Remember moms behind bars

James Alan Fox

May 6, 2015


Children are innocent victims of the justice system when mothers are incarcerated.

This coming Sunday is a joyous holiday for most women with children, but certainly not all. On this day, my thoughts are with the countless mothers for whom the holiday is a sad reminder of tragedy and loss. My heart goes out to those women whose children cannot be by their side or even send a card bearing expressions of love because of the awful fact that they were murdered.

It is often said that mothers are not supposed to outlive their offspring, not supposed to bury a child. That devastating loss a parent's worst nightmare can be fused with anger and bitterness when the child's death was the result, not of accident or illness, but of the intentional and senseless act of another.

The flip side of the separation equation impacts mothers whose sons or daughters have committed murder. In the court of public opinion, these parents are held accountable, often unfairly, for all the mistakes they might have made in raising a child who did the unimaginable.

With mixed emotions, I also think about women locked away for their own transgressions who share Mother's Days with their children inside the stark and sterile confines of a prison visiting room. A 2010 Pew report estimates that as many as 120,000 mothers of minor children are serving time in state or federal prisons. This, in turn, represents more than a quarter million children younger than 18 whose mothers are behind bars. These figures have grown over the past two decades, even while the nation's crime rate has fallen.

Many Americans, of course, see the plight of incarcerated moms as just punishment for their criminal irresponsibility. Whatever one's sympathies in this regard, we can agree that the truly innocent victims are their children. Not only deprived of a mother's nurturing, they also must endure the stigma and embarrassment linked to crimes in which they had no role. Imagine the teasing that some must face at school for having a mother in prison. Imagine, too, the pain of being ostracized by peers for being a criminal's kid.

While browsing through the rack of Mother's Day cards categorized for all sorts of situations, from expectant moms to mothers-in-law, I now contemplate the fact that Hallmark hasn't created a line of cards for incarcerated mothers. At least on this Sunday, however, I will be thinking of those who struggle to maintain a meaningful mother-child bond despite the hardship of imprisonment, and especially of those whose relationship was forever shattered by violence.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University and co-author of The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder. He also is a member of the USA TODAY's Board of Contributors..