) shape women’s experiences of mothering, perceptions of the effects of incarceration on their children, and reentry plans. Results from this study provide an understanding of how incarceration shapes parenting and facilitates or presents barriers to mother-child relationships. The authors conclude with a call for action that includes abolishing incarceration for individuals convicted of non-violent offenses, adopting gender-responsive programming, and using trauma-informed, restorative justice approaches to reentry.

Worldwide, more than 740,000 women and girls – most of them convicted for nonviolent offenses – are incarcerated, accounting for no more than 3% of imprisoned individuals in 70 countries and territories (Penal Reform International, 2022) and 6.9% of the global carceral population (Fair & Walmsley, 2022). Compared to men, though women in prison are less in number by headcount, they are the fastest-growing population by incarceration rate. For example, from mid-2000 to mid-2022, the female prison population increased by 60%, compared to a 22% increase for the male carceral population during the same time period (Fair & Walmsley, 2022). The United States, the leading incarcerator globally, has more than 200,000 female prisoners with a prison population rate of 64 per 100,000 (Fair & Walmsley, 2022). As women’s representation in prisons grows, so does the number of incarcerated mothers (Zhao et al., 2020). Nearly 80% of incarcerated women are mothers (Kajstura, 2019; Williams, Spencer, & Wilson, 2020; Zhao et al., 2020), with most having children who are minors (Schlafer, 2019). Most incarcerated mothers live with the threat of having their children placed in foster care (Williams et al., 2020; Zhao et al., 2020). Though more than half of the 400,000 children in foster care will be reunified with their parents or primary caregivers, approximately 120,000 of the 400,000 will be adopted by foster parents (AdoptUSKids, 2021).

On the other hand, incarcerated women whose children are neither in foster care nor adopted must rely on extended family to care for their children (Garcia-Hallett, 2019a; USCCR, 2020). However, this may be challenging given that many of these children may be under the care of grandparents, who may be too old to cope with the stress of organizing and executing prison visits (Beichner & Rabe-Hemp, 2014). Additionally, they may be from struggling families, given that the children likely affected by parental incarceration are already vulnerable before their parent’s incarceration (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). In other words, women who are likely to be criminalized (and subsequently incarcerated) are those from minoritized and economically disadvantaged backgrounds; thus, children of these women were already exposed to deprivation even before the prison-induced separation from their mothers, hence leaving them in worse situations after the fact. In this case, “mothering is enacted by underprivileged and criminalized women” (Granja, et al., 2015, p. 1212), who – by way of comparison – are at risk of having their parental rights terminated (Celinska, Fanarraga, & Cronin, 2021). Hence, according to Granja and others (2015), carceral mothering may prompt system-involved women to enact “vulnerable resistance” to penal policies that threaten their primary caregiving role. By extension, Gobena and colleagues argue that, in such a situation, the very rights of the child may be at risk if the rights, duties, and responsibilities of a primary caregiver – like a mother – are threatened (Gobena, Hean, Heaslip, & Studsrød, 2022).

Given that the pathways women follow into prison are distinct from men, there is a need for a gender-responsive approach, both in policies and classification systems for incarcerated women (The United States Commission on Civil Rights [USCCR], 2020). The same applies to incarcerated women who are mothers. Women parenting from prison are a carceral group that requires special attention regarding their rehabilitative needs (i.e., programs, treatment, and services) (USCCR, 2020). Part of the reason for such a need is that these incarcerated mothers are likely to have a history of disadvantage, which is then exacerbated by carceral trauma; added to that, incarceration disrupts mother-child relationships (Breuer et al., 2021) which, as a collateral effect, threatens the rights of their children. Hence, there is a need for strategies, such as maintaining mother-child relationships, to ensure that the child's rights are protected and his or her needs met - or at least the harm of separation minimized. The carceral distance – both physical and emotional – and the small number of women’s facilities in the United States present challenges to visitations, parenting, and maintaining family relationships (Granja, Cunha, & Machado, 2015; USCCR, 2020). This is critical for system-involved women “…owing to their actual or presumed central role in child rearing (Granja, Cunha, & Machado, 2015, p. 1212). Even though the First Step Act of 2018 requires those serving custodial sentences to be housed within a driving distance of 500 miles from their legal residence, placing women in correctional facilities close to their homes is challenging, given the limited number of women’s facilities (USCCR, 2020). For example, it is reported that more than 25 percent of women in federal prisons are housed more than 500 miles from their homes (USCCR, 2020).

The issue of prison placement and distance from family affects women more than men and is directly consequential to child visitations for those who are mothers (Celinska et al., 2021). The distance and location of where women are incarcerated exacerbate the financial costs of visits, rendering the likelihood of prison visitations impossible for some families (Celinska et al., 2021; USCCR, 2020). Therefore, the absence of family contact, juxtaposed with the fact that women are typically the primary caregivers of their children, may hinder opportunities for rehabilitation and impact the well-being of the children of these incarcerated women (Gobena et al., 2022). De Claire and Dixon (2017) report that studies have consistently linked prison visits to both health-related (i.e., reduced depressive symptoms in women and adolescent prisoners) and criminogenic-related (i.e., reduction in rule-breaking behavior and increased survival in the community) positive outcomes.

The current study examines the parenting experiences of forty-four incarcerated women who participated in parenting programming in a Midwestern prison. The interview data provide insight into women’s parenting experiences before prison, their current relationships with their children while in prison, and their perceptions of how incarceration has impacted or will impact their children’s lives after prison. Using the core tenets of Braun and Clarke’s (2006) reflexive thematic analysis (TA) approach (Braun, et al., 2022), the study explores the nuanced ways in which incarcerated mothers ‘navigate’ and cope with the challenges they face. The authors provide an overview of mothers’ objective experiences and choices, but also the meaning and symbolism that incarcerated mothers ascribe to their experiences.

