Nov. 7, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 4

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    Researchers study incarcerated mothers’ prospects

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office


    On any given day, there are approximately 84,000 women in federal and state prisons and nearly 70,000 additional women incarcerated in county jails–numbers that are now doubling every seven to eight years. Most of these women were custodial parents prior to their incarceration, so when they go to prison, children are often left behind.

    Robert LaLonde, Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, and his colleague Susan George, a Research Affiliate in the Harris School, have launched a major study titled “Incarcerated Mothers: The Project on Female Prisoners and Their Children,” supported by a $100,000 grant from the Open Society Institute and a $76,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

    “The role of incarcerated women as primary caregivers to young children makes it especially important to understand their situation,” George explained. “We want to know what their potential is to be effective parents and what their prospects are to be economically self-sufficient after they leave prison.”

    George discussed the phenomenon of incarcerated females and their struggle for work in a presentation titled “Race, Prison and Ex-offe Employment,” at a recent conference at the Chicago Urban League. George and LaLonde base their findings in part on an analysis of admissions and exit files from the Illinois Department of Corrections for all women who entered or left the state prison in Illinois between 1990 and 2000. They also examined Medicaid records and records from federal assistance programs, including AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Food Stamps, and Illinois Department of Employment Security wage and salary records.

    “Our findings at this point are preliminary and subject to revision,” LaLonde said, “but there is clearly a critical need for research that can help us to better understand the circumstances of these incarcerated women and the children in their care.” He went on to explain that when women go to prison, the lives of their economically disadvantaged children are disrupted. “This disruption occurs twice,” LaLonde said. “Once when these women go to prison and again when they are released.”

    Women in Cook County Jail wait to be allowed to return to their cells following lunch.

    LaLonde and George have found that despite the escalating numbers of incarcerated mothers entering and exiting prison, little information is available about their economic prospects, their ability to function as parents, or how the children of incarcerated women are affected by their mothers’ lives–particularly the activities that lead to their mothers’ arrests, convictions, imprisonment, as well as their eventual release and return to parenthood.

    “Department of Justice statistics show that incarcerated women are in worse economic circumstances than either incarcerated men or other economically disadvantaged women,” George said. “The majority are high school dropouts, only half were employed in the month before their arrest, and most of them had drug or alcohol addictions.”

    George and LaLonde hope their project will provide policy-makers with the first reliable benchmarks of the social and economic circumstances affecting incarcerated women and offer policy alternatives to address the problem.

    Over several years, they will track approximately 14,000 women admitted to prison in Illinois and their estimated 35,000 children as they move through the criminal justice system, foster care, welfare programs and the legitimate labor market.

    “Our goal is to end up with a credible cost-benefit analysis of providing comprehensive rehabilitation services to improve the outcomes for these women and their children,” George said.