Report: Addressing the Needs of Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children in Illinois


The number of women in state and federal prisons grew by nearly 800% between 1978 and 2016. This dramatic increase in the number of incarcerated women has led to calls for gender responsive policies and practice that address incarcerated women’s needs and circumstances. Most notably, over 60 percent of the women in state and federal prison are mothers of minor children, and incarcerated mothers are far more likely than incarcerated fathers to have been their children’s primary caregiver prior to their incarceration. Consequently, it is important that policies and practices in women’s prisons recognize the central role that motherhood plays in many incarcerated women’s lives.

This brief describes the results of a project undertaken by a team of researchers from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. The purpose of the project was to inform the development and implementation of gender responsive policies and practices that will address the needs of incarcerated mothers in the Illinois Department of Corrections and reduce the impact of incarceration on their children.

The project included three components:

  1. Interviews with incarcerated mothers,

  2. An environmental scan of programs for incarcerated mothers and their children

  3. Key informant interviews with individuals who operate those programs and with researchers who have studied them. The brief interweaves what we heard from the mothers we interviewed with what we learned about programs for incarcerated mothers from our key informants.

Across our interviews with representatives from different types of programs for incarcerated mothers and their children, a number of common themes emerged. We describe each of these themes briefly below:

Both internal and external support are critical to program implementation, and this requires relationship building with prison administrators and correctional staff

Changes in security or other policies are frequently needed for programs to be implemented and support from the warden or other prison administrators is essential to effecting those changes. Some of the most common policy changes include changes around visitation and changes around what can be brought into the prison for a class or other event. Equally important is gaining support from correctional officers who may be engaged with the program in some way (e.g., overseeing visits, providing security). If prison staff are not “on board” programs will not succeed, and staff turnover among correctional officers means that efforts to gain support for the program must be sustained. Support from outside the prison can be as important as support from inside. The vast majority of programs for incarcerated mothers and their children are run by nonprofit organizations that rely heavily on volunteers.

Programs depend on a patchwork of funding from multiple sources

Some programs for incarcerated mothers and their children receive funding from the Department of Corrections, other state entities, or private foundations. However, most rely heavily on support from individual donors for their operating budget. This makes sustainability a challenge.

Many programs are part of a holistic approach to address the needs of incarcerated mothers and/or their children

Programs for incarcerated mothers and/or their children often include multiple components or are embedded in organizations with multiple programs for incarcerated mothers and/or their children. Parenting education programs often include enhanced visitation as an incentive and visitation programs often require incarcerated mothers to complete a parenting education program to be eligible. Children who participate in an organization’s summer camp or visitation program may also be eligible for its mentoring or after school program.

Few programs are evidence-based and resources for evaluation are limited

Programs for incarcerated mothers and/or their children have generally not been rigorously evaluated, although some programs have partnered with researchers from local universities. Lack of funding for evaluations continues to be a major barrier as is how to follow mothers who have been released. When programs are evaluated, the primary outcome of interest is frequently the recidivism rate even when the focus of the program is on developing parenting skills or strengthening parent child relationships. Although evaluations of some programs have found lower rates of recidivism among incarcerated mothers who participate than among incarcerated mothers who do not, their methodologies tend to be weak and attrition tends to be high.

Many programs collect data from participants to inform implementation

Despite a lack of funding for evaluation, some programs gather data from participants. Programs administer surveys to incarcerated mothers before and after they complete a parenting education class or ask mothers to complete a question after each visit with their children. Programs also elicit informal feedback from incarcerated mothers and their children’s caregivers.

To read the full report, click here.