Although the majority of United States prisons are populated by men, including those at the Cheshire Correctional Institute, the number of women in government custody is significant.
According to a report from advocacy group The Sentencing Project, “between 1980 and 2020, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 475%, rising from a total of 26,326 in 1980 to 152,854 in 2020.” As one would expect, of those women, many are mothers.
Examining the policies and conditions that lead to mass incarceration and exploring its broader effects is the work of criminologist and Cheshire resident Dr. Janet Garcia-Hallett. She is an assistant professor at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven, and her new book, almost a decade in the making, “shares the voices, challenges, and needs of traditionally silenced mothers in the criminal legal system.”
Entitled “Invisible Mothers,” it was published by the University of California Press this past fall.
Garcia-Hallett writes in an introduction to the book, “I present the women’s re-entry narratives as they reflect on various aspects of maternal life, illustrating their battles with normative standards of motherhood and highlighting their resiliency from controlling images of them as ‘criminals first, mothers second.’”
Garcia-Hallett is herself a mother of three children. She and her husband moved to Cheshire because of the school system, she says, and also to stay close to her family in Harlem, New York, where she grew up.
As a young person, she witnessed drug use on New York City’s streets. At an early age, she noted that those suffering from addiction were ending up not in therapeutic interventions but more often in the prison system.
“I wasn’t sure in high school what I wanted to do in college, but I always had an interest in working toward a better system for people in my community,” she explains.
“Invisible Mothers” presents the lived experience of 37 women, mostly African-American or Latina, who have had some experience with incarceration. Their struggles play a central role but, according to Garcia-Hallett, “of the 37 women I interviewed, they had 101 children between them.” Part of the book’s purpose is exploring those “ripple effects” of generational trauma.
“These women are very often victims of abuse, including domestic and childhood abuse, who turn to narcotics as a coping mechanism. They’re then charged with possession or sometimes prostitution, which they’ve turned to in order to support the habit. There are emotional barriers that underlie the reasons why they commit certain offenses,” says Garcia-Hallett.
Increasing empathy for incarcerated people is something Garcia-Hallett stresses in her work.
“Anyone can end up in those shoes. It was so important to me that I was meeting the people impacted by incarceration, I wasn’t reading about them in studies,” she insists.
Yet, for Garcia-Hallett, putting the book together was admittedly “a heavy lift,” as she interviewed people affected in various ways by their experiences in the prison system and the lives that led them there.
“It was definitely very emotional at times.” Garcia-Hallett admits. “But even though they were difficult stories to hear, they were more difficult to experience.”
One experience several of the mothers described was how their circumstances had led to divisions between themselves and their children. “They recognized how their children were also experiencing hurt,” Garcia-Hallett states.
Others struggled to reconnect with their children while balancing employment and other post-release obligations, even after making efforts to maintain contact throughout their time incarcerated.
“They often don’t have custody,” explains Garcia-Hallett. “One mother I interviewed would visit with her daughter on weekends and braid her hair, and that was their way of re-establishing that bond.”
“Sometimes there’s resentment from the children when they’re removed and put in a foster home, where there might be abuses. Sometimes even good intents lead to harmful outcomes,” especially, says Garcia-Hallett, when there aren’t other family members available to help, as was often the case with those she interviewed.
Navigating New York’s child welfare laws was another difficulty for some of the mothers. “They’re trying to meet all the requirements of the program, and one mother described it as feeling like a chicken with its head cut off,” Garcia-Hallett explains.
Ultimately, the book is about dispelling many of the myths surrounding incarcerated mothers and removing the stigmas around them. “The women wanted to share with outsiders looking in who don’t understand their background stories,” says Garcia-Hallett. “What I found was listening and understanding could be as helpful and useful as actually helping them.”
Although another book is not in her immediate plans, Garcia-Hallett is conducting new research at a correctional facility in Missouri. This work looks at the experiences of not only the incarcerated, but also staff members, to “better understand the culture and the climate of the prison system.”
She also plans to teach a capstone class in critical criminology to undergraduates, while continuing her work of reforming and humanizing the prison system for the betterment of the communities that are most affected by it.