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Women in prison: what about the children?


There are more than 200,000 women who are currently incarcerated; 115,000 in federal or state prisons and 99,000 in local jails. Nearly 1 million women are on probation–representing 26 percent of those on probation, and 98,000 are on parole.

Women’s incarceration has grown by more than 800 percent in the last three decades, while men’s incarceration has grown as rapidly. African American women’s incarceration–at 838 percent–has grown even more quickly than the incarceration of other women.

Why do women collide with the criminal justice system? An estimated 28 percent are there because of drug-related offenses–often associative offenses (they were in the car with the drugs, but the contraband wasn’t theirs); an equal number are in jail for property crimes–stealing, shoplifting, kiting checks, all crimes that are crimes of poverty. If these women were rehabilitated and given good jobs instead of incarcerated, we might save both money and lives.

Between 66 and 80 percent of the women who are incarcerated are mothers. Most of them provided primary care to their children before they were locked up. Many of the children whose mothers are incarcerated are in foster care, although some remain with relatives.

Some are allowed to visit their mothers in jail, but what kind of maternal bonding experience is that? The children of the incarcerated are likely to be incarcerated themselves a generation later. In some ways, they serve time for their mama’s crimes. Why, in some of these cases, is rehabilitation not an option?

White women are the majority of those incarcerated, at 45 percent. African American women, just 13 percent of the population, are 33 percent of those incarcerated. Latina women are 16 percent of those incarcerated. However, this is not a “Black thing,” although Black women are so disproportionately incarcerated that it is striking. Why? Perhaps because the criminal justice system is a one that is run mostly by White males, and there is little sympathy for women of African descent.

The well-documented reality of prosecutorial discretion cuts a break for some women, but not for Black women. Police officers, prosecutors, parole officers, and judges are disproportionately White male. They bring all their biases about Black women to the table when they arrest, charge, and sentence Black women. Why else would an Ohio court (thank you, Boyce Watkins, for lifting this case up) sentence Kelley Williams Bolar to days in jail because she sent her children to the “wrong” school, using her dad’s address to allow them access to a better education?

Had Williams Bolar been a White woman, she would be a poster child for the school choice movement. Instead, this sister will not be able to pursue her dream to teach (as she completes her education) if she is convicted of the crime she is accused of. How dare Connecticut prosecutors go after Tonya McDowell for grand larceny because she used a friend’s address to send her child to school? Homeless, what was she supposed to do? Keep her child out of school and support ignorance? Again, a White woman might be described as enterprising for taking these steps. A Black woman is incarcerated.

What about the children? What happens when a child sees her mother fighting for her rights only to end up in prison? What kind of bitterness and anger does this engender? What does it mean for the next generation? When mothers choose to fight for their children they should be affirmed, not jailed, for their tenacity. When we choose to recklessly disregard the power of mother advocacy and motherlove, the result is a multi-generational cycle of societal indifference.

Michigan State University’s African American Studies Department produces a biennial race conference, and this year’s theme was Race and the Criminal Justice System. In preparing my closing keynote on the Economic Impact of Women in the Criminal Justice System, I had the opportunity to revisit some of my old work, and to think about the many complex ways that gender collides with a “just-us” system that is replete with bias. I am grateful to colleague Curtis Stokes for the opportunity to review this issue once again, but I am mostly chagrined that things have gotten worse, not better, for women who connect with the criminal justice system.

The United States incarcerates more people than any other country-about 753 people per 100,000 in 2008. The next highest countries are Poland, at 224 per 100,000, and Mexico at 209 per 100,000. Ten percent of those we incarcerate are women, and too many of them have children. Can we do better? If we prioritized rehabilitation over incarceration we could. And if we can’t, we will have hell to pay next generation.

Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women and author of “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.” (

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