Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Lois Presser

Committee Members

Michelle Brown, Ben Feldmeyer, Elizabeth Johnson


Policies of mass incarceration have resulted in a dramatic increase in the prison population in the United States over the past few decades. The number and proportion of women who are incarcerated have vastly increased as a result. Despite increased interest among criminologists, a variety of questions remain as to how women experience incarceration. Most women who are incarcerated are mothers, but criminological literature has yet to fully explain how mothers fulfill their parenting roles or navigate motherhood while incarcerated. No dominant theoretical framework exists to explain the experiences of incarcerated mothers in relation to their mothering roles. This research addresses such limitations by exploring the question: How do incarcerated mothers negotiate motherhood from behind bars?

Data from this study come from qualitative interviews with 49 mothers (35 individually and 14 in group settings) serving time at the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women. Findings suggest that incarcerated mothers experience ambiguous loss of children and the mother identity. They deal with that loss through coping strategies to preserve motherhood and by redefining the mother role. Policy recommendations and suggestions for future research based on findings are discussed.

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Included in

Criminology Commons