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Arts and Sciences Professor Delves into the Lives and Needs of Incarcerated Mothers

By Jennifer T. Allen 

JWellsJWells looks for the gaps. The places where others aren’t looking; aren’t researching; aren’t writing. When she was volunteering at a county jail as an assistant GED instructor, JWells began to learn the extent of bias toward people of color, especially men of color, in the carceral system. Then she began to realize that the voices of one of the fastest growing populations in prison – women – were missing.  

“I started to quickly find out there wasn’t really, at that time, any research on women in prison,” she said. “I read all these memoirs written by men when they were incarcerated. I read all these statistics about men, but attention to women was just starting to develop.” 

As JWells followed the gap, she noticed there was also a gap in information about incarcerated mothers, even though statistics show the majority of women behind bars have children.  

“Once I found this large gap, I knew this was where I wanted to focus because I could make a real difference,” she said.  

JWells, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies, is using an American Association of University Women Research Leave Fellowship to focus on her research: The Continuum of Motherhood in a Carceral State. Her research has two objectives: Understand how incarcerated mothers or justice-involved mothers define and practice mothering at these different stages and create resources and tools for them through The Write to Motherhood Project.  

“Each woman’s story is unique,” JWells said. “I try to learn about their mothering experience with their mothers or maternal figures. What I learned is that some don’t experience motherhood until incarceration because they find out they’re pregnant when they get arrested. That was something I wasn’t expecting – finding out that they didn’t have a chance to mother their child before they went to prison or jail.”  

As the interview process with the mothers progresses, JWells dives deeper into their mothering practices. She asks about their concerns being separated from their children and what resources were available to them as mothers while incarcerated.  

“Some of them said they were allowed to sleep on the bottom bunk, but that’s it, or ‘they took me to the doctor sometimes,’” JWells said. “They really have to be resourceful in how they navigate the experience, and they depend a lot on the mothers who are inside with them. They develop their own communities.”  

The experience of each mother varied based on location and timing as well as if they were allowed more flexible visitation with their children, if they had work release, or if they were able to be home with their children on weekends. Some women were transferred to another state and were not allowed to talk with their children or have video visitations.  

“It was interesting to see how different facilities approach maternal incarceration,” JWells said. “There doesn’t seem like there’s a standard of any kind across counties or states.” 

The community of mothers plays a role in information. “One mother told me that she was told by other mothers that if you have your baby in this jail, they will let you stay in the hospital with them longer than in prison. In prison, you have the baby, and you get one day before you go back to prison,” JWells said. “So, she kept finding ways to delay her transfer to prison because she wanted to spend that time with her baby.”  

Another mother JWells interviewed didn’t wash her shirt when she left the hospital because she wanted it to keep smelling like her baby. 

“Incarcerated mothers are finding ways to engage with their children to really embrace motherhood,” she said.  

JWells also talks about the transition experience and what motherhood is like after incarceration because a lot of mothers don’t immediately get to go back to their children. Some women have been transferred to another state, and the prison system doesn’t transfer them back home once they are released. Or if they are on parole, they can’t leave the area.  

“I was told by some of the mothers that rent was so high, they could barely afford it, but they have to have a stable home to get custody back or to not violate parole,” JWells said. “They still experience a lot of barriers once they get out. One of the reasons I wanted to do this project is because there is scholarship on these different stages of mothering behind bars or re-entry, but there isn’t a project that follows all of the stages.”  

JWells has started to see patterns.  

“A lot of these mothers didn’t have resources even before prison. They were struggling with poverty,” she said. “They were struggling with being in the foster care system themselves. I think it’s important to draw attention to their resourcefulness and their strategies because their population gets a bad rap for willingly abandoning their children or not wanting to be mothers, and that is not always true.”  

During the interviews, JWells started thinking about what she may be capable of offering the women. At the same time, she was reading a book by Dr. Anna Plemons about a literacy mentor program in a men’s prison where she would teach them to write a poem and then also gave them the material so they could teach it to a loved one.  

“I thought that I could do that for mothers,” JWells said. “So I took that idea, and I held focus groups and talked to the mothers about what kind of topics they would want to focus on, what type of activities they would like to do with their kids.”  

From that initiative, the Write to Motherhood Project was created. JWells, with the help of her research assistant Zoe Sigola, has begun creating handouts around topics and activities such as talking to children about forgiveness or teaching children how to write a poem.  

“They are trying to maintain a connection with their children and then they are fighting to get their children back when they get out. They are also fighting to keep their children from being incarcerated because they don’t want their children to fall victim to the system,” JWells said. “By this research, by helping mothers maintain a connection with their children, we could really intervene in intergenerational incarceration.” 

In the near future, JWells hopes to find a community center or correctional facility to pilot the program and then publish her findings. She is also looking forward to going back to teaching in correctional facilities.  

“I want to take my research inside correctional facilities,” JWells said. “I really want to work with women who are currently incarcerated. Specifically, i want to analyze the letters they write to their children. I’m interested in how they’re using their words to build these bonds and express themselves.”  

JWells’ interest in the topic of her research comes from a very personal place – one of her close uncles was in and out of prison while she was growing up. Dr. Anna Clements  

“When he came home, I talked to him about it and asked him, ‘Why do you keep going back if you don’t like it?’ He would respond, ‘I don’t know, I just can’t get right,’” she said.  

She told the inmates at the county jail she was volunteering at the time about her uncle. They gave advice on what kind of classes to take if he was incarcerated again and how to look for transitional housing or a retreat center when he got out.  

“I shared their advice with my uncle and the last time he went to prison; he got out and did all the things they recommended, and he has been out for over 10 years,” JWells said. “If we could do this for one person, then I realized I wanted to do that for other people.”