Honoring mothers on both sides of the bars on Mother’s Day

Every year, Mother’s Day tributes abound in the media with truly touching stories of moms who went the extra mile for their kids, moms who faced adversity to beat impossible odds and moms who are no longer with us.

But there are other moms — every bit as deserving of our attention on this holiday — who go entirely unnoticed: the 2 million mothers with incarcerated children and the nearly 150,000 mothers who are themselves incarcerated.

These mothers’ stories — the problems they conquer and the heartbreak they suffer — are largely ignored because they are automatically written off as bad parents due to their connection to the criminal justice system, whether inside or out. 

I work with three women, who, for decades, have been visiting with their sons in prisons on Mother’s Day. Every year, they catch a bus in the middle of the night to a prison six to nine hours away. 


Sometimes they can hitch a ride from a sympathetic friend or neighbor. Every two years they anxiously wait to see if the parole board will reunite their families and every two years, for over a decade, they have faced the painful disappointment of yet another denial.


These mothers have not received flowers, been taken to dinner or had a walk with their sons on Mother’s Day for over twenty years. 

They fear dying without ever having their sons back home; they fear navigating their golden years without the steady hand of the children who love them. And society too often blames them — suggesting they have somehow failed as mothers. 

There also are mothers on the other side of the prison walls who live with the unimaginable pain of being separated from their children. For them, Mother’s Day is an unbearable void, a hopeless feeling of emptiness as they miss the day-to-day joys of watching their children grow up. 

Up to 85 percent of incarcerated mothers were rearing their children before they were convicted. For about 10 percent of incarcerated mothers, seeing their children at all while they’re in prison is mostly off the table since the children are in foster care with strangers.

We should acknowledge the plight of the mothers of incarcerated mothers, too. 

Grandmothers, sometimes the caregivers when parents go to prison, feel the brunt of their grandchildren's pain as they try to cope with the emotional devastation caused by having a parent behind bars, as well as their own suffering from having a child incarcerated.

The point of the criminal justice system should be rehabilitation, but that is far from what is happening in prisons today.

Policymakers should work to transform prisons from punishment factories to rehabilitation facilities. To do so requires strengthening the bonds between mothers and their children. We need to expand family reunification programs and allow mothers on both sides of the bars to spend more time with their children. We need to offer free transportation for families to visit loved ones in prison. 

When relatives want to send Mother’s Day gifts to someone in prison, they shouldn’t be relegated to using a designated shipping company that charges 50 percent more than market value to ship them and requires a credit card — which many impoverished families don’t have.

Let’s celebrate this Mother’s Day by treating all mothers — children and families — with compassion.

Soffiyah Elijah is the founder and executive director for the Alliance of Families for Justice, which seeks systemic criminal justice reform and advocates for the families of the incarcerated people and those with criminal records.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.