Celebrating Mothers Day in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Mamas Matter

Sunday May 14th was Mother’s Day. It was a memorable day for me, in part because I attended church, which doesn’t happen very often (less frequently than Mother’s Day, to be honest). I was visiting friends in Appleton, WI and tagged along with them to their Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation’s service. The sermon and related discussion included the range of experiences people have as mothers or with their mothers which are rarely explored in the themes and traditional Mother’s Day celebrations. It was a warm and caring recognition of the important role mothers play in our lives but also an honest validation of the complexity inherent in any role or relationship, including motherhood.

As I listened to the speakers, my mind wandered through a thread of news stories I had recently heard. In January, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) host Kerri Miller, along with Marcheta Fornoff, had a segment on women being the fastest growing prison population. The conversation she led was based on statistics published by The Sentencing Project that show a 700% increase in the number of incarcerated women from 1980-2014, from 26,378 to 215,332. It also states that more than 60% of women in state prisons have children under the age of 18. Taken together, a rapidly increasing number of people are experiencing motherhood from behind bars.

Besides a faster growth rate, there are other disparities between the women’s prison population versus the men’s. 63% of incarcerated women are locked up for non-violent crimes, compared to 46% for men. The percentage of women incarcerated for drug crimes has doubled from 12% in 1986 to 24% in 2014. One of Miller’s guests, Valena Beety, attributed this increase to the devastating War on Drugs. On May 10th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to US prosecutors instructing them to pursue the most severe charges and sentencing possible for drug crimes. If fully implemented, that strategy will ensure that more people are being sent to prison, especially women as they are more likely to sent to prison due to drug offenses.

Of course, the other major disparity in drug law enforcement is racial. In the MPR segment, Beety says,

The war on drugs is not a war on all people who use or sell or are involved with drugs. It’s on people of color who use and sell, and people in poverty who do so. We see this disparate impact on women as well.

According to The Sentencing Project numbers, the incarceration rate for Black women is twice that of White women. (Although that rate has been dropping since 2000, which is a positive trend.) Hispanic women have a rate 1.2 times the rate of White women.

Not all mothers behind bars are in prison. Many are in jail waiting for trial. The punishment for their crime may not include doing time; they may not even be found guilty when their case is heard. This is a situation that hits poor mothers the hardest, because they are less able to pay bail. The day after AG Sessions announced the new harsher sentencing guidelines, activists launched an effort to free Black mothers from their jail cells in time for Mother’s Day. Calling it Black Mama’s Bail Out Day, a number of organizations dedicated to ending the practice of money bail raised funds to pay for the release of Black mothers who otherwise would be locked up pretrial on Mother’s Day.

Today, Black Lives Matter tweeted out a report saying, “Thanks to your overwhelming love & generosity we were able to bail out over 100 Mamas last week!    ♥” While the big push for Mother’s Day is over, the campaign to end money bail continues and can be supported through the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund.

The money bail system is generating activity in many ways and in many places. The Minnesota Freedom Fund recently started as a project that pays the bail of people when it’s under $1000. When the person returns for their court date, the Fund gets its money back. That’s how public bail works. There is also a for-profit private bail system which is far less generous. The ACLU and Color of Change have joined together to seek it’s abolition.

Our country is remarkable in the way it puts people in jails and prison. It’s one of two countries (the other being Indonesia) that uses a system of money bail to keep non-dangerous people locked up while awaiting trial. I found it fitting that this Mother’s Day people challenged our society to better care for all of its members.

Sources and Resources:

Featured image source: Dream Defenders

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) (Jan 10 2017) – “The number of women in prison is rising. Why?”

The Sentencing Project (Nov 2015) – “Fact sheet: incarcerated women and girls”

National Public Radio (NPR) (May 12 2017) – “Sessions tells prosecutors to seek ‘most serious’ charges, stricter sentences”

Black Lives Matter (May 16) – “Twitter: May 16 2017 11:08am”

Brooklyn Community Bail Fund (viewed on May 16 2017) – “National Mama’s Bail Out Day!”

Star Tribune (April 5 2017) – “University of Minnesota student takes on injustices in the bail system”

ACLU and Color Of Change (May 2017) – “Selling off our freedom”


Author: Brian Wachutka

Brian is the editor, publisher, and lead auther of 21CentPeace.com