With rates of incarceration drastically increasing within the United States, discussions of race and gender have been severely overshadowed in conversations of the Prison Industrial System. Given that 58% of incarcerated women have at least one minor child they have custody over prior to imprisonment, many problems surface as a result of incarceration.1 This chapter centers on the impacts of incarceration on mothers that are pregnant, mothers that have custody over their children, and children with mothers who are incarcerated as well as the standard depiction of the Black welfare queen that gave rise to the Prison Industrial Complex and foster care system’s anti-black relationship to Black mothers and women.
The development of conceptions of criminality is rooted heavily in anti-black depictions that position black women uniquely as threats to society. Examples of this racist process of criminalization can be seen in the construction of the stereotypical Black welfare queen who seeks unneeded aid and unfairly benefits from the system to advance her own individualistic goals. President Ronald Reagan and his administration’s descriptions of a welfare queen demonstrates the racialized implication of the stereotype as they characterize a refusal to work while depending on public benefits that the civilized, tax-paying citizen fund. The Black welfare queen represents a woman who gives birth for the purpose of receiving more benefits that raises deviant Black children who belong in the Prison Industrial Complex.2
Despite the majority of welfare benefits going to white populations, the Reagan administration united followers against the criminal welfare queen that is always Black. The implications of this racist expectation of Black women within the 70s and 80s triggered a significant reduction in the benefits that many impoverished Black single mothers depended on to sustain themselves and their families.
The crackdown and denial of necessities to Black families seen developing during the Reagan administration continues today as Black women find themselves continually punished by the state in forms of violence that manifest in countless ways.3 The Black mother does not simply become targeted by policies designed to deny her access to basic necessities; she faces the punishment of state policies, the foster care system, and the Prison Industrial System. The racialized targeting of Black populations in the Prison Industrial Complex is further conveyed through data demonstrating the intensity of this racialized process. It has been found that nearly half of those in the prison system are Black, with approximately one-third of women in prison being Black. These studies add that Black women have become the highest growing population in the Prison Industrial System. This is a result of the way that the welfare state has evolved to convict individuals of felonies when charged and accused of welfare fraud.
It is speculated that thousands of Black women in prison on non-violent charges did not commit any act they have been accused of, but the continued implications of criticism of the Black welfare queen foreclosed the opportunity for these women to be proven innocent because society already is conditioned to view them as criminal thieves. Modern Black incarceration may be articulated as the new Jim Crow, as society moves beyond blatantly racist political agendas towards a newfound ignorance and colorblindness seen in liberal politics that neglect the way the system is still rooted in the targeting of Black populations and Black women, which is further reflected in the increasing rates of arrest and convictions of Black women that are first-time offenders serving for non-violent crimes.
The arrests and locking up of Black people has become a replacement for previous historical forms of racist acts against Black people as one in fifteen Black children has a guardian in prison as opposed to one in twenty-five white children. Black children have endured the brunt of the process of racialized arrests, with children every day having a parent taken from them and placed into a federal or state prison. It is observed that “unlike prisoner fathers, mothers in prison were often living with their children immediately prior to incarceration,” with upwards of 65% of said mothers acting as primary caretakers for children that are minors.4 As a result of mothers being placed in the prison system, many children are left without a caretaker in the absence of their mother because one-third of these mothers are the only caretaker of the child. This is particularly true in instances where Black children have a father who has passed away, been murdered, or imprisoned.
For Black mothers with multiple children, it is incredibly likely that their children will be separated due to her incarceration in situations where another primary caretaker, such as a father, is not present. This may look like children living with relatives such as the mother’s parents or find themselves in the foster care system if they have mothers with longer sentences. This becomes particularly complicated as debate sparks regarding what will happen to the child in situations where the child is placed with a new caretaker outside of the family because it could result in an incarcerated mother losing custody of her child during her sentence.
With Black children making up a significant majority of the population of children placed in the foster care system, the impacts of incarceration reiterates the control it holds over the lives of Black families. It has been found that despite representing less than a quarter of the population, Black children are the majority of the foster care system.
The trope of the lazy Black welfare queen presents itself again as foster care agents and child welfare authorities often take children forcibly from their mothers before court hearings, and convictions are even held merely because of an accusation.5 Through state-sanctioned seizure of a mother’s right to a child, Child Protective Service agencies and the foster care system have posed a serious threat to the autonomy of Black families. This is largely a result of the racialized surveillance that CPS agencies and welfare agents deploy against Black families, specifically in impoverished communities, where mothers can get written up and receive police intervention for the most minuscule acts that are construed as offenses to officers and then allow agents to temporarily strip a mother of her custody and take her child. This can be further seen in the estimation that 53% of Black children have had their homes searched and investigated by a CPS agent.6
However, these instances of CPS and foster care intervention become further exacerbated as a mother experiences incarceration and has her state-granted custody rights revoked, thus placing her child’s life in the hands of these agencies. The foster care system has become notorious for the abuse of Black and brown children, with countless reports of Black children being sexually assaulted and physically abused by agents and within the new households, they are placed in. Oftentimes these children are placed in the homes of white foster parents who lack cultural awareness seen in the stories of Black children being verbally assaulted by foster care parents over their “nappy, untamed hair.” Furthermore, the foster care system has been linked to preventing the unification of mothers with their children even after they are released from incarceration, proposing that the mother has proven herself incapable of caring for and attending to the child’s needs.
The separation of a mother from her child coupled with the threat of losing custody has been connected to potentially causing depression for incarcerated mothers. Mothers in incarceration have suffered some of the worst cases of depression and anxiety as a result of losing a key piece of kinship, their connection to their child. Mothers find themselves suffering with internal conflict and overwhelming shame as they acknowledge the path their child has been forced onto by many factors out of their control. This guilt can further exacerbate already existing mental health issues Black mothers often have and make every day a state of isolated misery.
However, the impact may be just as severe on their children given separation from their mother and potentially siblings, resulting in children of incarcerated mothers developing mental illness and depression early in their youth. This manifests itself in these students often failing or dropping out of educational institutions due to the strain on their relationships; however, because a majority of incarcerated mothers have histories of abuse in their family, children placed with relatives may be subjected to the same sorts of abuses, particularly sexual abuses, that leave a child with long term struggles with trauma.7 These children are uniquely more likely to develop an intense fear of rejection and attachment issues later in life that leave them incapable of experiencing authentic trust towards their parents and peers. The stigmatization of the criminal can produce immense shame and guilt for these children as they believe that others are less accepting of them and the histories in their family.
Jazmyn Luckett is a member of Wake Forest University’s graduating class of 2025, where she is seeking a degree in Politics and International Affairs with the goal of pursuing law school. Jazmyn participates in policy debate as an advocate for decolonized futures and legal solutions to systemic racism, and is an Afro-Indigenous activist involved with increasing Native American representation through community-based projects such as storytelling and mentoring youth.