pressure on female prisoners with children. Here is a look at some of
the distinct challenges facing these women.
was just like two-thirds of the 200,000-plus women incarcerated in the
United States: behind bars for a nonviolent offense.
Ms. Mancinas served time in prison, on and off, over nine years for
drug-related offenses and was herself a drug abuser.
“I used for 12 years straight,” said Mancinas, who lives in San
Bernardino, Calif. “Marijuana, methamphetamines, anything.”
Mancinas will have been out of prison for a year in February. She has
stayed clean and has reconnected with her 3-year-old son, who was in
foster care while she was incarcerated. This time, she is determined
to stay out — and remain part of a trend: three straight years of
declining US prison populations after a decades-long rise.
It’s a trend that has special meaning for women with children — a
demographic that has dealt with distinct challenges related to
incarceration and now appears to be benefiting from less emphasis on
harsh sentences for nonviolent offenses.
“The decline in women’s incarceration appears to be related to fewer
drug offenders in prison,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the
Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy group.
“As harsh sentencing policies have begun to be scaled back, and
diversion programs expanded, fewer women are now being sentenced to
lengthy prison terms for lower-level drug offenses.”
Beginning in the early 1970s, the “war on drugs” led to a surge in the
US prison population of both men and women. But as a percentage, women
saw a greater increase. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of women in
federal and state prison rose by 646 percent, from 15,118 to 112,797,
according to the Sentencing Project. Counting women in local jails
brought the US total of female prisoners in 2010 to more than 205,000.
The rise in male incarceration between 1980 and 2010 rose by 419
Now the trends are reversing. After peaking in 2009, the U.S. prison
population has declined annually — something that has been attributed
to several factors including the recession, changes in public
attitudes, and the courts. In 2011, a U.S. Supreme Court upheld a
ruling that ordered California to ease overcrowding in its state
Congress is also getting into the act. Last Thursday, the Senate
Judiciary Committee voted for legislation aimed at reducing prison
overcrowding further. In a bipartisan 13-to-5 vote, the panel approved
the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would substantially reduce mandatory
minimums for some drug offenses and allow federal judges more
discretion in determining sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
Since women are more likely to be incarcerated for a nonviolent
offense than men, they may benefit from the law disproportionately.
Already, between 2009 and 2012, the female prison population — though
far smaller than the male prison population — dropped by a larger
percentage (4.1 percent) than the male prison population (2.7
This trend has particular meaning for children. In 2008, 52 percent of
women in state prison and 63 percent in federal prison had at least
one child under the age of 18, according to the Bureau of Justice
Six out of 10 women prisoners with children lived with their kids
before incarceration, compared with 36 percent of male prisoners,
according to the BJS.
“There is a big difference between jailing a mother versus jailing a
father,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist at the University of
Hawaii at Manoa. “Fathers are typically not custodial parents.”
Most children do not have physical contact with their mother while she
is incarcerated, because women are often placed in facilities more
than 100 miles from home, where visiting is both expensive and
difficult, according to Barbara Bloom, a criminologist at Sonoma State
University in Rohnert Park, Calif. Collect phone calls from prison are
expensive, and some people do not want to expose children to the
prison environment and security procedures, which can be intimidating.
One solution would be to have offenders serve shorter sentences that
are focused on drug treatment and education and that take place closer
to their families, said Bahiyyah Muhammad, a sociology professor at
Howard University in Washington, D.C., who has studied the children of
“That way you keep the family together and allow them to have a role
in this rehabilitation process,” Professor Muhammad said.
She suggests that a parental classification be implemented for
convicted mothers (and fathers) who have custody of their children, so
they can serve their time at an institution designed for parents —
that is, “friendlier” for kids.
“I think we could save a lot of money if we used alternatives to
punish nonviolent drug offenders, especially if they are parents,”
Muhammad said. “Parental incarceration has long-lasting effects on
Since the 1970s, the dramatic rise in the US prison population has put
significant strain on the limited resources available to help
ex-convicts reintegrate into the outside world.
“[Because of the war on drugs] there was a shift of valuable resources
away from treatment to incarceration,” Ms. Bloom said.
Mancinas, the ex-convict in California, talks about the problems she
had reintegrating into life on the outside — and how she was helped by
a nonprofit after her release, not by services she received behind
“When I got out of prison, I had nothing — nowhere to go, no job,” she
said. “My son was in foster care, and I was on the verge of losing
[parental rights]. And the treatment I had in prison, well, it was
clear that they were there because it was their job, not because they
cared if we stayed clean.”
Once out of prison, Mancinas got help from the Time for Change
Foundation of San Bernardino, which provides shelter and support
services to women struggling with homelessness, drug problems, mental
health issues, and the effects of incarceration.
Time for Change provided Mancinas shelter for six months and helped
her find work (though she was later laid off). The organization also
assigned her a caseworker to help her get her son back and offered her
drug treatment sessions several times a week.
“It was almost too good to be true,” said Mancinas. “I never could
imagine where I could be or how much I could learn about myself.”