In my book Mothering on the Inside: Parenting in a Women’s Prison, the final chapter explores how researchers come to know the lives of women in prison. Titled You know what I’m saying, I examined to what degree we could really understand the lives of these incarcerated mothers. The women used this phrase repeatedly in our exchanges, as they did in conversations with others, to ask, perhaps rhetorically, if the conversation partner really understood her point, maybe testing for agreement, or perhaps asking if there was common ground between the speaker and the listener. In that essay, I suggested that we might not know as much as we think we do when we leave a site, even if we spend much time and much effort pursuing a research question. I would like to return to that abiding concern here.
It does not require meta-analysis to conclude that our prisons are failing on any measure that embraces rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders. They are succeeding in what Goffman observed as their real end—which was to degrade, dehumanize, and institutionalize. The wonder is how living with the high level of failure, let’s say, recidivism, these institutions and their staff members barrel on. Even the treatment staff become inured to the failure, expect it and accommodate it.
As researchers in settings that are marginalized, we find ourselves moving between two worlds. Working in the prison setting, for even a short period of time, gives us the privilege of knowing as much of that world as we are open to learn or as we are talented enough to know. When I was spending weekends and nights in the prison parenting programs and mornings and afternoons interviewing inmate mothers, my friends would comment, “That must be so sad.” “You must get so depressed.” A professor in my graduate program expressed his concern that I was taking on too much and not sticking close enough to my central research question. But the reverse was true. I never felt more hopeful or more connected to people than when I was in the prison setting. And, that central research question blossomed into a more richly textured examination of mothering in prison than I (or my professors) had originally imagined.
As part of doctoral work in the late 90s, I participated in a small study group looking at proposed welfare reform, characterized then as “ending welfare as we know it.” Professors and students in that seminar bemoaned the political scene and forecasted doom with the shredding of the social safety net. The professors shared their frustration that the politicians never paid much attention to the findings of well-researched replicated studies that demonstrated the clear value of building social and economic supports. One afternoon, the class observed that the academic community, i.e., liberal social scientists, was among the most marginalized in the current political landscape. We were ignored and defeated. I spent the long drive home, depressed and despairing, that the problems of the world were escaping the grasp of progressive reformers.
My next appointment took me to the Women’s Prison for my first extended interview with an inmate mother, whom I had met several months prior in the parenting program. This 21-year old woman, who I will call Bee Bee, had been in prison on three separate occasions so far. She had two children, one in the care of child welfare and another with her mother. We began to talk about her journey to prison and she set down a familiar path. It reminded me of one of those heroic myths where you see the protagonist suffer the world, insulted and abused at every turn and you are convinced by their story that maybe there is a chance of survival at the end. A few minutes into the story, I wondered how many social workers, intake staff, clinicians, teachers, treatment staff and others had already heard this story and whether telling it another time would benefit Bee Bee in any way.
At age twelve, her grandmother rounded up Bee Bee and her girl cousins and put them out to the streets, turning tricks. At age sixteen, Bee Bee called the police and the girls were rounded up by law enforcement and turned over to child welfare. What resulted was a family-size diaspora with sisters and brothers and cousins distributed over foster homes, treatment centers, reformatories, independent living and other arrangements. Child welfare intervention set off another stage of molestation, drug use, suicide attempts and pregnancy at age fifteen. At age eighteen, in her last conversation with her social worker before exiting child welfare, the worker reviewed her case. Bee Bee recalls,
She was telling me the whole story again, like I never heard it. And she was looking at me, like I was doomed. But, I know I am not doomed. God doesn’t doom his people. But, these people think these things about you and pretty soon, you have no hope. But I do have hope for me and my baby. It’s gonna work out.
Conversations with Bee Bee and women like her left me hopeful. I was buoyed by their faith and their refusal to let the larger picture of what the social workers and the sociologists know about the odds that women like Bee Bee will find themselves a place in our harsh, merciless world deter them from believing that they could make it. I think about that conversation all the time, about walking that narrow line between individual hope and systemic despair. I worry about becoming that researcher or worker who reflects in her eyes the doom she sees for these women. I am not suggesting here that we turn our eyes to the structural challenges faced by inmate mothers. Our duty as researchers and citizens is to bear witness and confront these facts at every turn. I am arguing that there is an abiding need for us to share the promise of hope. And, I would contend that there is an accompanying responsibility to construct a scaffold of supports, programs, and connections that makes hope more than just blind optimism and that this needs to be done on an individual and systemic basis.
William Sloane Coffin once remarked, “that hope reflects the state of our souls rather than the circumstances that surround our lives.” Perhaps, too much hope blunts our research focus. My hope is that once we have born witness to the facts of the lives of inmate mothers, that we can join them to design systems that make the promise of a better life not an empty one.