Incarcerated Mothers’ Histories - Trauma, Substance Abuse, and Mental Health

Three experiences – trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues – shape women’s pathway into the justice system, and these “triple threats” are often co-occurring (Arditti & Few, 2008; Garcia-Hallett, 2022; 2019a; Garcia, 2016). Scholars use this phrase in relation to the three factors – trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues – typically explaining the pathways that women and girls follow into crime, which are different from those followed by men and boys (Arditti & Few, 2008; Garcia-Hallett, 2022, 2019a; Garcia, 2017). Unlike men and boys, women and girls are likely to have histories of abuse and victimization, which may drive them into substance abuse as a coping mechanism. However, apart from drug abuse being a crime itself, these women are likely to engage in economic-related crimes to fund their addiction (Garcia-Hallett, 2022, 2019a, 2019b), something which heightens their chances of being incarcerated and separated from their children.

The ‘triple threat’ weakens mothers’ involvement in a child’s life psychologically and physically (Arditti & Few, 2008) and shapes mother-child relationships during and after a mother’s imprisonment (Siegel, 2011). Typically, children with mothers battling a triple threat of life challenges may experience long periods away from their mothers (Siegel, 2011); thus, with these sporadic disengagements, children may find themselves in the care of others (Garcia, 2016). Once these women are caught at the intersection of motherhood and prison, it contradicts the normative perceptions of criminality and femininity (Garcia, 2016), which is often followed by the stigmatizing label of “bad mother” (Garcia-Hallett, 2022, 2019a) – a tag they may perceive to be worse than just being labeled a “criminal” (Byrne & Trew, 2008). This may be because the stigmatizing label “bad mother” hits at the core of their womanhood and perceived sense of purpose and – possibly – invalidates the efforts of emotional attachment (and being role models) to their children.

Studies have shown that there is also a relationship between victimization/traumatization and addiction. Most incarcerated mothers of minor children (and women in general) share common pre-incarceration experiences like depression, anxiety, victimization, and trauma, including neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse, and intimate partner violence (Rose & LeBel, 2017). As a result, to unconsciously deal with the original trauma, this early trauma manifests itself in repetitive adult behaviors (Beichner & Rabe-Hemp, 2014), which may include substance use. According to Garcia-Hallett (2019a), approximately 60% of women incarcerated in state facilities report having drug abuse problems a month before their offense. In addition, about 50% were using drugs, alcohol, or both at the time of their offense (Garcia-Hallett 2019a). Since most women in prison lacked protected, privileged, and insulated lives as children (Rodda & Beichner, 2017), their carceral motherhood is likely to be impacted by these experiences as they are likely to face mental health issues in addition to substance use during their incarceration (Rose & Lebel, 2017). Scott (2019) conceptualizes ‘carceral motherhood’ as a tripartite burden that requires incarcerated mothers to navigate (1) mothering from prison (to children outside prison), (2) mothering in prison (to children inside prison), and (3) mothering after prison (parole). For this study, ‘carceral motherhood’ refers to the practice of mothering under a sentence of incarceration (Scott, 2019, p.78). Thus, those serving community sentences or on probation were not included in this study, and this paper focuses on the parenting narratives of mothers during their incarceration.

Mothering in Disadvantage and Penalization

All current and formerly incarcerated mothers – and especially those from disadvantaged communities, like Black women – must navigate multiple and overlapping barriers to protect their children, which, oftentimes, puts them at risk of conflicting with the state (Gurusami, 2019). Though carceral release presents a welcome opportunity for women to reunite with their children, the re-entry process presents several challenges for effective and sensitive parenting, especially for those women experiencing health, income, and housing challenges (Beichner & Rabe-Hemp, 2014; Rossiter et al., 2015). Also, for mothers whose children were removed at or before their incarceration, these hurdles add to an already complex family environment, which makes the restoration of parental rights even more difficult (Rossiter et al., 2015; Williams et al., 2020). In her recent book, Invisible Mothers, Garcia-Hallett (2022) highlights the unique plight mothers of color endure by meticulously arguing that social institutions are double-faced, simultaneously placing these mothering women in both invisible and hypervisible situations. That is, she holds, mothers of color are invisible when social institutions restrict them from equal opportunities, yet – at the same time – simultaneously hypervisible when these social institutions criminalize and, subsequently, penalize them (Garcia-Hallett, 2022). Garcia-Hallett (2022) further argues that the invisibility of mothers of color goes beyond the negative effects a mother’s incarceration has on children; rather, she holds such focus may not actually problematize the socio-structural oppression that influences maternal incarceration. Said differently, patriarchal views – for example – which place men as the dominant group, coupled with gendered expectations of motherhood and sexist ideologies of women as responsible for childcare, unequally place parental labor on women compared to men. This mothering labor, holds Garcia-Hallett (2022), is largely invisible to those unaware of mothers’ daily needs involved in childcare; ironically, those oblivious to these everyday mothering pressures are the ones who happen to wield power and control. In other words, these structural exclusions may place these (unrecognized, undervalued, and invisible) mothers in situations whereby they are pressured to offend for survival.

Coping Strategies of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Mothers

Given the physical and emotional distancing created by the carceral environment regarding mother-child relationships, incarcerated mothers may devise strategies or coping mechanisms to navigate the restrictions or barriers during or post-incarceration. Easterling and others (2019) argue that since incarceration has a wide variety of impacts on women’s identities, they employ varying strategies to deal with the hardship and stigma that being an incarcerated woman entails. One coping strategy of incarcerated mothers is to find an alternative caregiver who (likely) would be a relative that they trust (e.g., a sister, mother, etc.), thereby eliminating the possibility that the child will be placed with a stranger and enhancing the likelihood of reunification following incarceration (Wismont, 2000). Another is to use spirituality or religion to help cope with their prison-induced stress concerning their lived or expected parental role or reconcile their guilt (Beichner & Rodda, 2017; Rioux, 2007; Stringer, 2009; Wismont, 2000).

