In one short decade, from 1990 to 2000, the number of women sent to Illinois prisons nearly tripled. The number of children who, at some point in their lives, had a mother in prison rose even faster -- mainly, according to psychologist Susan George, because of a rapid rise in the number of incarcerated women with three or more children.
The states' prison population is leveling off. Though women are less than 15 percent of Illinois' total prison population, they are the fastest-growing segment. George's work documents that women with four or more children are the fastest-growing segment of the fastest-growing segment.
George, a native of Peoria, is currently vice president of clinical services for Fayette Cos., which includes Human Service Center, community-based mental health services and White Oaks drug treatment programs. Before she returned to Peoria in 2006, she spent five years working on a comprehensive analysis of women in prison and their children, the first in Illinois.
"Incarcerated Mothers: The Project on Female Prisoners and Their Children" covers about 14,000 women and 35,000 children, the vast majority of them black.
As a research associate at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, George sifted and matched data from the Illinois Department of Corrections, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and public welfare agencies such as Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. She and the project's lead researcher, U of C professor George LaLonde, also reviewed children's school records and incarcerated mothers' income data.
"The project is critically important in terms of current state policy, in terms of criminal sentencing and foster care," says Gail Smith, director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers. "It makes information available to policymakers to help them make better decisions."
Other researchers have expanded on George's work since she left the U of C. Here, in an edited transcript, she discusses what she learned and what the public, particularly lawmakers, should know about the impact of incarceration on women and their children. (The questions and comments are paraphrased.)
How did you get involved in the project?
As a psychologist, I'm interested in those children growing up in the most difficult circumstances. I was asking the question, "Who are the children in Illinois growing up under the most difficult circumstances, and what are the public policies affecting them?" ...
. You'd think one of the functions of government is to help children grow up healthy, right? So it would be useful to know "Who are those children and what are we doing for them." For them or against them.
What led to the prison system?
I tried to start answering the question without any particular interest in women who go to prison. But what you find is, if you answer the question by saying it's the children of women who go to prison, you're pretty close to the right answer.
Who are these women?
Women who go to prison are, by and large, poorly educated women, in poverty, with drug addictions, with more than the average number of children, who have horrific histories of physical and sexual abuse themselves. And so their children are growing up with all of that.
What are they going to prison for?
The big rise in women going to prison in this country is because they're addicted. ... They primarily go to prison on drug-related charges. ...
. The second-largest category of crimes women go to prison for in the state of Illinois is property crimes. ... The largest category in that is retail theft under $150. ... We're talking about women who walk out of Walgreen's with stuff in their pocket.
Women are older, on average, than men when they go to prison for the first time?
One of the reasons women in this state don't go to prison until their mid-30s is generally because the crimes they commit are of such low offense. They have to rack up a lot of arrests first. ... And most women in this state go to prison for less than a year, which again says to you, these are not dangerous people.
But you do the crime, you pay the time, right?
That's a nice sound bite. ... But there's no place, once you reach adulthood in our society, where taxpayers make the investment in you that they do once you're arrested. ... The rule-of-thumb cost on building prisons is $75,000 a bed.
That's a lot of money.
So here's another way to think about it: Here's this woman, she's 32, she has five kids, she has this long and terrible history of abuse, her kids are facing every disadvantage there is to face and we're going to spend a lot of money, arresting her, adjudicating her, sending her to prison.
There's no evidence that this makes anything better for anybody. If you think of it as a deadweight loss for taxpayers. ...
Where do the children end up while their mother is in prison?
People like to say these women go to prison; their kids go to foster care. That's not true. For most of these women, their kids have already been in some kind of substitute care.
This group does have a much higher overlap between foster care and prison, but, still, the majority of kids are not in a foster care system. I think, generally, families are stepping up informally.
What happens to the children?
If what happened to you before you were 18 didn't matter after you were 18, this might not be important. ... But we know what happens in childhood can set people on a path that lasts a lifetime. ...
. Here's another thing we know from years of research, that when you have a certain amount of adversity in childhood, the chances you will become addicted are well laid out. ...
How are they doing?
Anecdotally, you hear all kinds of stories, such as "got a scholarship to a good university out-of-state school." But that's usually somebody who's got a healthy father in the picture, a healthy grandmother or somebody who helped the kid along the way. ...
. On the other side, anecdotally, you also hear a lot about kids getting locked up. I think the story from the school records is that these kids are pretty close to the bottom. ... And being at the bottom academically is going to tell us something about your likelihood of graduating, something about your likelihood of getting incarcerated yourself. ...
What about the public policies affecting them?
What you have is people brought up in tremendous adversity, and the programs that provide for them are thin, to say the least, particularly by the time they get to late adolescence and adulthood.
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