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Interrupted LifeExperiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States$

Rickie Solinger and Rebecca Sharitz

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780520252493

Published to California Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520252493.001.0001

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(p.63) Part Two Being a Mother from Inside

(p.63) Part Two Being a Mother from Inside

Interrupted Life
University of California Press


Part Two Being a Mother from Inside

John and Mom, 2002. Women’s Community Correctional Center, Kailua, Hawaii. Photograph by Cindy Ellen Russell

(p.65) THIS SECTION EXPLORES THE DEEPLY EMOTIONAL REALITY of separation, loss, and grief that characterizes the experiences of so many mothers behind bars. It also looks at policies and programs that aim to respond to maternal incarceration, including some that facilitate the end of maternity and others that open spaces for honoring it.

A number of currently and formerly incarcerated mothers write in this section about the ways that tragic personal mistakes—along with the institution itself, institutional staff, and harmful applications of law and policy—threaten and degrade the possibilities of maternity from inside. For example, Kimberly Burke describes in searing detail a child’s-eye view of parental authority while at a visiting center. Carole E. and others write about losing their children to foster care and adoption. Some women write about losing the opportunity even to have memories of their children’s lives. A mother yearns, “I wish I was there to put you to sleep.”

Sometimes prison authorities permit programs on the premises that help parents create and maintain bonds with their children. (Often these programs are developed by outsiders and staffed by volunteers.) For example, four women describe the Story Book Project at Bedford Hills prison in New York, which encourages incarcerated mothers to record good-night stories on tape, allowing children to hear their mothers’ voices reading them to sleep. Small groups of women in Washington State, Nebraska, and California describe other projects that refuse to treat “prisoner” and “mother” as incompatible roles.

(p.66) One chapter offers an excerpt of Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind, a manual written by staff at the Administration for Children Services, the child protective agency in New York City, which provides tips to incarcerated parents about how to retain legal custody of their children. In a chapter on the impact of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, Philip Gently and his coauthors show how easily parents can lose custody of children who are in foster care because of federal and state laws that shorten the time frame within which the state can permanently sever parental ties without taking incarceration into account.

Kathy Boudin and other women locked away from their children write in this section about how being a mother, even under these circumstances, can be a way of envisioning freedom, imagining the deep companionship of relation, dreaming about the dignities of being a beloved guide, and conjuring up the possible meanings of “guidance.” Mothers writing in this section speak a great deal about their horror and shame about what they have lost but also about what they still hope to find.