In terms of coping and reentry, Gurusami (2019) outlined the raced, classed, and gendered parenting labor of formerly incarcerated Black women and applied the concept of motherwork in summation of three context-specific strategies these women employ to anticipate, react to, and cope with state surveillance and interventions that threaten their mothering. Gurusami (2019) theorizes the concept of ‘motherwork’ to show “how mothers on the margins support their families under carceral infrastructures of control” (p. 132). For example, she mentions how motherwork for drug-addicted women, formerly incarcerated women, and Black women may include teaching their children how to evade the police, engaging in civil disobedience to protest inequality, feeding a family on a severely restricted income, or protecting children while mothers are in violent relationships.

The three strategies embedded in this motherwork are collective motherwork, hypervigilant motherwork, and crisis motherwork – and they constitute what she terms decarceral motherwork (emphasis added) (Gurusami, 2019). Gurusami (2019) defines ‘decarceral motherwork’ as a “concept that captures how formerly incarcerated Black women labor to care for their children under the confines of state surveillance and bondage – a process that is often concealed by continued carceral logics and practices” (p. 130). In Gurusami’s (2019) conceptualization, “collective motherwork” is community-based negotiation between formerly incarcerated women living in proximity. Garcia-Hallett (2019b, 2022) corroborates this concept of collective motherwork in noting the way members of Black communities must work together to remain resilient against oppressive regimes. Second, “hypervigilant motherwork” refers to the anticipated work of protecting children from the state and strangers; and, lastly, “crisis motherwork” refers to the act of confronting immediate threats that would remove the children from their custody or prevent reunification (Gurusami, 2019).

As is evident in the preceding section, motherwork under carceral logics and state surveillance leads women - especially those from minoritized groups - to experience unique and multiple forms of oppression compared to their male counterparts. Collateral effects of these experiences tend to cascade to children of women enduring these oppressions, especially those children with imprisoned mothers. At this point, we turn to the theoretical section of the paper, which briefly discusses three theories - intersectionality, pathways, and attachment - tied to parenting at the intersection of prison and motherhood.

Theoretical Framework

Three theories can be used to understand the parenting experiences of incarcerated mothers – intersectionality, pathways, and attachment theory. First, as developed by Crenshaw (1989, 1991), intersectionality is a framework conceptualizing that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression, such as gender, race, and class. To put this into perspective, intersectionality can be used to explore how incarcerated mothers’ social identities – at both micro and macro levels – overlap and create unique mothering experiences for different racial, socioeconomic, and age groups. Women experience prison differently from men. For mothers, this relates to their often-intersecting roles of gender and primary caregiving, which – when coupled with the intersection of motherhood and prison – leaves them in a different position compared to incarcerated fathers. Apart from gender, the intersectionality of prison and motherhood can stretch to include race and class. As established in the literature, prior incarcerated women from “minoritized” communities experience prison differently from those from “privileged” communities. This means the effects and collateral consequences of a mother’s incarceration are disproportionally felt across racial and class categories—even across the inequalities among children of incarcerated mothers. Thus, drawing from Garcia-Hallet’s (2022) recent work - Invisible Mothers - an intersectional approach, for example, both honors the ethnic nuances and notes that stereotypes may vary for different ethnic groups. Considered another way, the carceral experience (and the impact of its collateral consequences) of African American women may be unique from that of Hispanic women, even though both are minoritized groups. As such, the concept captures the many effects of an individual’s social identity (Potter, 2013). In other words, it implies that the subsequent multiple forms of oppression tied to these overlapping social identities are not additive but multiplicative - denoting a layered experience or a “multiplicative identity” in a single indivisible being (Wing, 1997). For instance, at least in this study, one is not perceived as a Black plus woman but as a “black woman” or incarcerated plus mother but rather an “incarcerated mother.”

Studies have consistently shown the distinct differences between men’s and women’s experiences, which shape their pathways to offending (DeHart, 2005, 2018; Cobbina, 2009; Green et al., 2016; Ramirez, 2016). Through a series of qualitative studies (i.e., biographical narratives of women offenders) grounded in feminist criminology, three distinct pathways to crime were identified – a childhood victimization pathway (Covington, 1998; Daly, 1992), an extreme marginalization pathway (Richie, 2001), and a relational pathway (Covington, 1998; Gilligan, 1982). Whereas the childhood victimization pathway is linked to the “triple threat” – child abuse, substance use, and mental illness (Brennan et al, 2012; Garcia, 2016), the extreme marginalization pathway is explained by poverty, homelessness, and educational and vocational problems which are usually a resultant factor of the intersection of gender, race, and class (Brennan et al., 2012). The relational pathway, on the other hand, is linked to dysfunctional relationships, which, over time, culminate into victimization, depression, anxiety, and, subsequently, substance abuse (Brennan et al., 2012).

Attachment Theory was originally developed by Bowlby (1982), who explained that attachment behaviors (like crying and searching) were adaptive responses to separation from a primary attachment figure (Fraley, 2019). Central to the core tenets of the theory is that seeking and maintaining contact with the primary attachment figure (Fraley, 2019) or significant others is an innate and chief motivating factor in human beings at all lifespan phases (Johnson, 2019). Hence, dependency is an innate part of being human, and conversely, rejection and isolation are inherently traumatizing and coded as danger cues by the nervous system (Fraley, 2019; Johnson, 2019). The theory focuses on the relationships and bonds between people, particularly long-term relationships, including those between a parent and child (Cassidy et al., 2010; Poehlmann, 2005). Typically, children of incarcerated parents experience consequential disturbances in their family relationships because of caregiver changes and separation from imprisoned parents.


