"Here They Look at Us as People”

Comparing Mothers’ Experiences with an Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) Program and Incarceration


  • Carolyn Sutherby Ferris State University




Alternatives to incarceration (ATI), mothers, minor children, mother-child community-based ATI


Approximately 60% of all incarcerated women in the United States are mothers with minor children and most of them are single mothers. When mothers with minor children are incarcerated, the disconnection and loss of tangible support can have a traumatic impact on families. Alternatives to incarceration (ATI) can be a viable option to maintain their significant relationships while holding them accountable for their crimes and providing them with necessary rehabilitation. The purpose of this study was to examine how mothers participating in an ATI program compared this experience to conventional incarceration. Data were collected from eight focus groups involving 34 mothers who were current participants or graduates of an ATI program. Data were analyzed using exploratory thematic analysis. Analysis revealed four salient themes characterized by these in vivo themes: incarceration is not rehabilitation; incarceration is easy, the program is hard; I’m not the same person; and connection with children. Findings suggest that mothers find the ATI more rehabilitative and relational than incarceration. Future research should explore outcomes for graduates of ATI specific to their rehabilitation and connections to children. A mother’s readiness for change while incarcerated and when participating in an ATI intervention should be evaluated in relation to these outcomes. The social work profession can increase research, policy, and direct service efforts in criminal legal reform by advocating for appropriate alternatives to incarceration for mothers.



Aiello, B., & McQueeny, K. (2016)."How can you live without your kids?": Distancing from and embracing the stigma of "incarcerated mother". Journal of Prison Education and Reentry, 3(1), 32-49. https://doi.org/10.15845/jper.v3i1.982

Allen, S., Flaherty, C., & Ely, G. (2010). Throwaway moms: Maternal incarceration and the criminalization of female poverty. Journal of Women and Social Work, 25(2), 160-172. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109910364345

American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare. (2016). Promote smart decarceration. https://grandchallengesforsocialwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/GC-one-pager-decarceration-final.pdf

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2016). A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities. Author. https://www.aecf.org/resources/a-shared-sentence

Arditti, J. (2012). Parental Incarceration and the family: Psychological and social effects of imprisonment on children, parents, and caregivers. New York University Press.

Arditti, J. A., & Few, A. L. (2006). Mothers’ reentry into family life following incarceration. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 17(1), 103-123. https://doi.org/10.1177/0887403405282450

Arditti, J. A., & Few, A. L. (2008). Maternal distress and women's reentry into family and community life. Family Process, 47(3), 303-321. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2008.00255.x

Bachman, R., Kerrison, E. M., Paternoster, R., Smith, L., & O'Connell, D. (2016). The complex relationship between motherhood and desistance. Women & Criminal Justice, 26(3), 212-231. https://doi.org/10.1080/08974454.2015.1113153

Barnes, S. L., & Stringer, E. C. (2014). Is motherhood important? Imprisoned women’s maternal experiences before and during confinement and their post release expectations. Feminist Criminology, 9(1), 3-23. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085113504450

Bearman, M. (2019). Eliciting rich data: A practical approach to writing semi-structured interview schedules. Focus on Health Professional Education: A Multi-disciplinary Journal, 20(3), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.11157/fohpe.v20i3.387

Belknap, J. (2007). The invisible woman: Gender, crime, and justice (2nd ed.). Wadsworth.

Berman, G., & Adler, J. (2018). Start here: A road map to reducing mass incarceration. New Press.

Bloom, B., Owen, B., & Covington, S. (2003). Gender-responsive strategies: Research, practice, and guiding principles for women offenders (No. 018017). National Institute of Corrections. https://s3.amazonaws.com/static.nicic.gov/Library/018017.pdf

Bradley, R. G., & Davino, K. M. (2002). Women’s perceptions of the prison environment: When prison is “the safest place I’ve ever been”. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26(4), 351-359. https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-6402.t01-2-00074

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. Sage.

Brennan, P. K. (2007). An intermediate sanction that fosters the mother child bond. Women & Criminal Justice, 18(3), 47-80. https://doi.org/10.1300/J012v18n03_03

Brennan, T., Breitenbach, M., Dieterich, W., Salisbury, E. J., & Van Voorhis, P. (2012). Women’s pathways to serious and habitual crime: A person-centered analysis incorporating gender responsive factors. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39(11), 1481-1508. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854812456777

Brown, M., & Bloom, B. (2009). Reentry and renegotiating motherhood: Maternal identity and success on parole. Crime & Delinquency, 55(2), 313-336. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128708330627

Burgess-Proctor, A., Huebner, B. M., & Durso, J. M. (2016). Comparing the effects of maternal and paternal incarceration on adult daughters’ and sons’ criminal legal system involvement: A gendered pathways analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 43(8), 1034-1055. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854816643122

Byrne, M. W. (2010). Interventions within prison nurseries. In J. M. Eddy & J. Poelmann (Eds.), Children of incarcerated parents (pp. 161-187). Urban Institute.

