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Women Serving Time With Their Children: The Challenge of Prison Mothers

The prison population has been experiencing a peculiar demographic shape. The numbers of women prisoners have continued to increase and this has drawn the attention of those concerned. Crimes that do not involve violence, substance abuse, mental health issues, single motherhood and homelessness are some of the reasons why women have been imprisoned. Women prisoners experience a number of challenges. Some of these include mistreatment by prison staff and other inmates. They have also suffered from separation from their families, while mothers of toddlers serve their sentences together with their children in jails. This has always raised the complex question of whether this amounts to jailing an innocent minor. At the same time, the state cannot deny the same minors care from their mothers. The purpose of this paper is to he highlight the situation in American jails for mothers serving with their children and compare it to some countries in the third world countries.

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The law in America requires that mothers stay with their children as a first priority. Prisons have therefore opened nurseries for children of mothers who are serving short terms for non-violent crimes (Jordan, 2011). Because of this provision, prisons have had to make necessary arrangements to accommodate these children and make their life as comfortable as possible. Prisons have created rooms for a nursery where professional take care of these children. At specified times, children spend time with their parent in their cells or in the yards and at other times they spend at in-house baby care centers. Some of the mothers give birth while inside the prison (McKinley, 2007). Whilst some prisons have nurseries for these children, some states do allow motherhood programs where prison mothers give parental care to their children from outside the prison. Such an approach is receiving a lot of support from the civil society (Neyer, 2010)

Prison health services take care of pregnant prisoners. Care of pregnant prisoners has improved tremendously with better handling and transport of pregnant prisoners to hospital when due for delivery done in a professional manner (Gabel and Johnson, 1995). Women who have complicated pregnancies are taken to proper hospitals for specialized treatment under guard. This is usually a dreaded experience as the prison guards humiliate women when they subject them to the routine body strip search. When time comes for them to deliver, the prison administrators should take them to hospitals. This is again a guarded trip and the woman is to return to prison within 24 hours after delivery (McKinley, 2007).

The question of parental rights has never been far from this discussion. Some states withdraw parental rights, when the mother is jailed for two years or more. They argument is that the mother has neglected the child. Activists claim that it amounts to kidnapping the child by the state and want legal reforms to address this issue (Warner, 2010). Critics of such withdrawal of parents’ rights argue that women who have had to give up parental rights have up to three times the probability of committing the crime again, than mothers who stay with their children in jail. (Jordan, 2011). Jordan (2011) adds that based on the new findings this idea is gaining more support in America as it saves money that would have been used in having offenders back in jail

Women prisoners agree that having children in jail has a very positive effect on the general atmosphere in jails. Despite the fact that jails are known to be violent places, the inmates themselves have taken it upon themselves to protect their children. There is a spirit of unity for all the mothers and prisoners at large towards how they treat these children. Prisoners treat each child as their own. No violence or mistreatment is reported towards the children. The bonding with their children also increases the chances of the mother never repeating the crime they have been convicted for (McKinley, 2007).

McKinley (2007) reports that there are several challenges that mothers bringing up their children in jail face. Those who lack financial assistance from their relatives to take care of the baby’s always find themselves at odds, as they cannot afford to care for their children financial needs. Some mothers have also complained of the hygiene of the food served in prison and opt to source for their children’s food from outside. This is usually too expensive. During cold spells, children living with their mothers suffer a variety of health complications because of the cold and dump prison conditions. While all these are day-to-day challenges, mothers who are serving long jail terms live with the fear of knowing that when their children turn six they will have to be separated. This problem is shared by the nannies who confirm that their biggest challenge is preparing these children to part with their parents. However, McKinley (2007) notes those children who are living with their mothers in jail do not show any signs of violence or criminal behavior. This is because most of them are too young to know what a prison is.