Data and Sample

Data for this mixed-method study were collected as part of a larger study of incarcerated mothers participating in parenting programming at a Midwestern correctional facility (N = 44). Whereas quantitative data (i.e., offense, sentence, prior criminal history, demographic information) were collected from institutional records, qualitative data were generated from self-narratives collected during face-to-face semi-structured interviews. The second author held orientation sessions in the prison and solicited volunteers to be interviewed for a study examining women’s experiences of mothering while incarcerated. The participants who wished to be interviewed were asked to place their names on the schedule of available interview dates/times. The interviews, which were conducted by the second author in a private setting in prison, ranged between 30 to 90 minutes in length1 and used a semi-structured format to ask about women’s parenting experiences before, during, and after prison. The transcribed narratives are central to the study.

The parenting program allowed eight hours of visitation time per day, two to three times a month, in which incarcerated mothers would spend time with their children in an area of the prison, separate from the general population. For mothers to qualify for the program, they had to satisfy the following requirements: (1) incarcerated for a nonviolent offense, (2) have no child abuse or neglect issues with the state agency for children and family services, and (3) have an alternative caregiver who could bring their children for multiple prison visits per month. On this note, it can be argued that these women were quite unique from their incarcerated peers, and the sample does not represent all women parenting from prison.

Analysis Strategy

The data from the institutional records and interview transcripts were analyzed using SPSS and MAXQDA software, respectively. For qualitative analysis, thematic organization and coding were done using Brown and Clarke’s (2006) and Clarke and Braun's (2018) reflexive thematic analysis guided by the six-phase process for doing analysis – familiarization phase, coding phase, generating initial themes, reviewing themes, defining and naming themes, and writing up. This strategy, just like Grounded Theory (Charmaz, 2006; DiPietro, 2019; Glaser & Strauss, 1967), is data-driven and theoretically flexible and enables unanticipated themes and avenues for inquiry to come to light (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Clarke & Braun 2018). To protect the identity of program participants, the authors created pseudonyms for each research participant.

As mentioned above, the interview transcripts were coded using Braun and Clarke’s (2006) thematic analysis techniques within MAXQDA software. Four themes – which are tied to the study participants’ pre-carceral, carceral, and post-carceral parenting experiences – were identified. The themes were developed by combining parent codes or nodes and are listed in their order of appearance: (1) mothering, (2) visitations, (3) fears, and (4) resilience. To summarize the theme development process and to highlight their interrelatedness, a visual or mind map (Figure 1) was developed. The mind map, which is covered in the next section, consists of three parts – emerging themes, manifestations, and examples. Whereas ‘emerging themes’ refer to the end product of the analysis, ‘manifestations’ refer to the parent codes or nodes from which the themes were developed, and ‘examples’ refer to some instances in the data from whence the codes were developed or are perceived to mean. Some of the themes and manifestations are highlighted through interview excerpts.

Findings and Discussion

A total of 44 women participating in a parenting program at a Midwestern correctional center were interviewed for the project. Table 1 provides an overview of select demographic information. Regarding race, most of these women identified as White (N = 30 or 68%) or Black (N = 12 or 27%), with two participants identifying as Asian. The mothers ranged in age from 20 to 50 (SD = 6 years), with an average age of 30. In terms of education, most of the women (N = 28 or 64%) had reached high school level (i.e., ranging from grade 10 to 12). Given that all of the women were participating in the aforementioned parenting program, all of the women in the study were mothers.

Table 1 – Demographic Information 









20-50 years

<1-24 years













Marital Status




















Number of Children



Caregiving Arrangements

Maternal grandmother 


Other relatives 







Conviction Charges













Sentence Length

2-15 years


Incarceration History

Prior conviction

Family member





On average, many of these women (83%) had one to three children, with the mean number of children being two. Respondents’ children’s ages ranged from less than a year to 24 years, with an average of eight years. During the time of their incarceration, half of the alternative caregivers for the incarcerated women’s children were the maternal grandmothers (50%). Approximately 27% of children resided with other relatives, and less than one quarter (23%) resided with their fathers at that time of the study. The women were most frequently incarcerated for drug crimes (i.e., manufacturing, possession, and sale) (N = 17 or 39%) and money crimes (e.g., identity theft, shoplifting, burglary, and robbery) (N = 18 or 41%), common among incarcerated women (see Beichner & Rabe-Hemp, 2014; Garcia-Hallett, 2019a; 2019b). Sentence length ranged from two to 15 years, with a mean sentence of six years. All the participants had prior offenses ranging from one to six, with the majority, 53% (N = 24), having one prior offense. In addition, 15 (34%) participants had a prior conviction. About 32% of all the women in the study had one or more incarcerated family members, most of whom (86%) were close family members like parents, siblings, and spouses.

Qualitative Analysis

The four themes (mothering, visitations, fears, and resilience) developed from this analysis cannot be understood in isolation because they intersect and overlap. To highlight that one cannot exclude these overlaps from the analysis, the four themes are connected by a broken line in the visual. For example, the mothering experiences of these incarcerated women cannot be understood outside of the visitations they receive from their children, and the visitations may not be understood, independent of the fears they develop upon seeing their children during these visits. In short, how these visitations are structured has a bearing on mothering, and, in turn, that can either infuse or diffuse their parenting fears. Consequently, all three themes shape the adaptation and survival strategies these mothers employ, which, in short, can be understood as the fourth theme – resilience. One last thing to note about this visual is the use of the phrase ‘emerging themes’ as opposed to Clarke and Braun’s (2018) advice. They argue that themes do not ‘emerge’ or ‘mushroom’ from the data; rather, the researcher creates them. While conscious of this argument, the researchers used this phrase to indicate what was coming out as the data was being weaved, not necessarily to imply that themes were lying dormant in the data waiting to be discovered. Some of the themes and manifestations are highlighted through interview excerpts.

