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Women in prison

A look at moms in prison and their circumstances

incarcerated moms, incarcerated mothers, mothers in jail, moms in jail
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Article update: On February 11, the Poughkeepsie Journal reported that Nicole Addimando, who killed her boyfriend in 2017, as she testified, in self-defense from abuse, has been sentenced to 19 years-to-life in prison for the murder. Earlier this month, the paper reported that Addimando’s sentencing would not be under the Domestic Violence Survivor’s Justice Act, which would have allowed for a lesser sentence.

The recent conviction of Dutchess County’s Nicole Addimando, a mother of two, in the killing of her longtime boyfriend—an act she testified to committing in self-defense after years of abuse—has brought to light the numbers of women in prison, especially, mothers. 

As Addimando and the rest of us await word on her sentencing, including the possible factoring of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act that allows for sentencing considerations for victims of domestic violence, Diana McHugh of the Women’s Prison Association in New York provides a closer look at circumstances surrounding mothers in prison.

Most women in prison are mothers. Women are more likely than men to enter prison with a history of trauma, addiction, and/or mental illness and are more likely than men to be the primary caregiver of their children before and after incarceration.

The racial divide. The population of mothers in prison varies by ethnicity, with the incarceration rates for women reflecting tremendous racial disparities. Women of color constitute more than 60 percent of those in prison. The punitive, controlling, and often violent nature of the criminal legal system mimics the histories of trauma and violence that too many women face before they connect with the system. Therefore, criminal systems’ involvement often only serves to further traumatize and disrupt the stability of a woman and her family.

Mothers are often arrested as a result of their efforts to cope with poverty, unemployment, intimate partner violence, mental health challenges, substance use, and other trauma; all experiences our judicial system criminalizes. Most women in prison have experienced trauma, yet the judicial system’s screening tools and intake procedures, were designed for men and frequently fail to take the unique circumstances of women into account.

FACT: Of the nearly 50,000 prisoners under jurisdiction of New York State or federal correctional authorities in 2017, almost 2,300 were women, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Office, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Turning the tide. Specialized programs that support incarcerated women can go a long way in helping them move forward in positive ways, benefiting individuals and their families. The Women’s Prison Association (WPA), for instance, empowers women to redefine their lives in the face of injustice and incarceration. The WPA provides individualized, trauma-informed support to women before, during, and after incarceration, with a focus on preventing women from entering the prison system in the first place. 

Moreover, the WPA’s alternative to incarceration allows women to serve their sentences in the community, rather than in prison or jail. This program focuses on the root causes of a woman’s crime, which is better addressed in the community, and limits disruption to her family. In the program, women find safety and stability, remain with their children and families, and work to meet highly personalized goals with the support of expert staff. With this unique support, 90 percent of graduates avoid further contact with the criminal legal system and many remain with WPA to partake in our workforce development and leadership programming.

Community support/individualized attention. Supportive programs can be a real boon to systems-involved women, but efforts that avoid ‘one size fits all’ strategies are the most effective. Depending on her situation, any one woman’s needs vary from another’s, perhaps, therapy, childcare, safe housing, and/or a living wage. These are things that can only be provided in the community; things impossible to achieve from within a prison. The WPA, for examples, works to maintain a woman’s agency and dignity, and support her as she dictates her path to success. All women deserve to be safe.

Those looking to support should invest in marginalized communities that need safe housing, quality education, and access to healthcare. They also need to support holistic programs and alternatives to incarceration over blind, punitive measures that don’t increase public safety. As well, people need to talk about their experiences: nearly everyone knows someone who has been impacted by the criminal legal system. Reducing stigma, encouraging others to believe in the good in people, supporting the struggles of others are powerful narratives that can change minds and hearts. And, of course, send your support in dollars to local community organizations with expertise in this work. 

Diana McHugh is Director of Communications for the Women’s Prison Association in New York.