Byrne, M. W., Goshin, L. S., & Blanchard-Lewis, B. (2012). Maternal separations during the reentry years for 100 infants raised in a prison nursery. Family Court Review, 50, 77-90. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-1617.2011.01430.x

Casey-Acevedo, K., & Bakken, T. (2002). Visiting women in prison: Who visits and who cares? Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 34(3), 67-83. https://doi.org/10.1300/J076v34n03_05

Center for Health and Justice at TASC. (2013). No entry: A national survey of criminal justice diversion programs and initiatives. https://www.centerforhealthandjustice.org/tascblog/Images/documents/Publications/CHJ%20Diversion%20Report_web.pdf

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory. Sage.

Chesney-Lind, M. (1997). The female offender: Girls, women, and crime. Sage.

Cobbina, J. E. (2010). Reintegration success and failure: Factors impacting reintegration among incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 49(3), 210-232. https://doi.org/10.1080/10509671003666602

Correctional Association of New York, Women in Prison Project. (2015). Reproductive injustice: The state of reproductive health care for women in New York State prisons. Author. https://static.prisonpolicy.org/scans/Reproductive-Injustice-FULL-REPORT-FINAL-2-11-15.pdf

Corston, B. J. (2007). The Corston report on women with vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system: The need for a distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centered, integrated approach. Home Office. https://www.asdan.org.uk/media/ek3p22qw/corston-report-march-2007.pdf

Covington, S., & Bloom, B. (2007). Gender responsive treatment and services in correctional settings. Women & Therapy, 29(3-4), 9-33. https://doi.org/10.1300/J015v29n03_02

Cyr, J. (2016). The pitfalls and promise of focus groups as a data collection method. Sociological Methods & Research, 45(2), 231-259. https://doi.org/10.1177/0049124115570065

Dallaire, D. H. (2007). Incarcerated mothers and fathers: A comparison of risks for children and families. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 56(5), 440-453. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2007.00472.x

Daly, K. (1994). Gender, crime, and punishment. Yale University Press.

Douglas, N., Plugge, E., & Fitzpatrick, R. (2009). The impact of imprisonment on health: What do women prisoners say. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 63(9), 749-754. https://doi.org/10.1136/jech.2008.080713

Dworsky, A., Fedock, G., Schlecht, C., Malcome, M., Murray, C., & Hazel, C. (2020). Addressing the needs of incarcerated mothers and their children in Illinois. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. https://www.chapinhall.org/wp-content/uploads/PDF/Incarcerated-Mothers-FINAL-2020.pdf

Emerson, A. M., & Ramaswamy, M. (2015). Theories and assumptions that inform trauma-specific interventions for incarcerated women. Family & Community Health, 38(3), 240-251. https://doi.org/10.1097/FCH.0000000000000073

Enos, S. (2001). Mothering from the inside: Parenting in a women's prison. State University of New York Press.

Epperson, M., & Pettus-Davis, C. (Eds.). (2017). Smart Decarceration: Achieving criminal justice transformation in the 21st century. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190858988.003.0010

Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentencing [FAMM]. (n.d.). Alternatives to incarceration in a nutshell. https://famm.org/wp-content/uploads/FS-Alternatives-in-a-Nutshell.pdf

Ferraro, K. J., & Moe, A. M. (2003). Mothering, crime, and incarceration. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 32(1), 9-40. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891241602238937

Foster, H., & Hagan, J. (2017). Maternal imprisonment, economic marginality, and unmet health needs in early adulthood. Preventive Medicine, 99, 43-48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2017.01.018

Garcia, J. (2016). Understanding the lives of mothers after incarceration: Moving beyond socially constructed definitions of motherhood. Sociology Compass, 10(1), 3-11. https://doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12337

Glaze, L. E., & Maruschak, L. M. (2009). Parents in prison and their minor children (NCJ 222984). U.S. Department of Justice. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf

Goshin, L. S. (2015). Ethnographic assessment of an alternative to incarceration for women with minor children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(5), 469-482. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000097

Goshin, L. S., & Byrne, M. W. (2009). Converging streams of opportunity prison nursery programs in the United States. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 48, 271-295. https://doi.org/10.1080/10509670902848972

Goshin, L. S., Byrne, M. W., & Henninger, A. M. (2014). Recidivism after release from a prison nursery program. Public Health Nursing, 31(2), 109-117. https://doi.org/10.1111/phn.12072

