Monday, November 9, 2009

Life on the inside

Life is hard enough for an adolescent girl or boy, but can you imagine what it would be like if your mom was in prison?

Kids whose mothers are behind bars don’t have it easy, said Jane Siegel, PhD, an associate professor of criminology at Rutgers University. Speaking at a Monday morning session on women and correctional health, Siegel said that over the last three decades the incarceration rate has been increasing far faster for women than for men, even though women make up a small percentage of the U.S. prison population.

Concerned about the health and safety of incarcerated women’s kids, Siegel recently interviewed 17 children — ages 8 to 18 — whose moms had been in a state prison for a year. Most of the children were living with relatives.

Siegel’s research turned up some interesting findings. The good news: “These kids were incredibly resilient,” Siegel said, noting that they have had to overcome obstacles in their lives that most people, even adults, would never dream of having to deal with. The kids she interviewed — nine girls and eight boys — didn’t tend to have behavioral problems and were “all about trying to be just like other kids,” she said, with video games, shopping and hanging out with friends topping their to-do lists.

But the big burden of having a mom behind bars is the “emotional difficulty these kids have to face,” said Siegel, who was struck by the children’s “sense of longing” for family. Most of the kids were sad or depressed, she said, and to make matters worse, the children have to deal with reconciling their negative images of their mothers with their love for their mothers.

“These kids have an awful lot to cope with,” Siegel said.

— T.D.J.

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