Mom Behind Bars: What It’s Really Like to Be a Parent in Prison

mother in prison, moms behind bars

The day mom-of-four Andrea James walked into prison, her breasts were still heavy with milk. "My son was just 5 months old," she recalls. "He wouldn’t wean so it was hard to force him to take a bottle. So right up until the time I was leaving, I was still breastfeeding him. My breasts were leaking. I wanted to just die. I couldn't believe I was leaving my kids."

It was a terrifying reality the attorney, wife, and mother never imagined for herself. The educated daughter of a college professor and speech pathologist, to neighbors, James wasn't the type to end up in prison. It's a subject many people are talking about thanks to the buzz-worthy Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. Based on a book by Piper Kerman, an upper class woman who landed in prison after being a drug mule, it's Hollywood's latest take on the lives of women behind bars. It's funny and often poignant -- but is it real? James reveals what it's really like to have your freedom and family stripped away.


Like so many women in prison, James made one bad decision that landed her in trouble. A trial lawyer, she took on real estate closings for banks in her spare time. Watching family after family lose their homes to predatory lenders weighed heavily on her, and in a misguided attempt to help them, she misused funds. Ultimately, she turned herself in and was given a 24-month sentence in federal prison.

Needless to say, her family was devastated. The moment she told her children is a memory that still brings tears to her eyes. "It was awful," she recalls. "My two oldest daughters were adults. We were crying, it was just very sad. I went into a state of depression, I contemplated suicide, I was devastated. This was devastating to me. It just changed my life profoundly. And also to have anybody thinking that I would ever cause harm in any way to anybody was devastating to me. And that’s what happens when you’re charged with something. People just automatically think you’re a bad person and that for me was horrible."

It took her longer to work up the nerve to tell her pre-teen. "My youngest daughter was only 12 and I didn’t tell her until the night before I was going to prison," says James. "My husband and I had planned it out and had gone over a million times how we were going to do it. But it didn't work out that way. I was alone, my daughter came home from school, put her school bag down, just kind of looked at me, and said, 'Are you in trouble?' and I just said, 'I’m going to prison.' She started to cry and said, 'What am I going to do without you?' It was very difficult."

That pain was only compounded by what James describes as a loss of her humanity as soon as she set foot inside prison. "From the time you come in, you’re strip searched, one of many hundreds of strip searches you receive," she says. "So that’s your introduction to the prison. And that’s an extraordinarily humiliating experience. Plus, it usually goes downhill from there. Very few guards were kind, decent, and human. Your name is now replaced with 'Inmate.' You lose your identity. They call you all kinds of names. That really begins to break you down."

It was a stark contrast to her life before. "The prisons have these big fluorescent lights and lots of noisy places," she describes. "You’re forced to live in these spaces with people of all ages, backgrounds, life experiences, and the younger women would hang out all night. They were loud and noisy. And the lights had to stay on from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. And then there’s mandatory counts. You had to get up and stand by your bunk. You get into this state of hyper-vigilance. You don’t sleep too hard, you don’t want to miss the count. You don’t sleep too hard, because you are in a prison and anything can happen at any minute so you have to sleep with one eye open. It’s just an unnatural environment and it’s not a healthy environment. You couldn’t have any decorations on your wall. You couldn’t have any pictures of your children."

And fairness wasn't a concept that existed there. "These women were paid 12 cents an hour," reveals James, founder of Families for Justice as Healing, an organization that raises awareness about how women are treated in the justice system. "They had $6 to $8 deposited in their commissary for working once a month. If you lived in Texas or any state past the mid-part of the country, you could only make one and a half or two phone calls with those dollars. So now you’re interfering with these women’s right to speak with their children. It just breaks you down. The prison environment just breaks you down."

As you would expect, the physical conditions were deplorable. "The prison was old," says James. "The sewage system didn’t work so in the mornings when everybody was trying to get showered and off to their job assignments, the toilets backed up. They were required to provide sanitary napkins because it’s a women’s prison but they didn’t provide hand soap. Little things like that were hard."

For daily work, James were ordered to to garage duty -- an unnatural fit for the academic: "I was not going to change the oil. So I sat around the garage all day and refused to work. I was like, 'I am not doing this.'" So when a tutoring position opened up in the education department, she jumped at it. "I had more education than the person running the education department at the time and so I eventually got my own classroom and I taught GED. I taught science, English as a second language."

That was essential in helping her get to know others. "You become friends with the people on your job just like out in society," she says. "I tried to turn the classroom really into a place to organize and to educate. And that was very fulfilling to me and I think it helped me to make lasting relationships with the women because they got to know me in a different capacity than just another woman in the prison. I was the teacher."

In fact, she says the one thing the show gets right is the camaraderie among women. James remembers what it was like being the "new girl." Though, coming in at age 40, she notes, is different. There were women in their early 20s that would engage in crazy behavior at times, but staying out of trouble wasn't hard. Yes, there is violence, but also bonds formed. "There are people who hurt people, but I was fortunate," she says. "The only time that there’s really any conflict is maybe in romantic relationships between women. I mean, the prison is just a microcosm of the rest of the outside world. Some relationships are unhealthy, some are not. So there’s domestic violence in prison. But for the most part, the women are caring for one another. Most of them are just trying to get though that experience while handling the intense, intense, intense pain from being separated from their children."

But the toll it takes on the children is worse. James was luckier than most. Her family had the means to come see her every week, but prisons are overcrowded with women who have not seen their children for nearly a decade. For too many to count, the last glimpse of their kids was out the back of a police car as they drove away. That was the norm.

"The impact of separation from incarcerated mothers can be traumatic for children," says Anita Smith, a social worker and trauma specialist who has worked with the prison community for 30 years. "They experience feelings of abandonment, fear, helplessness, and loss of trust, as well as psychological or emotional or academic problems. Children may experience feelings of shame, guilt, and show signs of restlessness and aggressive behavior. Children may even blame themselves or show signs of withdrawal or health problems related to anxiety and stress. They often voice concern about the safety of their mothers. The shame can be overwhelming. I recall children telling their teachers and classmates their mother was dead rather than in prison."    

For that reason, Smith helped developed the Children's Visitation Program in Michigan, which provided kids transportation to the prison and enriching activities they could do during that short time with their mothers. "I felt that the children were victims and were being punished too," she explains. "It was important to help the children understand that they were not to blame and they needed to see for themselves that their mothers were okay. The monthly contact visits helped to continue the parenting bond and communication."

However, these programs are few and far between for moms in prison, who make up 97 percent of the inmates, according to advocate Allison Moore. Also devastating is that when they are released, there are very few resources to help them get back on their feet. Experts say, unlike men, an overwhelming majority of women are in prison for non-violent offenses, like drug sales. Though, because of sentencing guidelines, first time offenders typically get a decade or more. With a drug conviction on your record, you don't qualify for public assistance in most states. When they finally get paroled, these women literally have nothing. "There is no dignity when you walk out of prison," says Moore, herself a former inmate. "You have no money, no clothes other than what's on your back. They have strained family relationships. No job. Even fast food places won't hire someone with a drug conviction." As a result, most women end up turning to a life of crime for survival. People like Moore try to offer resources to help bridge them back into society. "They just need someone to give them a chance," she adds.

That's a message James fears is lost in the laughs of OITNB. "Prison is horrific from day one," she says. "And real women of the federal system think there is too much sex and drugs on the show. It just kind of sensationalizes all of the craziness and it dilutes the message of the very real lives of these women and what this incarceration experience has done to them, their families, and their communities. There is nothing funny about that."

Do you know anyone who has been to prison? Was it hard for them to reconnect with their family and get on their feet?


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