In The News: Prisoners Who Are Parents

In a move designed to reunite mothers with dependent children, the State of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has plans for approximately 4,000 non-violent women offenders to return to their communities, the majority to Los Angeles County. The program’s intent is to promote successful family reunification and is seen as an important step in the process of breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration and recidivism.

As the only program in California that specifically targets this population, the Center is uniquely qualified to provide education and assistance related to critical family law issues faced by incarcerated and post-incarcerated women.

Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, due in large part to the increase in incarceration for drug and other non-violent offenses. The majority of incarcerated women live in poverty and have limited educational and work opportunities. Many grew up in the foster care system and as a result, have had difficult lives. They often have been the victim of multiple abusive relationships as children and adults, leading to low self-esteem and the use of drugs and alcohol. Numerous studies have now shown there is an indisputable connection between women in prison and domestic violence – over 80% of female inmates have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse as children and adults compared to 13% of men. Experts believe that the trauma created by domestic violence and sexual assault is one of the major reasons women become substance abusers resulting in multiple arrests for drug-related crimes.

Children of incarcerated parents are severely affected by the separation. They exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety, are more likely to drop out of school and engage in criminal behavior that results in being incarcerated themselves. Studies show that having a mother who is incarcerated is more damaging than having an incarcerated father.

In partnership with the Los Angeles County Sheriff, the Center launched the Mothers Behind Bars project in 2006 following a successful trial run in 2004-05 at the Los Angeles County Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Offered at the LA County Women’s Jail, the overall objective of the program was to help incarcerated women make more informed decisions and personal choices with regard to the welfare, safety and security of their children and themselves. The novel course is divided into three, 90-minute legal education courses entitled a) Domestic Violence and Life Skills, b) Paternity and Child Support, and c) Dependency Court. Dependency Court cases involve the protection of children that have been or are at risk of being abused, neglected, or abandoned.

In addition to the Mothers Behind Bars project, the Center offers services to post-incarcerated women through its Family Reunification and Re-Entry program. The Center’s Reunification project addresses the family law needs of the women. This unique service provides legal education and direct legal assistance regarding parental rights, child custody, visitation, support and paternity issues, and also addresses domestic violence. As with the Mothers Behind Bars project, this project is designed to help the women make better, more informed decisions and personal choices related to the welfare of their children and themselves.

Goals include:

  • Educating post-incarcerated mothers about what it means to act in the best interests of their children;
  • Facilitating meaningful parent-child relationships by assisting mothers to regain quality visitation and custody rights;
  • Ending and preventing domestic violence;
  • Providing tools to access and utilize community resources and public benefits;
  • Conducting training for staff of other organizations that provide services to post-incarcerated women.

For more information about the Center’s work with mothers who have been incarcerated please contact Staff Attorney, Equal Justice Works Project, Katherine Ojeda Stewart,