Guest Blog: Mothering and Desistance in Reentry, By Venezia Michalsen, PhD

Our friend Venezia (Venice) Michalsen was our guest on

the Criminal Justice Insider Podcast with Babz Rawls Ivy & Jeff Grant,

October 19, 2018 – link.

Most women in prison are mothers.  Most of those moms were the primary caretakers of children before they went to prison, and plan to go back to living with their children after they get out.  But mothering is already hard; doing it from behind bars is even harder. Sometimes incarcerated moms don’t even tell their kids where they are out of shame or fear for their children.  If they do talk about it, communication can be very hard: calls are limited and expensive, writing letters requires literacy, paper, envelopes and stamps, and visits can mean a lot of travel, complicated rules, and very unfriendly surroundings.  

But then moms finally get out, and it’s all easy, right?  But it isn’t. Most moms have to find places

to live, ways to make money, often stay sober and healthy, among other things, and getting back custody of children is not easy even without those complications.  Once mothers have their children back and they are living together in the community, things aren’t always easy. Reentering moms are already disadvantaged when it comes to job skills – having kids means more food and clothes and shoes to buy, and higher rent to pay.  In addition, kids whose moms have been incarcerated are often dealing with extra challenges, such as anxiety, problems at school and behavioral troubles. But there is also no love like a mother’s love, and no matter the hurdles, formerly incarcerated moms also want to be there for their beloved children as role models and caretakers and best friends and moms.

In my book, Mothering and Desistance in Reentry, I write about the 100 interviews I did with formerly incarcerated mothers on exactly these topics.  Women spoke to me about both the role that mothering has had in their criminal behavior (and the stopping of that behavior, also known as desistance) and also about themselves as women and people, independent of their roles as mothers.  

The women spoke about prison being an opportunity for them, no matter how horrible, to get to know themselves away from the streets and sober.  I write relatively often about the disgusting fact that prison has become, for mostly poor Black and brown women, the “room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolf wrote about so famously; I call it “a cell of one’s own.”  

I am most proud of Chapter Five in the book, where I write about the way forward.  Ideas such as prison nurseries, college behind bars, moving facilities closer to home, and perhaps a ”moms court” in the tradition of drug courts are important.  However, we must also step out of the reform box and imagine a world without prisons. In the tradition of Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba, among many more, I suggest that we must imagine what kind justice we could achieve without cages, especially for mothers and their children.  What do you imagine? How might we, for example, create a victims justice system  rather than a criminal justice system?  How might we use transformative and restorative justice to center victim and community transformation instead of focusing on punishment? How might we move beyond our bloodthirst in pursuit of true justice?

I hope you’ll read my book! You can find it on Amazon: or on the publisher’s site. .

I also hope you’ll join me and some amazing activists at my book party this coming Wednesday 5/1/2019 at The State House in New Haven at  7:00pm. Please contact me at or 917-664-2546 with any questions or to RSVP.  You can also RSVP on Facebook at .

In power,

Venezia (Venice) Michalsen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Justice

Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