Helping “Invisible” Mothers and Their Families


There are now more mothers behind bars than at any other point in US history. But these mothers are invisible to most of us. They exist mostly as caricatures of the ultimate bad mother. They are viewed as the mothers who violated the basic maternal commitment to care for their children and instead engaged in wrongful criminal activities. But, in truth, mothers’ pathways to incarceration are complex, and most often rooted in issues of sexual and physical violence.  Most mothers behind bars were first victims of violence. The shared narrative arc of mothers behind bars is that of repeated experiences of brutal sexual and physical victimization.

Most of these incarcerated mothers have been convicted of a non-violent crime, and most are entering prison for the first time. These heightened rates of incarceration have wreaked havoc on family stability and child well-being as most mothers behind bars were the primary caretakers of their minor children prior to incarceration. Maternal incarceration wrongly leaves children behind, without recognition of children’s fundamental need for their mothers. Unfortunately, incarcerated women and their children are subject to federal and state correctional policies that fail to honor family bonds or recognize the distinct needs of pregnant and parenting women behind bars.

Sentencing alternatives, however, allow mothers with minor children to be sentenced to community-based facilities. And what is especially needed is the option of alternative sentences to family-based treatment programs. These are programs that permit mothers and their children to live together while the entire family receives therapeutic treatment to recover from addiction. More than sixty percent of mothers achieve sobriety at the end of the treatment process, and they succeed at stabilizing their families.

It is also more cost-effective to support family treatment than to relegate a mother to the criminal justice system and her children to foster care. When family treatment costs are compared to the costs of incarcerating a substance-abusing mother and placing her children in foster-care, the savings to the state and nation are significant.

For example:

  • Family treatment costs average between $14,000 to $25,000 per family per year depending on the state (for example, in Utah it costs about $14,000 and in New York treatment is approximately $25,000).
  • The average cost of one child in the foster care system is $37,000 per year.
  • The average cost of state and federal incarceration of a mother is $30, 000 per year.
  • The Department of Justice (2002) concluded that lifetime costs of caring for drug exposed children range from $750, 000 to $1.4 million per child.

Alternative sentencing to family-based treatment programs promotes best evidence-based outcomes and cost-effective approaches for mothers behind bars–and honors the sacred ties between these mothers and their children.

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To schedule an interview with Malika Saada Saar please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • dmoshenberg

    Thank you for this timely intervention. A group of us is discussing Jennifer Gonnerman’s Life on the Outside this wee, and your article will provide the perfect context.