Ten years ago, I walked into a women's prison for the first time. As I entered the dark and oppressive atmosphere, I had no idea that I was about to meet women who are, today, some of my most favorite people on the planet. I hoped for a positive influence in their lives; what I didn't anticipate was the significance of their influence and impact on me over time. Prison is a cold world constructed of concrete and metal, nothing about it is soft. However, together in a community, the harshness fades. We often found warmth around the topic of motherhood; a common concern that transcends the walls, gates and locks separating my free world from theirs in prison. In this arena, we shared the same vulnerability, the same hope and the same pain.
In my initial role in that prison, I was a professor hired by a local seminary to offer theology classes to women serving life sentences. 1 remember the first day of class so clearly. I suppose 1 was expecting to see women who looked and acted like the cast of "Orange is the New Black." Instead, I was met with gray hair, glasses, kind eyes and shy smiles. Most of the women were long removed from the events that led them to prison; some had already been incarcerated 20 years and had a lifetime to go. "Crushed" is the first word that came to mind that day. I was in a room filled with women crushed by their own bad choices, crushed by men and the abuses of this world, and crushed by the loss of family ties.
The women's population within the criminal justice system has skyrocketed over the past 40 years. From 1980 to 2017, the rate of women incarcerated in the United States increased nearly nine-fold, from 26,378 to 225,060; double the rate of incarceration for men. (1) For a mother, incarceration in and of itself virtually guarantees mental and emotional trauma and even abuse for the children including issues like reactive attachment disorders and bullying. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than five million children, or one in 14, have had a parent in a state or federal prison at some point during their lives. (2) It is well known that kids with incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school; they also have a much higher likelihood of coming in contact with the criminal justice system. Breaking this inter-generational cycle of trauma-to-incarceration requires effective evidence-based interventions. The Bureau of Justice statistics reveal an alarmingly high rate of...