Current Initiatives

Impact of Drug Laws on Lived Experiences of Currently Jailed and Previously Jailed African American Mothers, their Children, and Caregivers

The Drug Enforcement Policy Center at The Ohio State University awarded a grant for this research to Dr. Yvette Harris and Dr. Cricket Meehan. The purpose of the project is to conduct an exploratory investigation of the "lived experiences"1 of African American mothers currently jailed for drug crimes and previously jailed African American mothers (for drug crimes), their children and caretakers. We believe that this project is in concert with the overall mission of DEPC to educate, and train in particular social workers, who will work with these mothers, their children, and caretakers. Furthermore, our project also examines the impact of racially unjust drug policies on the lived experiences of currently jailed and previously jailed African mothers and their families.

1 We define lived experiences as parenting challenges, family relationship challenges, access to services, and social support.


Based on Ohio statistics, the number of women incarcerated in jails has increased from 450 in 1980 to 3,231 in 2015 (Incarceration Trends in Ohio, Vera Institute, 2019). While exact Ohio statistics on the number of African American women incarcerated in jails, are difficult to obtain, data suggests that African Americans in general in Ohio make up 34% of the jail population; while comprising only 13% of the state's population (Incarceration Trends in Ohio, Vera Institute, 2019). Nationally, according to Swavola, Riley, Subramanian, (2016), 44% of the women incarcerated in jails are African American and 80% of women in jails are mothers to minor children.

This is due in part to the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for non-violent drug
offenses and due in part to the over-policing that occurs in communities of color. Specifically, African
American men and women are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for low level
nonviolent drug offenses in contrast to Caucasian men and women. This pattern has led to a mass
incarceration and destabilization of African American neighborhoods (Alexander, 2010) and children and families are the collateral damage of such policing policies and laws.

We chose to examine African American mothers incarcerated in jails as opposed to those
incarcerated in prisons for the following reasons:

  • There is a paucity of research on the wellbeing of these mothers, their children and their families incarcerated in jails, in contrast to the body of research on those incarcerated in prisons (Willingham, 2011).
  • Incarceration in jails brings with it a different set of experiences, challenges and outcomes that differ in many ways from incarceration in prisons. Given budgetary constraints, jails, in contrast to prisons, are rarely equipped to provide the necessary mental health treatment and medical care for these mothers. Thus, incarceration in jail is particularly disrupting for women, especially those who enter with complex post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their encounters with repeated domestic violence and sexual abuse (Baranyi, Cassidy, Fazel, Priebe, & Mundt, 2018).
  • Like incarceration in prison, families face financial devastation when mothers are incarcerated in jails. Mothers are typically the primary source of income, and families lose a significant income stream. Additionally, incarceration for drug related crimes leads to termination of public assistance such as food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing (Metsch, & Pollack, 2005). However, in contrast to prisons, there is little reentry support or preparation for mothers in jail to assist them with job search skills or re-establishing their federal assistance.
  • Family relationships are strained, because jails do not have policies or programs that support visitation, and phone calls from jails are costly and unaffordable for many of these families.
  • Family reunification presents a challenge, as few jails provide family reunification programs, thus mothers, their children and families are unprepared for the challenges of maternal reentry. This is problematic given that some of these children suffer immediate and long-term mental health challenges, academic problems, and other behavioral problems (Harris, Graham, & Carpenter, 2010). Many of these children have also experienced the incarceration of one or more of their parents and as a result are placed in the custody of grandparents or in foster care. Their caregivers also go through a host of challenges as well. Many caregivers are assuming a parenting role that is difficult, and unexpected. For some there are decreases in income, leaving them to face economic hardships; for others they are parenting children with a host of emotional and behavioral problems, without access to resources.


Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow, New York: The New Press

Baranyi, G., Cassidy, M., Fazel, S., Priebe, S., & Mundt, A. P. (2018). Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Prisoners. Epidemiologic reviews, 40(1), 134–145.

Harris, Y.R., Graham, J.A., Oliver, Carpenter, G.J. (2010). Children of Incarcerated Parents: Developmental and Clinical Implications. New York: Springer Publishing Company

Metsch, L. R., & Pollack, H. A. (2005). Welfare reform and substance abuse. The Milbank quarterly, 83(1), 65–99.

Vera Institute of Justice (2019, December). Incarceration Trends in Ohio

Willingham, B. (2011). Black Women's Prison Narratives and the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in US Prisons. Critical Survey, 23(3), 55-66.


  • Determine the unique parenting challenges of currently jailed mothers and previously jailed
    African American mothers.
  • Obtain information on the social support networks of currently jailed and previously jailed
    mothers and their evaluation of the quality of those networks.
  • Determine their assessment of their pre-release planning while in jail and their post jail
  • Identify the mental health and physical health challenges of currently jailed mothers and
    previously jailed mothers and their evaluation of their treatment options.
  • Determine caregivers unique parenting challenges while the mothers were jailed and upon
    the mothers' release.
  • Examine the quality of the relationship between mothers and caregivers.
  • Examine caregivers evaluation of the children's academic and social-emotional functioning
    when the mother was jailed and when the mother was released.
  • Determine how the lived experiences, differ between currently jailed mothers and previously
    jailed mothers. It may be the case that we learn how previously jailed mothers navigate
    successful re-entry.