Prison Can Have Far-Reaching Effects on How Black Women Parent

Research from UCR sociologist Susila Gurusami outlines the ways formerly incarcerated black mothers shield their kids from state intervention

More than half of all women incarcerated in both state and federal prisons now identify as mothers.

More than half of all women incarcerated in both state and federal prisons now identify as mothers. Photo credit: kodda via iStock

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — Formerly incarcerated black women face a multitude of challenges upon their release from prison.

Given that black women are twice as likely to be incarcerated as white women, and more than half of all women in both state and federal prisons identify as mothers of minor children, it’s safe to say that chief among those challenges are parenting difficulties.

To get a better understanding of how black women grapple with motherhood after prison, sociologist Susila Gurusami conducted 18 months of ethnographic research at a South Los Angeles re-entry home in the early 2010s. She observed more than 35 women and conducted in-depth interviews with 12 key informants, all of whom were black.

Gurusami, now a UC chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside, focused on how formerly incarcerated black women deal with the confluence of “race, gender, and poverty” that makes their families especially vulnerable to interference from government agencies such as Child Protective Services (CPS) and the criminal justice system.

She found that many formerly incarcerated black mothers have developed an ingenious set of strategies for navigating a parental experience that’s often fraught with surveillance and the looming threat of state intervention from social workers, parole and probation officers, and other welfare services. In an article published last week in the journal Social Problems, Gurusami outlined a typology of those strategies, the unique combination of which she termed “decarceral motherwork.”

“Formerly incarcerated black women who wish to resume their roles as mothers struggle with the state over child custody,” Gurusami explained. “Decarceral motherwork ultimately works to counter the reduction of formerly incarcerated black women to their criminal histories, though it also compels women to hide their personal struggles with drug addiction, mental illness, and other conditions to prevent state agents from taking away their children.”

Decarceral motherwork also counters the “welfare queen” stereotype, she added, which broadly paints black women as “lazy, often drug-addicted, hypersexual, careless parents whose primary goal is to evade work and lead lavish lifestyles funded by state benefits.” The result is a parenting strategy both influenced and developed in opposition to the gaze of the state, which has the power to disrupt women’s roles as mothers by removing their children or sending the women back to prison or jail.

One parenting technique identified by Gursami, “collective motherwork,” describes how formerly incarcerated women often share childcare responsibilities and pool resources, information, and advice as a means of protecting each other’s children from state intervention.

A second technique, “hypervigilant motherwork,” characterizes the experience of many women who return to “neighborhoods with poor socioeconomic conditions … as well as high levels of state surveillance,” Gurusami wrote. In these women’s cases, a dominant element of motherhood involves protecting one’s children from perceived dangers — violence, molestation, the foster care system ­— and state intervention by “hovering,” or attempting to keep their children in close proximity or under watchful eye.

UC Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow Susila Gurusami

UC Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow Susila Gurusami

In some cases, the women Gurusami observed performed hypervigilant motherwork by concealing their struggles with mental illness or addiction from parole officers and other state agents to maintain custody of their children.

“While these mothers proactively responded to potential sources of danger, there were also significant costs,” Gurusami wrote. “They struggled with job searches, finances, and appointments because their vision of intensive parenting, coupled with felony discrimination, complicated negotiating post-incarceration requirements.”

A third strategy, “crisis motherwork,” was employed by women during moments of immediate threat, such as the possibility of losing custody of a child or being reincarcerated. Women in crisis circumstances, Gurusami said, had to devise ways to gather resources and manage emotions with little notice, which sometimes forced them to temporarily abandon commitments such as paid work.

Overall, Gurusami deduced, formerly incarcerated black women are set up to fail by a system that demands they intensively mother their children while also seeking to become productive laborers with a foundation of financial stability. The paradox, she noted, is one that’s experienced by many marginalized and economically poor mothers, who tend to deal with higher levels of state surveillance and more frequent threats to custody of their children.

Gurusami said critical structural interventions are instead needed to provide mothers with more economic resources to parent their children.

“Those resources can include access to stable, long-term housing; long-term, free access to therapists and people who can help children process the trauma that parental incarceration produces; affordable access to supplemental education resources for children; and state funds to pay for free, reliable childcare,” she said.

Other structural interventions could include giving formerly incarcerated mothers pathways to and resources for higher education, which would allow women to pursue careers with greater long-term stability.

“Those of us who aren’t black need to recognize that autonomy to parent is one of the most fundamental conditions of freedom and human dignity that’s been denied to black women since before the United States established itself as a nation,” Gurusami added. “Supporting black women with financial and political resources as they engage in decarceral motherwork is simply one option among many.”

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