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Children of incarcerated mothers make postcards like these to travel in an art exhibit, "Interrupted Life."


Mothers among the fastest growing prison population

by Cat Mayin Koo
March 11, 2010


koo viol

Cat Mayin Koo/MEDILL

National Crime Victimization Survey and Uniform Crime Reports actual and reported violent crime from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. CLICK on image to see larger chart.

corr pop koo

Cat Mayin Koo/MEDILL

Federal correctional populations, 1980 to 2008 from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. CLICK on image to see larger chart.

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Cat Mayin Koo/MEDILL

Female offenders in Illinois, data from the Illinois Department of Corrections. CLICK on image to see larger chart.

'War on drugs'

The modern “war on drugs” that began in the 1980s marked a metamorphosis in the way America policed and punished.   

A slew of drug laws were altered to have heavier penalties. 

One of the effects of this is drug offenders in the nation’s prisons skyrocketed by almost 1,100 percent from around 41,000 in 1980 to 490,000 in 2003, while national violent crime rates plummeted, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  

In Chicago, drug arrests in 1980 made up only 5 percent of total arrests. By 2003 they made up 28 percent of all arrests, according to a report by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit.  


Girls and justice

Girls make up the fastest growing population of juvenile delinquents, according to the U.S. Justice Department.   

National trends show that crime is dropping, but in Illinois in 2006, there were 26 percent more female juveniles incarcerated than in 1996, according to the state Department of Corrections.  

“Changes in enforcement mean that girls are being put away more,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a researcher at the University of Hawaii-Manoa who studies girls in gangs.  

Even if crimes that girls commit tend to be less violent than those of boys, sentencing has gotten more severe, Chesney-Lind said.  

“If a girl runs away and she comes back home, her family could call her in on burglary,” she said.  

Most girls that get in trouble have a history of trauma or abuse, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Experts like Chesney-Lind say that girls in juvenile facilities need trauma-informed treatment that consider histories of abuse.   


She squared her posture and with a piercing, straight-ahead look, the 49-year-old grandmother of six said, “Crack. I was ad­dicted to crack for over 20 years.”  

Darlene Horton, now an advocate at Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, paid the price for her addiction. The Peoria native went to prison twice, the first for most of a year in 1997 and the second for two and a half years less than a decade later.   

Both were nonviolent offenses that left her four children without a parent.   

Horton’s tale is emblematic of one of the fastest growing prison populations in the state and county: mothers.   

Between 1990 and 2005, the number of women in Illinois prisons quadrupled, according to the state Department of Corrections.   

At both the state and county level, about 80 percent of women are convicted of nonviolent crimes and around 80 percent of them are single mothers, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Cook County Sheriff's office.  

A main reason for this dramatic upswing is most of these crimes – up to 80 percent - are drug related, said Gail Smith, executive director of the advocacy group.    

"Sentencing has gotten much, much harsher on drugs since the ‘war on drugs’ began in the 1980s," Smith said.   

Changed laws impacted more women, poor and African-Americans, said Patricia O’Brien, a social work researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies incarcerated mothers.   

Penalties for crack cocaine, found more often in poor black neighborhoods, are 10 times more severe than penalties for powder cocaine, which is more expensive and found more in affluent white communities.   

“It did next to nothing to the drug king pins, but it destroyed many, many lives,” Smith said.

Stacking trauma  

Back in the downtown office, Horton unravelled her personal history of abuse, incest and rape.   

Horton began using drugs to “start looking for love and the feeling of not feeling,” she said.   

In Cook County, eight of 10 female offenders have been physically or sexually abused and more than three-quarters of them are addicted to drugs.   

O’Brien found the link between abuse and addiction common in her research.  

“Women tend to internalize their pain and that’s where the drug use and the alcohol come to play – self-medication,” O’Brien said.  

Smith described imprisonment as adding to this pain.   

“Most women who come out of prison have been abused, so you’re putting trauma on trauma,” Smith said   

O’Brien’s research shows that trauma is one of the pathways that lead women to crime. Others include early exposure to crime and the absence of a parent.   

Missing moms  

Horton’s children never came to visit her when she was in prison. They were hours away and didn’t have the money or means to get to the Decatur Correctional Center.     

Phone calls were a rare luxury. The only contact with her children Horton had was when her oldest daughter, Nicole, who was 17 at the time of Horton’s first incarceration, would write.   

One letter stuck out to Horton.  

“I wasn’t allowed an emergency phone call when my son got shot in the head,” Horton said.  

Horton found out about the incident in a letter and was threatened with more severe punishment when she kept asking for the call.   

Her incarceration devastated her children and the effects still linger, Horton said. Jeffrey and Randy, her sons were both imprisoned as young men.  

“My oldest daughter, she stressed to me on many occasions that she hated me,” Horton said. Rebuilding that relationship was a slow process, Horton said.   

Smith agreed that incarceration tears a family apart.  

“Any time you’ve had a separation,” Smith said, “the mom and kids need to overcome the trauma of the separation and the mistrust and anger and everything that ensued from that arrest.”  

Treatment  

In Illinois, imprisoned mothers get little or no contact visits with their children, O’Brien said.    

Yes, there are programs geared specifically for mothers, such as the 15-bed MOM’s program offered to pregnant or postpartum offenders through the county’s Women’s Justice Services.The off-site program rewards good behavior for non-violent offenders and allows women to serve a portion of their sentences with their children.    

But these programs are available to a scanty few of the women who need them. Most women who give birth in prison usually have less than two days with their child, O’Brien said.  

“As the population increased, money for programs decreased,” O’Brien said.     

Drug treatment is another area that lacks adequate resources.   

Roughly 80 percent of women in state prisons need substance abuse treatment, but only 16 percent will ever receive it, according to data from the Illinois Department of Corrections.  

“People don’t understand that addiction keeps going even though you’re locked up,” Horton said, “and the next time you decide to get high, it takes off full speed, like you never quit.”  

Within a year, 39 percent of released women will re-offend and within three years, 58 percent of women will re-offend, according to a study by the National Institute of Justice.

Part of the reason why incarceration is ineffective at preventing second offenses is because of the way women are put through the system, Smith said.   

“Corrections tend to be based on a male model,” Smith said. “The assumption is that you are dealing with someone who is incarcerated for a violent offense.”  

Better options might be what Smith calls gender-specific, trauma-informed treatment that would take into account abuse and drug dependency.   

The Women’s Treatment Center offers such treatment, allowing women convicted of nonviolent drug offenses to receive dependency treatment and complete their sentences with their children.   

Out of the 45 participants who completed the program over the last three years, none have been reincarcerated. State recidivism rates for women hover above 45 percent.    

“Until we understand that this is more a public health problem than a criminal issue, we’re going to continue to have people recidivate,” Smith said.  

“We know we’re hurting families and we’re failing to address something that prevents futures crimes and in the next generation,” she said.