Green, B. L., Dass-Brailsford, P., Hurtado de Mendoza, A., Mete, M., Lynch, S. M., DeHart, D. D., & Belknap, J. (2016). Trauma experiences and mental health among incarcerated women. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 8(4), 455-463. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000113

Gurusami, S. (2019). Motherwork under the state: The maternal labor of formerly incarcerated Black women. Social Problems, 66(1), 128-143. https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spx045

Hagan, J., & Foster, H. (2012). Children of the American prison generation: Student and school spillover effects of incarcerating mothers. Law & Society Review, 46(1), 37-69. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5893.2012.00472.x

Haney, L. (2013). Motherhood as punishment: The case of parenting in prison. Signs: Women, Gender, and Prison: National and Global Perspectives, 39(1), 105-130. https://doi.org/10.1086/670815

Harner, H. M., & Riley, S. (2013). The impact of incarceration on women’s mental health: Responses from women in a maximum-security prison. Qualitative Health Research, 23(1), 26-42. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732312461452

Huebner, B. M., & Gustafson, R. (2007). The effect of maternal incarceration on adult offspring involvement in the criminal justice system. Journal of Criminal Justice, 35(3), 283-296. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2007.03.005

Johnson, E. I., & Easterling, B. (2012). Understanding unique effects of parental incarceration on children: Challenges, progress, and recommendations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74(2), 342-356. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00957.x

Kates, E. (2011). Executive summary: Exploring alternatives to incarceration for women in Massachusetts. Wellesley Centers for Women. https://www.wcwonline.org/pdf/ekates/ATISummary9.11.pdf

Komarovskaya, I. A., Booker-Loper, A. B., Warren, J., & Jackson, S. (2011). Exploring gender differences in trauma exposure and the emergence of symptoms of PTSD among incarcerated men and women. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 22(3), 395-410. https://doi.org/10.1080/14789949.2011.572989

Krueger, R. A., & Casey, M. A. (2015). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research (5th ed.). Sage.

La Vigne, N. G., Davies, E., & Brazzell, D. (2008). Broken bonds: Understanding and addressing the needs of children with incarcerated parents. Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/31486/411616-Broken-Bonds-Understanding-and-Addressing-the-Needs-of-Children-with-Incarcerated-Parents.PDF

Leverentz, A. M. (2014). The ex-prisoner's dilemma: How women negotiate competing narratives of reentry and desistance. Rutgers University Press.

Liamputtong, P. (2011). Focus group methodology: Principle and practice. Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781473957657

Lichtenwalter, S., Garase, M. L., & Barker, D. B. (2010). Evaluation of the house of healing: An alternative to female incarceration. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 37(1), 75-94. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3494&context=jssw

Loper, A. B., Carlson, L. W., Levitt, L., & Scheffel, K. (2009). Parenting stress, alliance, child contact, and adjustment of imprisoned mothers and fathers. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 48(6), 483-503. https://doi.org/10.1080/10509670903081300

Luke, K. P. (2002). Mitigating the ill effects of maternal incarceration on women in prison and their children. Child Welfare, 81(6), 929-948.

Macnaughten, P., & Myers, G. (2004). Focus groups. In C. Seale, G. Gobo, J. Gubrium & D. Silverman (Eds.), Qualitative research practice (pp. 65-79). Sage.

Madriz, E. (2001). Focus groups in feminist research. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 835-850). Sage.

Mears, D. P., Cochran, J. C., & Bales, W. D. (2012). Gender differences in the effects of prison on recidivism. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(5), 370-378. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2012.06.009

Michalsen, V. (2011). Mothering as a life course transition: Do women go straight for their children? Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 50(6), 349-366. https://doi.org/10.1080/10509674.2011.589887

Miller, J. B. (1976). Toward a new psychology of women. Beacon Press.

Miller, J. B. (2008). Connections, disconnections and violations. Feminism & Psychology, 18(3), 368-380. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959353508092090

Mitchell, M. B., & Davis, J. B. (2019). Formerly incarcerated black mothers matter too: Resisting social constructions of motherhood. Prison Journal, 99(4), 420-436. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032885519852079

Morgan, D. L. (2019). Basic and advanced focus groups. Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781071814307

Murray, J., & Farrington, D. P. (2008). Parental imprisonment: Long-lasting effects on boys' internalizing problems through the life course. Development and Psychopathology, 20(1), 273-290. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579408000138

National Association of Social Workers [NASW]. (2017). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Author. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

NASW. (n.d.). Social justice priorities. https://www.socialworkers.org/Advocacy/Social-Justice/Social-Justice-Priorities

O’Brien, P., Kim, M., Beck, E., & Bhuyan, R. (2020). Introduction to special topic on Anticarceral feminisms: Imagining a world without prisons. Affilia, 35(1), 5-11. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109919897981

Opsal, T. D. (2011). Women disrupting a marginalized identity: Subverting the parolee identity through narrative. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 40(2), 135-167. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891241610384995

Opsal, T. (2015). “It’s their world, so you’ve just got to get through” Women’s experiences of parole governance. Feminist Criminology, 10(2), 188-207. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085114539723

Patchin, J., & Keveles, G. (2004). Alternatives to incarceration an evidence-based research review: A summary of findings. Northwest Wisconsin Criminal Justice Management Conference. https://people.uwec.edu/patchinj/crmj103/Alternatives%20to%20Jails%20Research%20Review%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf

Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Sage.

