Collateral Damage: Women, Incarceration and Children

By Barbara Baumgartner
Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Associate Director, Washington University Prison Education Program

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. That’s a shocking, but true statement. How did we get here?

Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971, but it continued and intensified when Ronald Reagan was elected president, and it was under the Reagan administration that the United States began an incarceration binge. After years of relatively stable prison population rates, the country decided to deal with increasing drug usage and rising crime by locking people up. Congress and many states, including Missouri, passed mandatory minimum laws that imposed obligatory sentences for certain crimes, mostly drug offenses, and took all sentencing discretion away from judges. These mandatory minimums often stipulated long prison sentences, even for nonviolent, first-time offenders, and greatly contributed to the meteoric rise in the prison population. In 1980, the incarceration rate in the United States was 139/100,000; by 2013, it 698/100,000. The 2013 incarceration rates of our peer countries, such as England (148/100,00), Canada (106/100,00), France (100/100,000) and Germany (78/100,000) illustrate how extreme and unusual our propensity is for locking up our citizens.

Concurrent with the rising prison population was a change in prison philosophy from reform to punishment. Instead of providing incarcerated individuals with vocational training, educational opportunities and treatment for mental-health issues, prisons became warehouses with little to offer its residents for intellectual stimulation or personal or occupational growth and development. One of the more consequential cuts to prison programming was the change in Pell grants. In 1994, Congress eliminated Pell-grant eligibility to those in prison, and while GED programs remained, higher-level educational opportunities virtually vanished.

With a heightened awareness of the implications of this educational deficit, a group of faculty at Washington University proposed a prison education program. In fall 2014, the Washington University Prison Education Program, generously funded by the Office of the Provost at Washington University and the Bard Prison Initiative, began teaching for-credit courses for both staff and inmates at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison in Pacific, Mo. The goal is to better prepare incarcerated individuals for reentry by providing them with a high-quality education in the liberal arts, as well as skills and knowledge relevant to career development. In addition to offering courses in prison, the Prison Education Program is dedicated to educating the larger community to pertinent issues about mass incarceration and the subsequent consequences to individuals, communities and the nation. One of the highlights of this year’s special events sponsored by the Prison Education Program is the illuminating documentary When the Bough Breaks, which provides an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of children whose mothers have been incarcerated.

“When the Bough Breaks”
Wednesday, February 24, 6:30 pm
Whitaker Hall
Click here for more information
Currently, women constitute approximately 7 percent of the prison population, but their numbers have been increasing. Changes in policies in the 1980s resulted in women being sent to prison at higher rates than men. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of women in prison increased at almost 1.5 times the rate of men: In this 30-year period, the number of incarcerated women rose by 646 percent. Communities of color were even more profoundly affected: The 2013 imprisonment rate for black females (113 per 100,000) was twice the rate of white females (51 per 100,000).
Although it is devastating for families when either parent goes to prison, it is particularly difficult for children when their mothers are locked up. Women are more likely than men to have minor children who lived with them prior to their being sent to prison, and while biological mothers most often care for children when fathers go to prison, the reverse is not true: When women go to prison, it’s usually grandparents or other relatives who take in the children.

The film When the Bough Breaks by Jill Evans Petzall and Deeds Rogers, vividly brings these statistics and trends to life. The documentary follows three families whose individual circumstances are very different. They are separated by neighborhood, by race, by family composition, but they all share the common experience of having an incarcerated mother. Through this film, we have the rare opportunity to look inside the lives of families who experience the devastation that follows the losing of a mother, and/or a daughter, to prison.

The three families are all from St. Louis, and each of the women is incarcerated in the Women’s Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center, one of two prisons for women in Missouri, located in Vandalia, a small town about 100 miles from St. Louis. In an opening scene, we follow the children as they travel on a bus, along with other children of incarcerated mothers, on the nearly two-hour trip to visit their moms. Although not specified in the film, the comfortable coach bus is provided for free to the children and their caregivers by Let’s Start, a 26-year-old local organization that provides support for women in prison and for the children and other family members they have left behind.

In the film, we meet Laurie and Missy, whose grandparents are raising them while their mother is in prison. The grandfather, in particular, is devoted and loving to his grandchildren, but he and his wife are suffering from health problems, and the grandmother’s constant foot pain makes her “kind of cranky,” as her husband puts it. It’s clear that this older couple did not expect to be spending their “golden years” caring for their grade-school-age grandchildren while their daughter served time. As the grandfather says, “It’s hard on me; it’s hard on their grandmother; it’s hard on a lot of people. You think you send one person to jail. No, it affects a whole lot of people.” The children are clearly affected. As their mother notes, her eldest daughter is angry and her youngest is withdrawn. Her crime: forging a prescription, receiving five years’ probation, and then not reporting to her parole officer. She admits breaking the law, but “I didn’t hold a gun.” While her children are taken care of by her elderly parents, and she is in prison, both of the state’s expense, the question remains: What problem has been solved? Is this the best way to deal with this crime? Is incarceration the most effective treatment for drug addiction? Is separating children from parents, especially their mothers when they are the primary caregivers, a good idea for someone who has committed a nonviolent offense?

In addition to Missy and Laurie’s family, the film also relates the stories of Angie, Tanya and John, whose mother, Denise, is serving time in prison for a drug-related offense. Denise’s mother is caring for these three children, but her youngest child, James, was born while she was in prison and is being raised by foster parents. The children’s grandmother is crushed by poverty, and the family is evicted from their home, creating additional turmoil in a life that is defined by instability.

Finally, the film follows Roosevelt Jr., a 15-year-old who was six when his mother was sent to prison for stealing clothes at Neiman Marcus. Because it was her third conviction, her misdemeanor turned into a felony, and she received a 15-year sentence. Roosevelt Jr. initially stayed with his grandmother when his mother went to prison, because his father was also serving time. After his father was released from prison, Roosevelt Jr. ultimately went to live with him, but the reunion of father and son is a complicated one, as the film reveals.

The innocent children whose mother or father has gone to prison remain collateral damage of our country’s continued infatuation with mass incarceration. Although When the Bough Breaks was released in 2001, the issues that the film illuminates — the devastating loss that children feel when their mother is incarcerated, the behavioral and educational problems that can accompany it, the time lost that can never be recovered — are all too pressingly relevant today. It is a film that should be required viewing for every legislator and U.S. citizen alike, so that we can all begin to understand the wide-ranging and destructive effects of our hysterical national compulsion to lock up our citizens, no matter what the cost.