Figure 1: Mind Map

Theme 1. Mothering

Consistent with the literature, many of the mothers in this study had adverse childhood experiences that included chaotic home environments and exposure to parental addiction. Some interviewees discussed that their expectations of motherhood emerged by being required to take on caregiver responsibilities for their siblings. Some interviewees recalled times in which their mothers were struggling with childcare, and they were required to assume the role.

[My mom] would say, “you need to do this [take care of my siblings]. Because she was sick, throwing up…the baby had to be changed, fed, you know…they needed to be taken care of. … I was 13 … taking care of them like that. (Avery)

As Avery’s comments detail, she was put into a position to care for her siblings shortly after she became a teenager. Not surprisingly, many women chose to employ parenting styles that were distinct from those of their own parents, as characterized here:

…I don’t want to be like my parents… not in the way they were physically abusive…I want to be strict and compromising. So, if [my children] want to have fun,[I will] let them have fun. But still do schoolwork and still be doing things you should be doing. (Chloe)

All of the women in this study were their children’s primary caregivers before incarceration. Given the key role that mothers play in the lives of their children – and, in most cases, the bond that comes with it, the pain of separation that comes with incarceration is substantial and is often reciprocal between the mother and the child or children. Thus, in the narratives given by participants in the current study, this pain was most evident in these women’s grief, self-blaming, and the subsequent compensatory affection they would give to their children during visitations. In telling their stories, grief was manifest through how the women would be crying during the interview (or in private), as in how Aria, a mother of four, noted, “I [cry] all the time.” Similarly, Emma, a mother of five, when narrating how being around other people’s children during carceral visitations brings mixed emotions in her, said:

…the kids…I got close with…they gave me a hug ‘n stuff like that, and… I hug ‘em back ‘n stuff, but … I go in my room and cry because I wish it was my kids that I was holdin’. (Emma)

Theme 2. Visitations.

Once incarcerated, visitations play a central role in maintaining the family bond that would have been threatened by the physical and emotional distancing that comes with imprisonment. In addition, it is a show of family support, which is a dire need for these mothers in dealing with carceral trauma. Visitation relates to the challenges that the study participants faced in, foremost, getting a visit and, second, how they related to their children during these visits. A majority of the women indicated that their families resided several hours from the prison, which translates into lengthy travel distances. Coupled with the age and compromised health of some of these alternative caregivers, it impedes the coordination of regular visits, given the driving distance.

Some of the participants indicated that their children were used as battle proxies by their estranged partners, who may either have assumed the caregiver’s role or would have acquired custody rights upon the mother’s incarceration. As a way of ‘getting back’ at them, the women noted two things – withholding visits or badmouthing – their estranged partners would do to frustrate the visits and, ultimately, the mother-child relationship. Thus, even though the children may eventually visit their incarcerated mother, the bond and relationship may already have been preemptively ruined. Quoted below are some of the concerns:

I never harassed [my child’s father] or talked down to ‘im …however, his dad…takes every little thing that he’s ever thought about me and throws it at [our son]. (Leah)

…it hurts when I talk to my children on the phone because my son’s like, ‘Daddy called and said he was coming to get us, but he ain't gonna show up.’ And one time… [my son] sat in front of [my parents’ window] for two hours waiting for daddy to come and he never came. (Claire)

Visitation challenges affected the amount and quality of time women spent with their children, which, on its own, is a recipe for parent-child estrangement. Estrangement in this context can be defined as the likelihood that a child’s attachment to the mother might be compromised because of long periods of separation. In this case, the separation was not only caused by incarceration but was exacerbated by intimate partner battles. Narratives from the women in this study voiced two relational areas where this estrangement can happen – parent-child estrangement or sibling estrangement – and these two may happen concurrently. The following statements capture the remarks of the women:

I have a ten-year sentence, so had [my son] not been [in the parenting program] with me, it would have been four years and three months before I finally got home…he would’ve known me as ‘mom,’ but I wouldn’t have been mom. (Layla)

Well, the biggest [concern with my kids] … is that they are all separated. They’re not only separated from me, but now they’re separated from each other. (Camilla)

Theme 3. Fears.

Due to factors related to their pre-incarceration, carceral, and post-incarceration trauma, women in this study experienced various fears about their primary caregiving role vis-à-vis their conspicuous absence from their children’s lives. Even though the majority of women in this study described the parenting program as “great,” “perfect,” or “good,” they were still concerned about the well-being of their children. This included women who may have given custody of their children to ‘trusted caregivers’ (like their biological parents), as they still felt they may have parented their children differently had they been in their lives. Most of their concerns centered on the effects parental incarceration had on their children, with the most recurring being anger issues, withdrawal, poor school performance, rebellion, and a host of other behavioral issues. Statements like, “he or she is always angry,” “acting out,” “sad,” “she cries all the time,” “…she gets pretty upset when she has to go,” and “they don’t wanna leave” (i.e., after visiting), were common in the narratives.

