A recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found the number of incarcerated mothers rose 131 percent from 1991 to 2007, while the number of fathers in prison increased 77 percent during the same period.
According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, about 1.7 million children have a parent in prison.
“We should be alarmed,” said Georgia Lerner, executive director at the Women’s Prison Association, a national nonprofit working with incarcerated women.
“Even when children have seen their mothers get arrested, they still want to be with their parents,” Lerner said. “They still love their mothers and want to be together.”
While some critics argue that criminals make poor parents, experts said there is no doubt that separation from a parent, particularly a mother, affects a child’s psychological development.
When a father is imprisoned, the mother typically cares for the children, said Danielle Dallaire, a psychology professor at the College of William and Mary. But her research shows that when a mother is incarcerated, the father often plays no role in raising the children left behind.
Federal statistics show children are five times more likely to end up in foster care when a mother is sent to prison than when a father is imprisoned. Read the Federal Report
A growing number of prisons are recognizing the need to preserve mother-child relationships. They have staffed nurseries and day care centers to keep families connected.
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security women’s prison in New York, is host to an annual summer camp run by volunteers. At camp, children can play basketball and participate in other activities with their incarcerated mothers.
In May, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is reuniting moms and dads with their children. The “Get on the Bus” program provides 700 children with free rides to the prisons.
1.7 million: U.S. children with a parent in prison
1.19 million: Minority children with an incarcerated parent
131: Percent increase of mothers in prison from 1991 to 2007
77: Percent increase of fathers in prison from 1991 to 2007
62: Percent of mothers arrested for drug-related crimes
11: Percent of children with imprisoned moms who go into foster care
42: Percent of incarcerated parents visited by their children
(Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, The Sentencing Project)