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On Mother's Day, 150,000 Women Will Be Incarcerated

This Mother’s Day — as COVID-19 continues to put people behind bars at risk — nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children. Over half of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80 percent of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail, reports the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). These estimates are based on a typical, pre-pandemic year. Most women are incarcerated for drug and property offenses, often stemming from poverty or substance use disorders. Most are also the primary caretakers of their children. The numbers don’t cover the many women preparing to become mothers while locked up. An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.


About 570,000 women living in the U.S. had ever been separated from their minor children by a period of imprisonment as of 2010. An estimated 1.3 million people living in the U.S. had been separated from their mothers before their 18th birthdays due to their mothers’ imprisonment, also as of 2010. These are estimates of how many children there were among the roughly 1 million women alive in 2010 who had ever been to prison, and only includes children who were minors when their mothers were in prison. The estimates do not include the many more women who have ever been booked into a local jail. Women incarcerated in the U.S. are disproportionately in jails rather than prisons. Beyond having to leave their children in someone else’s care, these women can be affected by aggravation of mental health problems, a greater risk of suicide, and a much higher likelihood of ending up homeless or deprived of essential financial benefits. A 50-state survey of state prison systems’ health care policies found that many states fail to meet basic standards of care for expectant mothers, like providing screening and treatment for high-risk pregnancies.

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