Carceral mothering included fears related to State surveillance, especially through children and family services. Given that most of the interviewed mothers in this study had a history of substance use, they felt they were under constant threat, not only of being separated from their children through incarceration, as several were recidivists but also through losing parental rights or custody. The mothers devised ways to circumvent state surveillance and the separation that typically follows it. Even before their incarceration, the women would shield their children from observing their addiction habits or sign-off children to ‘trusted caregivers’ once they knew the inevitability of their incarceration. Examples of these fears and circumvention strategies are captured in the remarks below:

…I figured the State was gonna take my baby once I had her. I didn’t know that my mom could come get her, or if I didn’t come [to the parenting program], I didn’t know any of that… (Zoey)

I had gotten into trouble, and I knew I was comin’ to prison, so I…temporarily signed over guardianship of my kids to my mom. (Leah)

Since most women in this study indicated their commitment to return to their primary caregiving role upon release, by extension, they anticipated the challenges that may stand in their way to achieve this. One such challenge is the burden of regaining the trust of their children. This is vividly captured in the words of Lucy’s daughter – “You’re never going to drink again, are you, Mom? You’re never going to touch alcohol?” – on one of her visits. For the purposes of this study, recovering mothering ought to be understood not as just a mother’s struggle to gain physical custody or physical motherhood of her children but also as inclusive of an expressed commitment to restoring relationships with her children. Below are some remarks that speak to the process of recovering mothering during or after incarceration:

It would have been a lot worse for me having to go home and trying to parent them now without having seeing them [in the program]. (Brooklyn)

I’ll probably have problems with my kids when I first get home…And it might be hard for me, like, first getting out. Getting ‘em back to the way things are, I guess. Back used to me bein’ around. (Maya)

Theme 4. Resilience.

Although study participants would face various parenting obstacles and the subsequent fear at all three stages (i.e., before, during, and after incarceration), the women emphasized the importance of surviving these negative circumstances. Therefore, in the context of this analysis, resilience is understood to mean the incarcerated mothers’ quest for survival, the motivation behind this quest, and the ensuing strategies they employed to realize it. This quest for survival and the strategies employed in anticipation of their return to mothering are referred to in this study as coping strategies as indicated here:

I don’t stress over it too much because I know God has my back. He’s gonna take care of me, you know, and I truly, truly believe that because he’s taken care of me through this whole thing. (Janet)

For others, surviving carceral-related negative circumstances required some form of collective value that goes beyond spirituality and family support. This collective value included passing on crucial information to incarcerated mothers, teaching less experienced mothers the dynamics of mothering, sharing experiences, praying for others, and collective mothering of other women’s children. For example, many women reported that they learned about the parenting program through other incarcerated mothers and first-time mothers would report that fellow women in prison taught them parenting skills.

The desire for self-improvement was evident mainly in three areas, i.e., cutting ties, education, and employment. The women sought to dissociate themselves from certain people whom they perceived to have pressured them into crime. Shunning these individuals included the possibility of relocating upon release to avoid staying in proximity to something that may drive them back into crime or addiction habits. Additionally, most participants expressed interest in improving their lives through education, as captured in this excerpt:

I plan to study as much as I can so that I am able to go home with a GED so…once I’m released, I can take some kind of classes to hopefully get a better job…I would like to expand my education, like go to school and get a better job. (Audrey)

In all these circumstances threatening motherhood noted above, the main motivation of these women to survive was their children. Certain statements such as, “I just think that my kids miss their mother” and “They want their moms, and they want you to come home” – showed the intense, reciprocal pain of separation, not uncommon in the narratives. In all this, children remained the main motivation to ‘pull through’ or persevere, even to the point of pledging desistance from crime in the future. As such, the intersection of prison and motherhood, the subsequent pain of separation, and a pledge to stay away from things that would threaten, once again, to separate them from their children were these incarcerated mothers’ bedrock for desistance, as depicted here.

I just don’t wanna go back to what I was doin’ before…I look at [my son] every day, and whenever I look at him…those thoughts ‘n what not just go away. (Violet)

… now, I’m sober… I have great relationships with my kids and my mom…all my family… I have no desire to even be around that partying life anymore or the people that I was hanging out with. (Leah)

This study examined incarcerated women’s pre-incarceration parenting experiences, their perceptions of the quality of relationships with their children, and their perceptions of the effects of their incarceration on their children. Four themes were developed as the end-product of the analysis: mothering, visitations, fears, and resilience. The themes intersected and overlapped in many respects, which prompted the development of a flow chart (i.e., mind map) to help explain the interaction. The narratives of women in this study confirmed most of the past literature’s findings, especially in two areas – the etiology of women offending and the ensuing challenges experienced at the intersection of prison and motherhood. While the former area is tied to discrimination, past abuse, and victimization, as well as drug dependence factors, the latter area sought to explain how women – especially mothers – resultantly experience prison differently compared to their male counterparts.

Overlaps with Prior Studies

One of the main overlaps of the present study with prior literature is carceral collectivism. This collectivism of surviving the carceral ordeal included sharing vital information (e.g., about parenting and other programming) to one another, teaching first-time mothers parenting skills, praying for one another, carceral caregiving of other women’s children while they attend – for instance – prison programs, and advising each other among several other things. This collectivism was not only limited to the carceral setting but extended to the outside world in the form of family support, whereby most of the alternative caregivers to the women’s children outside the prison were other women like mothers, grandmothers, and stepmoms. This ties into the “it takes a village to raise a child” or ‘collective motherwork’ notion (Gurusami, 2019) and ‘survival via the collective value’ (Garcia-Hallett, 2019b), thus encouraging mothers to remain resilient in the face of discrimination, criminalization, and overall systematic oppression (O’Reilly, 2014), like the overbearing state surveillance.

