Pregnant and Parenting from Jail: Part 3

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Originally posted on March 12, 2019

As a continuation of our Pregnant and Parenting from Jail series, Marjie Mogul, Senior Director of Research at MCC and a member of the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition focuses part three of this series on the need for more research on mothers in jail.

To learn more about this series, read the previous posts:


Research on Mothers in Jail: Why I’d be happy to be out of a job

Research has been a large component of my life for decades. Before I became a Social Worker, I worked in market research supporting private companies. Before work you would find me on my morning jog. My favorite route too me past a park and every morning I would see the same woman. She was homeless and living in the park. After my jog, I would head back to my apartment to get ready for work, get into my car, and drive to the office. One day that woman was gone. I found out that many of the homeless people living in that park were women, and were being arrested for minor drug offenses. That’s when I developed what I call my “social conscience” and decided to become a social worker to advocate for vulnerable women who, other than the coincidence of race and place of birth, were much like myself. After developing my “social conscience”, I realized that my passion for research and problem solving would lead me to a new career. It turned out to be a wise decision.

Research is the systematic collection, interpretation and evaluation of data to contribute to the knowledge base of a particular subject matter. The use of the scientific method to guide research ensures the accuracy of the data collected, promotes confidence in the effectiveness of the proposed solutions and is critical in finding solutions to problems experienced by individuals, groups or communities.  That’s all great in theory, but does not take into account the real world circumstances of people and the environment in which they live. My research is focused on breaking the cycle of pregnant women and mothers with babies and young toddlers who are repeatedly incarcerated and released, and addressing the real-world problems they face in their everyday lives.

For women in county jails, most are victims of trauma and develop mental health issues that result in substance use. Many are pregnant or have babies and young children at home. Research shows that critical brain development occurs from birth through age three, when the executive functioning center of the brain, responsible for impulse control and decision-making, is developed. Healthy parent-child bonding facilitates this development while incarceration, which separates a mom from her baby, disrupts it.  Anecdotal evidence demonstrates mothers’ concerns about their children and desire to be reunited with them. But does it serve a protective function for mothers during the reentry period? And, how does this bonding process facilitate, and hinder, mothers’ successful reentry from jail?  Further research to gain mothers’ experiences and perspectives on coming home to a baby or very young child would provide valuable information to begin to answer these questions. Existing research is equivocal. Despite a strong desire for a healthy relationship, having a baby is stressful enough without incarceration. Coming home to a baby may be both an incentive and a source of increased stress. What we do know is that it’s a complicated process and if we can begin to untangle the facilitators and barriers, we may be able to increase the likelihood of long-term success for both moms and babies.

The challenge in conducting this research lead to a paradox: the scientific methods needed to do really rigorous scientific research, such as randomized trials or quasi-experiments, aren’t realistic in the real world and disrupt the everyday lives of the participants. We can’t assign a group of women to go to jail and a group to not. Can women handling the issues of substance use, mental health and parenting give truly “informed” consent to participate in research? Can we intrude on their everyday lives to collect data for research purposes? We need to find a way to conduct research that will provide us with scientific evidence and adapt these methods in a way that respects, rather than intrudes, on mothers and babies.

Local initiatives implemented by reform-minded Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, including elimination of cash bail for low-level charges and stopping the prosecution of marijuana possession, have already led to a decline in the population of women at Riverside Correctional Facility, Philadelphia’s local county jail and the home of Maternity Care Coalition’s MOMobile at Riverside program. The recently passed federal First Step legislation is a great “first step” to reform, but the bill pertains to women incarcerated in federal facilities, not state and local prisons where the majority of women are incarcerated, so it is unclear what impact it will have overall on incarceration rates of women. Still, the increased attention on reforms for incarcerated women is momentous and if more scientific research is harder to accomplish because fewer women are being incarcerated, that would be a great success. After the nearly 20 years I’ve been working with women impacted by poverty, my motto is: I’d be happy to be out of a job.

In our next blog post, we’ll examine the state of effectiveness evaluation for programs serving pregnant and parenting women in jail.

Dr. Marjie Mogul is the Senior Director of Research. Her career has focused on effective strategies improving the health and well-being of pregnant women and parenting families. She believes providing young children with strong foundations is the key to our future. Marjie’s expertise is research and advocacy with women in the criminal justice system. She has presented at national conferences and participates in a working group of national thought leaders. Her proudest work accomplishment was when the New York Times printed her reply to their editorial, “Women Behind Bars” and she was subsequently invited to The White House Convening on Women and the Criminal Justice System. She received her PhD in Social Work and Social Research from Bryn Mawr College, a Master’s degree in Business from Pennsylvania State University, and an undergraduate degree in Economics from The George Washington University. An ideal weekend day: trail running with her pure-bred shelter mutts and husband, then dark roast coffee on the deck.