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Disrupted Childhoods: Children of Women in Prison

reviewed by Dave Iasevoli - March 23, 2012

coverTitle: Disrupted Childhoods: Children of Women in Prison
Author(s): Jane Siegel
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
ISBN: 0813550114, Pages: 288, Year: 2011
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Jane Siegel has written a sociological study that speaks, sotto voce, to the dire need to reform the USA’s criminal justice policies and practices.  There are times, though, when her text screams out at us, e.g.  “In fact, the war on drugs has sometimes been referred to as a war on women” (p. 12).  Incarcerated mothers lie at the center of Siegel’s text, but their children occupy the field, and this is a battlefield.  The children are pitted against poverty, drugs, poor schooling, and violence, and Siegel brings us into their lives—with and without their mothers.  Since her intention is to better understand the effects of parental incarceration upon children, Siegel carefully builds a case against our “nation’s historic experiment with mass incarceration” (p. 2).

Dr. Siegel, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, and Chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Camden, gathers strong qualitative data, mostly from interviews with both children and mothers.  Nonetheless, as we often see in prison studies, Siegel’s book contains a wide variety of jarring statistics.  By now, some of these unsettling numbers have grown all-too familiar:  “By 2009, nearly 2.3 million people were imprisoned in the nation’s jails and prisons, a figure far above that of any other country in the world” (p. 3): in less than 30 years, from the beginning of President Reagan’s first term, our long-term prison population quintupled.  Thus, the percentage of children with a parent locked up has grown to 3.8% of the nation’s total population of children under 18; if you look at only African American children, that figure rises to nearly 7%— nearly one in 14 black children has a parent behind bars.  Since so many of these children suffer from an absence of their fathers in their upbringing, Siegel focuses on the disruption caused by the incarceration of mothers—the primary care-givers and Ursprung of security for children.

Her sample of 74 mothers comes from both pre-trial and imprisoned mothers; further, Siegel managed to interview 67 children—no mean feat given that secondary care-givers often suspected her of being “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” from a foster-care agency who came to their homes to take away their children.  Her inquiry begins with a central question of degree:  “how much [does] parental incarceration contribute to negative consequences among the children once other relevant risk factors are taken into account?” (p. 188).  Siegel carefully constructs powerful images of children’s survival and tragedy.  That is, she shows us that many of the children she interviewed displayed strong evidence of “resilience”:  here she quotes Hemingway’s brilliant definition—‘“strong in the broken places’” (p. 24).  These images often precede episodes of such teenagers having their own children, using drugs, or committing crimes, so that Siegel constantly reflects upon the prospect of “intergenerational criminality” (passim).

What energizes this work is an analysis of social problems coupled with her research into personal biography.  She employs a “life-course perspective”—a strategy that places “incarceration in context with the rest of a child’s life…not just a snapshot of a particular moment in a person’s life, but rather as one of many photos mounted in an album featuring the other events in a person’s life” (p. 10).  Thus, Siegel creates “albums” by means of oral histories of a number of children’s experiences with their mothers, and such forces as violence, physical and sexual abuse, schooling, and drugs.  A cast of characters develops over the course of Siegel’s examinations of home lives, “the ubiquity of violence” (chapter 3), the direct impact of incarceration on a variety of family constellations, the real and lived-through business of imprisonment, and her prognosis for the immediate futures of these children.  

As a kind of premise, fathers do not matter here:  the children in this study begin their stories with fathers who themselves were locked away, or who chose to not be a part of their lives, or who were dead.  Then Siegel delineates three categories of home environments for the children.  There are those who live with “engaged mothers” (pp. 28 ff.):  women who live with their children and who play very active parenting roles before their incarceration.  Then there are the “sporadically engaged” (pp. 30 ff.), who are “in and out of their children’s lives, living with them at times, but absent at others, creating periodic disruptions …” (p. 30).  And finally, Siegel labels a third category the “disengaged” mothers (pp. 33 ff.), who live apart from their children and who rely upon others to care for them.  Siegel interviews both mothers and children from all three categories, and always uncovers deep emotional attachments.  Even when children are raised from birth by grandparents and other members of the extended family, they suffer the possibilities of further trauma when their mothers go to prison.  

“Incarceration becomes a point on a continuum of multiple traumas” (p. 50).  Siegel shows us that the event in which a child witnesses or learns about a mother’s arrest and imprisonment can indeed function as a tipping point in the child’s development.  In her most poignant description, she takes us into a poor child’s “abandominium” (p. 118) and reflects upon the “makeshift curtains”:

…blankets, bedsheets, lengths of material …Unlike drapes or curtains that can be closed or opened to provide a view of the outside and allow light in, this expedient blocked the windows from view.  In truth, the scene outside many of the houses was decidedly unlovely.  …the drapes often felt like barriers, isolating the people who lived in the house from the outside world and trapping the children in a setting that at times seemed oppressively insular …(p.51).

The oppression she brings to light can be hair-raising, at times. She interviews nine-year-old Jeremy, who lived a “nomadic existence” (p. 39), attended five different schools between kindergarten and 3rd grade, and whose mother, Tiffany, not only suffered from crack addiction, alcoholism, depression and bi-polar disorder—but also AIDS.  And Siegel asks us to imagine how we would feel if the police enter our apartment to arrest our mother and we hide her in a bedroom closet beneath a bunch of clothes and after the police ransack the place they look one more time in the closet and find her.  Then they not only handcuff her but mace her (pp. 97-8).

Siegel enables us to imagine such incidents and lives, and the enormous and perhaps un-fillable void created by the lived-loss of a mother.  She gives us parts of a world that vie for what she calls “the saddest story.”  But we need to hear this—to try to understand the tolls exacted by mass incarceration in the War on Drugs—to try to understand the distinction between “mother” and “mom”:  ‘“You are my mother and that fact will never change, …but your title as mom has slowly disappeared’” (139).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 23, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16734, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 8:30:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Dave Iasevoli
    SUNY Plattsburgh
    E-mail Author
    DAVE IASEVOLI, Ed.D., received his doctorate from Teachers College in English Education, in 2005, and has taught incarcerated students on Rikers Island. He now teaches in the M.S.Ed. and MST Programs at SUNY Plattsburgh. In 2009, the NEA awarded his article "A World of White and Snowy Scents: Teaching Whiteness" its Excellence in the Academy Award, Art of Teaching. His study of educational efforts in New York State prisons, Somewhat More Free, has a projected publication in 2014.
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