Narratives in the current study pointed out situations in which system-involved mothers had learned to anticipate and circumvent threats. This, for example, is captured vividly in Leah’s remark: “I had gotten into trouble, and I knew I was comin’ to prison, so I … temporarily signed over guardianship of my kids to my mom.” Just like Leah’s preemptive action of militating against anticipated state threats concerning recovering her post-incarceration mothering role, Gurusami (2019) refers to a similar situation as ‘crisis motherwork.’ The concept can be understood as the lengths and level of strife to which incarcerated (or formerly incarcerated) mothers can go in confronting immediate threats that would either prevent reunification (Gurusami, 2019) or lead to ‘loss of mothering opportunities’ (Wismont, 2000).

Studies have noted that ‘recovering mothering’ might be a mammoth task (Williams et al., 2020) which involves renegotiating their mothering role as the most challenging task (Scott, 2019). Though the process and its ensuing challenges may be more pronounced in the ‘mothering after prison’ phase (Scott, 2019; Williams et al., 2020), the narratives indicate that the process started during prison visitations. Mothers balanced their perceptions of culpability (e.g., “but it’s like who am I to tell him”) with re-exercising parental authority (e.g., “…I know I am not there, but I am still your mom…”). This is exacerbated by the grief and lack of autonomy in relation to the correctional system (Wismont, 2000), which then ties into remarks of powerlessness (e.g., “… we don’t have any control over what other people are doin,’ and what other people are pullin’ for us”) exhibited in the narratives of this study.

Consistent with prior research, spirituality played a pivotal role as a coping mechanism for dealing with carceral trauma, the pain of separation from their children, and anticipated threats (Rioux, 2007; Stringer, 2009; Wismont, 2000). Although spirituality helped participants cope with their prison-induced stress, it was a subtle confirmation of powerlessness or lack of autonomy (e.g., “…I don’t know how that happened, I guess it was just God…” or “…God willing…”), which knots with Stringer’s (2009) “put it in the Lord’s hands” or “keeping the faith” findings of his study. Perhaps carceral spirituality, in its entirety, can also be tied to the notion of resilience – a quest for survival beyond a mere restoration to the pre-crisis state (Garcia-Hallett, 2019a; Williams et al., 2020).

Another finding consistent with prior studies is the perceived effects of incarceration on children. Previous research noted that these effects may include school failure, antisocial behavior, and intergenerational incarceration (Arditti, 2015), as well as unstable living arrangements (Rossiter et al., 2015). Women in this study emphasized issues like anger, withdrawal, rebellion, and poor school performance, among other things. In terms of living arrangements, prior research noted that children of system-involved mothers are likely to have unstable living arrangements (Rossiter et al., 2015), as they likely end up living with relatives (Beichner & Rabe-Hemp, 2014). Upon their incarceration, most mothers reported that relatives took in their children as alternative caregivers, which, apart from a host of other effects, sometimes led to sibling separation and sibling estrangement.

Emerging Issues

Even though there are overlaps between the current study and past research, there were some new issues arising from the narratives of these women. One was women’s concern for the child's well-being in terms of the age and gender of the child upon separation. Women typically linked the child's age to the likelihood of estrangement; children who were old at the time of the prison-induced separation were reported to be more resentful towards their mothers. Children who were younger at separation were reported to have a compromised mother-child attachment as they would be too young to recognize them as their mom (e.g., “… he’s my mama baby…I’m nobody to him it seem like…”). Also, the respondents believed that because of the age of their children’s age vis-à-vis their conspicuous absence in their lives as mothers, they “matured too fast for their age.” The intersection of age, gender, and “maturity” was even a cause for more concern regarding girl children, as mothers would report that they would talk about “adult stuff” like dating with their children—some of whom were as young as ten years of age.

Relevance to Theory

True to previous findings, crimes committed by women in this study were nonviolent and linked to poverty (e.g., card fraud, retail theft, and drug sales). Most had a history of victimization and substance use. Pathways theory is captured vividly in the following remarks: “Because my first daughter’s dad…he just was not helping me at all. That’s when the criminal activity started. I got desperate. I started trying to figure out ways to take care of myself and my daughter, and I did it illegally” (Audrey); and “…I was sexually abused as a child by my cousin that lived with us, and I think we found out through the [drug treatment] program that that’s the core of my addiction – that more than likely the reason why I became an addict like I did” (Brooklyn).

According to attachment theory, it is typical for infants who have been separated from their parents to experience intense distress. This manifests in the extraordinary lengths (e.g., crying, clinging, and frantically searching) the infants would go to prevent separation from their parents or to re-establish proximity (Bowlby, 1982; Fraley, 2019). Several women described how their children would not want to leave or become sad when it was time to leave after visitations (e.g., “…she gets pretty upset when she has to go” or “they don’t wanna leave”). In addition, some respondents noted how their children would cry (e.g., “she cries all the time”) or have nightmares in the early days of the prison-induced separation (e.g., “He would wake up in the middle of the night, my mom said, screaming’ for me for, like, six months, he would do that”). This ties into the extraordinary lengths, like clinging and frantic searching, mentioned above.

Though we thought nuanced parenting differences would be outed using intersectionality theory as an analysis framework, the findings do not support much of it. This is likely because the women had remarkably similar social identities, save for – primarily – their race. The program itself may have produced a selection effect. For example, all women were mothers to young children, incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and enrolled in a prison program with strict eligibility criteria, which required that alternative caregivers bring the women’s children to the prison multiple times per month. The visitation criteria for the program alone would preclude participation from mothers without family support or those with families who did not have the financial capabilities to arrange consistent travel back and forth to the facility. Considered in this way, the lack of direct, intersectional findings may be a function of the financial privilege and family support required for inclusion in the program.