Phillips, S. D., Erkanli, A., Costello, E. J., & Angold, A. (2007). Differences among children whose mothers have been in contact with the criminal justice system. Women & Criminal Justice, 17(2-3), 43-61. https://doi.org/10.1300/J012v17n02_04

Pimlott, S., & Sarri, R. C. (2002). The forgotten group: Women in prisons and jails. In J. Figueira-McDonough & R. C. Sarri (Eds.), Women at the margins (pp. 55-85). Haworth Press.

Rebecca Project for Human Rights. (2010). Mother’s behind bars: A state-by-state report card and analysis of federal policies on conditions of confinement for pregnant and parenting women and the effect on their children. https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/mothersbehindbars2010.pdf

Roberts, D. (2012). Prison, foster care, and the systemic punishment of black mothers. UCLA Law Review, 59(6), 1474-1500. https://www.uclalawreview.org/prison-foster-care-and-the-systemic-punishment-of-black-mothers-2/

Robison, K. J., & Hughes Miller, M. (2016). Decentering motherhood: Reentry strategies for women on parole and probation. Women & Criminal Justice, 26(5), 319-339. https://doi.org/10.1080/08974454.2016.1145617

Salisbury, E. J., & Van Voorhis, P. (2009). Gendered pathways: A quantitative investigation of women probationers' paths to incarceration. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(6), 541-566. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854809334076

Schenwar, M., & Law, V. (2020). Prison by any other name: The harmful consequences of popular reforms. New Press.

Sharp, S. F. (2014). Mean lives, mean laws: Oklahoma’s women prisoners. Rutgers University Press.

Shdaimah, C., & Bailey-Kloch, M. (2014). “Can you help with that instead of putting me in jail?”: Participant insights on Baltimore City's specialized prostitution diversion program. Justice System Journal, 35(3), 287-300. https://doi.org/10.1080/0098261X.2013.869154

Skeem, J. L., Emke-Francis, P., & Louden, J. E. (2006). Probation, mental health, and mandated treatment: A national survey. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 33(2), 158-184. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854805284420

Steadman, H. J., Osher, F. C., Clark-Robbins, B. A., Case, B., & Samuels, S. (2009). Prevalence of serious mental illness among jail inmates. Psychiatric Services, 60(6), 761-765. https://doi.org/10.1176/ps.2009.60.6.761

Sutherby, C. G. (2020). "That’s what it’s all about, becoming mothers that can live a normal life and raise their children”: How a group of mothers navigate an alternative to incarceration intervention (Dissertation). Michigan State University. https://d.lib.msu.edu/etd/48640

Swavola, E., Riley, K., & Subramanian, R. (2016). Overlooked: Women and jails in an era of reform. Vera Institute of Justice. https://www.vera.org/publications/overlooked-women-and-jails-report

Thompson, M., & Newell, S. (2021). Motherhood After Incarceration: Community Reintegration for Mothers in the Criminal Legal System. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780367365127

Trice, A. D., & Brewster, J. (2004). The effects of maternal incarceration on adolescent children. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 19(1), 27-35. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02802572

Turney, K. (2017). The unequal consequences of mass incarceration for children. Demography, 54(1), 361-389. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-016-0543-1

Vandermause, R., Severtsen, B., & Roll, J. (2013). Re-creating a vision of motherhood: Therapeutic Drug Court and the narrative. Qualitative Social Work, 12(5), 620–636. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473325012447591

Wattanaporn, K. A., & Holtfreter, K. (2014). The impact of feminist pathways research on gender-responsive policy and practice. Feminist Criminology, 9(3), 191-207. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085113519491

Wildeman, C. (2009). Parental imprisonment, the prison boom, and the concentration of childhood disadvantage. Demography, 46(2), 265-280. https://doi.org/10.1353/dem.0.0052

Wildeman, C., Goldman, A. W., & Turney, K. (2018). Parental incarceration and child health in the United States. Epidemiologic Reviews, 40(1), 146-156. https://doi.org/10.1093/epirev/mxx013

Women’s Prison Association. (2022). A continuum of care. http://www.wpaonline.org/services/alternative-to-incarceration