The idea of having children live with their mothers has met criticism in some quarters. Some critics argue that when mothers commit crime and jailed as a result they should automatically forfeit their parental right (Cole, 2009). Children have a right to living in a safe environment and therefore it is improper to bring them up amongst criminals. Prisons environment denies these children their rights to a safe growing environment. Allowing mothers to bring up their children in jails is denying them this safety. Some critics argue that prisons are criminal rehabilitation centers and not baby care centers (Jordan, 2011)

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While America has taken drastic steps in addressing this moral dilemma, some countries lag behind in acknowledging that this is an issue that needs urgent attention. In Zimbabwe, children who live with their mothers in prison live in very poor conditions. They share the same overcrowded cells with other inmates. Availability of food is another challenge. There is a faint attempt to provide these children with food but because of the poor economic status in Zimbabwe, most of this food comes from donors and usually runs out very fast. Lack of food leads the babies to suffer from malnutrition ailments such as kwashiorkor. The health condition is so poor and provisions wanting such that many children have died in Zimbabwe’s prisons because there was no doctor in charge when the children got sick. Zimbabwe allows for custody of children whose mothers have been jailed. This is only if their fathers apply to keep their children when the mother goes to jail. When the fathers do not claim custody, prisons only hope for well-wishers to adopt these children and give them a chance of better life (Shukla, 2010).

The situation is the same in Indian jails. Children share the same crowded cells with such hardcore criminals as killers, thieves and commercial sex workers. The health conditions are so poor that it exposes the children to attacks of diseases. The food is barely hygienic enough for human consumption leave alone for a baby. To make the situation worse, some jails house women together with men. When children live with their mothers in jail, there are no trained professional to provide baby care. Prisons in Indian see their primary role, as punishing offenders and prisons are therefore not sensitive to the needs of these children. Just like Zimbabwe, Indian prisons do not provide education services to children living with their mothers in jail, leading to mentally maldeveloped children. There is little help though from NGOs, who run day care centers in prison to teach these children. This attempt is however not very practical because sometimes very few children live with their mothers in jail at a particular time (Patel, 2010).

The Indian government made provisions for nurseries to be constructed near prisons so that children of jailed mothers can be taken care away from criminals. However, there has been no change as no law was made to make sure that this provision was implemented. Studies in India have proved that children who live with their mothers in jail progressively adopt very negative attitude toward life. These children, upon release from jails find it very hard to be incorporated back into the society. The effect is that these children have a very high probability of involving themselves in criminal activities. Children activist in India argue that by ignoring the plight of these children, Indian is running a system that produces future criminals. (Patel, 2010)

Women prisoners have provided a new challenge to prisons all over the world. Jails in developed countries have had to re-modify to accommodate the needs of women. When jailed women are mothers of very small babies, this presents an unique situation. While these women must face the consequences for criminal behavior, they state cannot deny their children of the right to parental care. Some women are also pregnant by the time they are sentenced and therefore have to be jailed in such condition. It therefore becomes the prisons responsibility to take care of these pregnant prisoners and their young children. There are several similarities of conditions of women living with their children in jail in the three countries. Food provided by prisons is not hygienic enough for baby’s consumption. In America some prison mother opt to buy food for their children from outside, while in Zimbabwe and India, food is barely enough and children suffer from ailments associated with malnutrition. Children in prison also suffer poor health because of poor living condition in jails. While in America there is an available prison doctor, sometimes the prescriptions provided are too expensive for mothers to afford. The major difference between these countries is that in America, there is an implemented law to ensure that these children are protected and pregnant prisoners given decent health care. In Zimbabwe and India however, no law is known to exist and therefore these children continue to suffer the same fate as their mothers. Whether to allow mothers to serve with their children or not, is an ongoing debate, which is not yet conclusive. However, continued improvement in these services is necessary to take care of the innocent children.


Cole, S (2009). Moms in prison. 1011now. Web.

Gabel, K and Johnson, D. (1995). Children of incarcerated mothers. New York: Lexington books

Jordan, E (2011). Prison nurseries cut female inmates’ risk of reoffending. Thegazette. Web.

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McKinley, J (2007). In prison, toddlers serve time with mom. New York Times. Web.

Neyer, K. (2010). Pregnant and in prison. Pregnancy Advice. Web.

Patel, M. ( 2010). Children of lesser gods. India Today. Web.

Shukla, A. (2010). ZIMBABWE: Children doing time with their mothers. NewZimSituation. Web.

Warner, K. (2010). Pregnancy in prison: A Personal Story. Women and Prison. Web.

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