Prison is an oppressive institution created for men, by men. While some may argue that oppression is the point of prison, this oppression is still created for and directed toward men. Because the paradigm of a prisoner is a violent male, the needs and concerns of women are often not considered. Female prisoners, therefore, experience layers of oppression: intended oppression inherent in the prison system, as well as gender-based oppression inherent in our society. Furthermore, incarcerated mothers experience a third layer of oppression due to their roles and expectations in society. “The mother” is glorified, but when a woman breaks society’s expectation of what a mother should be, it looks to punish her more severely than it otherwise would if she were not a mother. Incarcerated women break the white middle-class standards of “womanhood.” Society justifies its classification of these women as unfit mothers based on their race, class, and incarcerated status. Our society systematically decides women in prison are unworthy of being mothers and tries to deny reproductive and parental rights to those who are incarcerated.
In this paper, I explore the additional layers of oppression that incarcerated mothers experience. In Part I, I provide an overview of women in prison. In Part II, I delve into the unique concerns of incarcerated mothers, including the history of eugenics, reproductive oppression in prison, and the concerns of pregnant inmates and mothers in prison. In Part III, I examine the response to incarcerated mothers, which includes an overview of prison nurseries and community-based residential parenting programs. In Part IV, I critique these responses and suggest additional solutions. Through this analysis, I argue that instead of subjecting incarcerated women to varied forms of reproductive oppression, we should allow incarcerated women to embrace the role of motherhood through various programs.
Mothers Behind Bars: Breaking the Paradigm of Prisoners,
DePaul J. Women, Gender & L.
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