When most of us picture the 2 million people held behind bars in the United States, we don’t imagine a single mother grieving the absence of children she may not see for months or years. Yet that scene is becoming more and more common in the nation’s prisons and jails. There are more than 200,000 women incarcerated in this country, and their numbers have grown twice as fast as incarcerated men over the last several decades. But gender stereotypes can make them easy to overlook and inspire cruel misconceptions about who they are. This Women’s History Month, we are calling attention to the increasing burden of imprisonment on women and their families with three surprising facts about being a woman behind bars.
1. Women who are incarcerated more often struggle with mental illness, addiction, and trauma
These factors contribute to the circumstances that land women in prison even more often than they do for men. About twice as many women as men in jail custody have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, and one study found that 82 percent of jailed women have struggled with a substance use disorder.
Lisa Kessler-Peters had struggled with major depression and anxiety for years before she spent 8 months in a central Pennsylvania jail. After an accident left her with a traumatic brain injury, she became addicted to the medications her doctor prescribed. Her injury prevented her from returning to work as a therapist for children with special needs, and her marriage had recently broken up, leaving her without any financial means to support her three children: two girls ages eight and nine and a three-year-old boy. The financial stress, underlying mental health issues, and substance use was a “trifecta of disaster” that Lisa says led her to selling drugs and doing sex work.
“I said, ‘I’m just going to have to do whatever I have to do to take care of my kids,’” Lisa recalls.
2. Most incarcerated women are somebody’s mother
Eighty percent of women in jails and nearly 60 percent of women in prisons have children. Incarceration strains the bonds with their children, and can jeopardize their parental rights. Adrian Perry’s 9-year-old daughter, the youngest of her three children, was put up for adoption while she was imprisoned for 9 months in a Philadelphia jail.
“I couldn’t fight it, due to the predicament I was in,” Adrian says. The separation from her children affected her mental health, giving her “headaches, anxiety, sleepless nights.”
"I don’t know how anybody could expect a mother to be of sound mind without her children,” Adrian says.
Incarceration is harmful for the children, too. The trauma of being disconnected from a parent can contribute to problems in school and mental health issues in both the short and long term.
3. Incarcerated women face more barriers to receiving visits from children and family members
One study found that over 60 percent of women at a maximum security prison had never had a visit from their children. Children may be barred from visiting mothers who have lost custody rights. In Pennsylvania prisons, restrictive visiting policies that require children to be accompanied by an adult caregiver create barriers for some families. County jails often impose other rules that keep them apart. Philadelphia jails prohibit children from visiting during school hours, making it nearly impossible for many kids to make the trip before visiting hours end at 4 p.m.
Often, the issue is a simple matter of physical distance. Women are imprisoned in a smaller number of gender-specific facilities, meaning families often have to travel great distances to see them. Pennsylvania only has two state correctional institutions for women. According to one study, 60 percent of incarcerated mothers live over 100 miles away from their children.
Lisa Kessler-Peters and Adrian Perry are now members of the Prison Society’s Community Advisory Council. We thank them for sharing their stories to highlight the unique challenges faced by incarcerated women.
We are here to help.