There was only one variation that reflected intersectionality: the mothers followed a racial trajectory of how they perceived their carceral experiences vis-à-vis their religious convictions. Black mothers tended to find solace in religion/spirituality, either as a coping mechanism or simply a sign of “giving up” and leaving their situations to fate or a higher power. Cunningham Stringer (2009), among others, provides an extensive review of the historical reasons African American families and communities in the U.S. have developed strong spiritual and religious convictions. She discusses the roots of religion and spirituality and the importance of providing hope for African Americans during slavery, as well as how the church has served as a mobilizing force in both Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, spirituality among system-involved African-American women was a buffer to maladaptive coping mechanisms (like criminal thinking) typically adopted to manage life stressors like gendered racism, financial stress, and network loss (Link & Oser, 2018). Staton-Tindall (2013) and her colleagues have also found spirituality to be a significant moderator of the relationship between traumatic life events and cocaine use among African-American women. In short, the intersectional pattern uncovered here seems to support Ellis’s (2018, p. 181) contention that “the dominant messages constructing the religious self are not only gendered, but also deeply intertwined with race and class.”

Limitations and Future Research

Qualitative research requires a time and resource investment that often precludes multi-jurisdictional study. Even though the data utilized for this study provides some compelling information on the experiences of incarcerated mothers, it is based on data collected from 44 convenient-sampled interviews conducted with incarcerated mothers participating in parenting programming. To reiterate, this parenting program allowed eight hours of visitation time per day, two to three times a month, in which incarcerated mothers would spend time with their children in a separate prison area. For mothers to qualify for the program, they had to satisfy the following requirements: (1) be serving time for a nonviolent offense, (2) not have child abuse or neglect issues logged with the state’s children and family service division, and (3) have an alternative caregiver or someone else in their family who would bring their children for a prison visit. On this note, it can be argued that these women were quite ‘privileged’ among their prison peers, and the sample does not represent all women parenting from prison.

Given this, the findings of the present study may not be generalizable to all incarcerated women. Future studies may be accomplished through the collaboration of research teams in various settings, like urban, rural, or even across regions, for both comparability of findings and for ensuring that some nuances that may result from these factors are captured. Further, future research may focus on interconnections between the age/gender of the child on prison-induced separation and parental perception of the severity of parent-child estrangement. Also, some research may pay attention to the heterogeneity of system-involved mothers (i.e., race, class, and age of mothers) and the overall impact it has on family.

Implications for Policy

As the number of system-involved women – most of whom are primary caregivers – continues to rise, it is important to acknowledge the harm posed to children. Consistent with Beichner and Hagemann (2022), we recommend abolishing incarceration sentences for non-violent offenders. If this practice were adopted, most system-involved mothers would not be separated from their children. They would instead serve their sentences in the community, near resources needed to address their trauma, substance use, and mental health needs. For the small proportion of mothers convicted of violent offenses, for whom incarceration would be ordered, we recommend providing intensive family and parenting programming designed to keep communication and visitation between parent and child consistent.

Also, we advocate for the use of gender-responsive programming (Ondeng, Sirera, & Kathungu, 2020)—both for those who must serve incarceration sentences and those who have or are returning home from prison to their communities. Gender-responsive programming: (1) acknowledges gender makes a difference; (2) fosters an environment based on safety, respect, and dignity; (3) promotes healthy connections to children, family, significant others, and the community; (4) addresses the web of appropriate social services; (5) addresses economic needs; and (6) improves coordination between community services (Wright et al., 2012).

Last, we suggest that gender-responsive programming include a trauma-informed, restorative justice approach to reentry. The approach would be developed to meet each returning woman’s needs and abilities, specifically considering her lifeworld, including her relationship with her children (Beichner & Hagemann, 2016; 2022). In this model, the woman selects people in her informal care network (i.e., family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues) to assist in her reentry care plan and its implementation. Because the woman is supported by people with whom she has developed trusting relationships over years of time, the relationships with her care network do not abruptly end after a designated period of supervision, such as the traditional reentry and supervision plans implemented and carried out by criminal justice officials (Beichner & Hagemann, 2022). This approach is imperative, given that most incarcerated women have histories of trauma and attachment issues. A restorative approach to reentry would include a plan for the transition back into the woman’s care-providing role. Because the alternative caregiver will be involved in the reentry care planning, the transition back to the primary care provider does not have to be immediate and can include the gradual increase of mothering responsibilities over time. Not only would this approach reduce the overwhelming anxiety and stress women experience in their transition home to their families, but it would also limit the disruption posed to children, who may have been residing with their alternative caregivers for years before their mother’s return from prison. In short, changing our reentry approach to self-determined, restorative plans supported by loved ones rather than criminal justice officials presents advantages to returning women and their children.


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Pious Maedzenge, M.S., is a doctoral student in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  He holds a master’s degree in Criminal Justice Sciences from Illinois State University (August 2021) and another master’s degree in Public Health [Global Health] (November 2015) from Thammasat University, Thailand. In addition, Pious has a Bachelor of Social Science degree in Criminology and International Studies (March 2014) from Monash University, South Africa. Pious' research interests range from gender and punishment, child justice, public policy, and corrections - with his favorite theoretical lens into these issues being Crenshaw's (1989) Intersectionality Theory. Given this, he is extremely enthusiastic about the well-being of families, women, and children.

Dawn Beichner-Thomas, Ph.D., is a professor in the Criminal Justice Sciences Department and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Illinois State University. Her research interests include victimology, justice system-involved people and their families, prisoner reentry, and restorative justice. Dr. Beichner is a member of the Executive Committee of the World Society of Victimology and represents the organization at the United Nations. She is also a research consultant for the YWCA Labyrinth Outreach Services to Women, a nonprofit organization that provides reintegration services to women returning home from prison and jail, and the Peoria Problem Solving Court.

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