The Increase in Incarcerations among Women and Its Impact on the Grandmother Caregiver: Some Racial Considerations

Article excerpt

This article analyzes census data on the increase in incarcerations among women, with specific emphasis on some racial differences. The steady rise in female incarcerations and its impact on grandmothers who are caregivers of their children is the focus of this analysis. The article includes sociodemographic and health characteristics of imprisoned mothers, a review of relevant research, the impact of incarcerations on family caregivers, and implications for research. The rate of female incarceration has increased by 11% per year since 1985. A disproportionally higher number are women of color. Approximately fifty-three percent of the children whose mothers are imprisoned are cared for by grandmothers. The rapid increase in the female incarceration rate suggests the need for additional research on the social, economic, and health impact of this phenomenon on family caregivers, especially grandmothers.


There has been a dramatic increase in the number of incarcerations among women over the past three decades. In 1970, only 5,635 women were incarcerated in federal and state prisons. By 1985, however, this number increased to 21,296, and was as high as 74,730 by the latter part of 1996. Presently, there are over 90,000 women in U.S. prisons (National Women's Law Center, 1999). This constitutes a 256% increase in female incarcerations and a growth rate of 11.2% per year since 1985. Similar numbers of women were in local jails (McQuaide and Ehrenreich, 1998). These figures include a disproportionately higher number among women of color. Women have become the hidden victims of the state's zeal for incarceration (National Women's Law Center, 1999). Since incidence and prevalence rates among the female inmate population are increasing rapidly, it is important to recognize this vulnerable group as a significant one for policy, research, and program intervention.

In spite of these drastic increases, however, little is known about the characteristics and needs of incarcerated mothers in general, and not much more is known about the care and welfare of their young children. A number of problems are associated with the rapidly increasing rate of incarcerations among African American women. The health problems of the mother as well as the care of the children are among the problems that place a serious burden on the grandmother, who is the primary caregiver of 53% of the children under 18 years. In spite of the rapid increase in incarcerations of African American mothers and the associated problems, as well as the increased popular and scholarly interest in the area, there is little systematic research on how imprisonment of daughters with minor children affect the family, and the grandmother caregiver, in particular, who must care for the vast majority of their young children. In an effort to highlight some of the issues and problems, this article will provide information on (1) sociodemographic and health characteristics of imprisoned mothers, (2) a review of recent research on custodial grandparenting, (3) incarcerations and family caregiving, and (4) implications for research. There is an urgent need for social scientists to study aggressively the scope, nature, and magnitude of the issues involved in incarceration of young African American mothers, and it's impact on grandmother caregivers. In an effort to ensure strong and healthy families, we need to understand how these and other social and public health problems influence the daily lives and well being of our most vulnerable population.

Sociodemographic and Health Profile of Female Inmates

The majority of the 84,500 women incarcerated in state and federal prison as of the end of 1998, are there for economic crimes. The rapid increase within the last 10 years is due, in part, to the worsening of economic conditions for women, as well as the increase in arrest rates because of the war on crime and the war on drugs. …


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