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  • Writer's pictureTamicka Monson

Shedding Shame: Incarceration and Its Effects on Women and Girls

Updated: Mar 12

Where Daddy Lives tells the story of a boy who visits his father with his little sister and mother. The book intentionally focuses on the relationship between father and son while loosely capturing emotional burden of the mother and sister. I want to take a moment to highlight the often-forgotten stories of the effects of incarceration on women and girls.

Women Caring for Kids of Incarcerated Fathers

Women who are mothers or caregivers are often unnoticed and unprotected in general. Add to that the layer and burden of having a loved one or partner (or ex-partner) incarcerated, and the little support also wanes. These women must pick up the pieces and serve as mother and father. They have the role of nurturing and disciplining. They suffer from financial burdens due to less income, mental health issues, and lack of familial support. Because they are used to going unnoticed, they suffer in silence. They carry shame.

Women Who Are Incarcerated

According to 2020 estimates by Prison Policy Initiative, 58 percent of women in U.S. prisons are mothers, and 80 percent of women in U.S. jails are mothers (Sawyer and Bertram, 2022). What happens to many of the kids of incarcerated women? They are disproportionately placed in foster care (Prison Policy Initiative, 2022). Thus, they have a broken bond with their child(ren). Some of these women struggle with mental health issues and substance use issues. Women are not given appropriate medical or psychiatric health care, family services, bathroom and recreational facilities, and protection against victimization sexually while incarcerated.

Each year, about 2,000 babies are born to incarcerated women (American College of Nurse-Midwives, 2013, as cited in Clarke and Simon, 2013). In at least 27 states, women are regularly shackled while giving birth (Clarke and Simon, 2013). Typically, moms are only allowed up to 24 hours with their babies after giving birth, and their baby is given over to relatives or placed in foster care (Tracy, 2013, as cited in Clarke and Simon, 2013). This birthing experience in turn, increases shame.

Daughters of Incarcerated Parents

Often becoming fill-in parents due to the societal expectation of being nurturing, daughters struggle as well. They may be expected to be an emotional support for both adults and children within the situation. Thus, their own emotions are left unattended. They are left suffering in silence. They may be embarrassed for others to know about their problems and home life, and in turn, they hide in shame.

Hope in Shedding Shame

But there is a solution. We as a society can and must surround these women and girls. We can offer assistance and support. We can help by cooking, cleaning, doing hair, finishing laundry, providing homework support, babysitting, giving financial resources, advocating for incarcerated women, and listening. We can rally for incarcerated women to receive proper protection, medical (including prenatal) care, mental and substance use treatment and more time with their newborns after giving birth. We can withhold judgement and our preconceived notions of what it is like to walk in their shoes. We don’t have to agree with their decisions or the outcomes. We don’t have to wait for them to reach out for help; we can make ourselves available. The most burdensome part of shame is that someone can be so ashamed they don’t know how to reach out.

We can also intervene early in a child’s life so that they do not repeat the cycle of incarceration.

We can help women, girls, and others within incarcerated situations shed their shame.


American College of Nurse-Midwives. Position statement: Shackling/restraint of pregnant women who are incarcerated.

Clarke, J. G., & Simon, R. E. (2013). Shackling and separation: Motherhood in prison. AMA Journal of Ethics, 15(9), 779–785.

Sawyer, W. & Bertram, W. (2022, May 4). Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2022. Prison Policy Initiative.

Tracy, C. E. Pregnant inmates—the most forgotten of the forgotten. Legal Intelligencer. (2010, February 22). id=1202443951547&slreturn=20130702154119

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