COVID-19 shows mass incarceration is a disaster for Maine’s most vulnerable

This article, by Erica King of the University of Southern Maine, was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on May 19, 2020.

Susan Sharon | Maine Public
A visitors’ room at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center in Windham.

From screen time to food scarcity and health care access, parents and families are dealing with all sorts of hardships in the pandemic. For many incarcerated mothers, these challenges, including social isolation and severed community connections, were already a daily reality. The stress and anxiety of parenting from behind bars is now compounded by the threat of COVID’s spread in prison.

Around the country, prisons and jails are sparking large outbreaks. To date, Maine’s Department of Corrections has released 30 of the 145 women in custody through the Supervised Community Confinement Program. Advocates across the state are still fighting to get more incarcerated Mainers home to stop the virus’ spread.

However, women need safe places to return home to and economic and social support. In rural Maine communities, the virus is just one threat among many including poverty, domestic violence and addiction. With many programs and resources now inaccessible and the risk of relapse and re-incarceration already high, what are the chances of success? Without support to rebuild lives after trauma and addiction, women cycle through fragmented systems. Data already show increasing numbers of women in prison due to drug-related offenses, and many return to custody for technical violations like missed appointments or failed drug tests.

More troublingly, the vacuum of support created by requirements for physical distancing because of the coronavirus has already begun to reveal the dangers of social isolation for people impacted by incarceration, addiction, trauma or both. In March, all in-person visitation to Maine state correctional facilities was suspended. This included family visits, community work programs, facilitated groups and classes — including those offered through the University of Maine at Augusta through an innovative Second Chance Pell Grant. The COVID-19 lockdown further fractured vital connections between communities and families and incarcerated women, and taught us what services and supports are needed to ensure that we and others rejoin their families and community.

With the cycles of poverty, addiction and incarceration in the backdrop, the pandemic has also highlighted a number of other issues in the prison system that we knew were already there. For example, criminal justice systems often ignore children’s rights and sever family connections. In the U.S., more than 2 million children have an incarcerated parent, with low-income children of color most impacted. We know that parental incarceration is an adverse childhood experience that perpetuates intergenerational cycles of trauma. We do not yet know how many Maine children are impacted by parental incarceration, but conservative estimates would suggest thousands of Maine’s children have been impacted by this adverse childhood experience. There are no specialized programs in Maine that specifically support these vulnerable children.

However, if we listen carefully, COVID-19 may also teach us what is needed to support families impacted by incarceration. COVID-19 has forced systems to virtually reach out across distance and showed us that resources can be made accessible to ensure that mothers stay connected to families during incarceration. For example, if parent-teacher conferences or individualized education plans can be conducted virtually, why can’t incarcerated parents regularly be involved in their children’s education? This can lead to destigmatizing incarcerated individuals and support the rights of children of incarcerated parents.

The good news is that there are many survivors who could create a deep well of support for these women and families. Studying and supporting these peer-support models could build pathways to meaningful employment for formerly incarcerated people and create powerful networks of women helping women across the state.

As we look ahead toward the COVID-19 recovery, we should learn the most fundamental lesson of the pandemic: we desperately need each other. Our state should invest in building up these strong women instead of building bigger prisons and jails.

Erica King is a senior policy associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service who contributes leadership to the Justice Policy Program and the Data Innovation Project. Also contributing to this column are: Brianna Dube, a mother, wife and student at the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) who is incarcerated at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center in Windham. Marissa Ouellette, a mother pursuing a degree in Justice Studies at UMA, is also incarcerated at the women’s reentry center. Kasie Robbins is a survivor leader/mentor, advocate and educator surrounding sexual exploitation and addiction and is enrolled at UMA. Katherine Weatherford Darling is an assistant professor of sociology at UMA and teaches at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center.

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