An Impossible Motherload

By Rebecca Seldin

On Mother’s Day 2020, I became a mother. As they say, my life was turned upside down and right side up in a rapid jerking, shaking motion that never seemed to subside. Re-joining the work force as a deputy public defender and a mother became a nuanced impossible calculus equation that frankly still feels unsolvable. The worries, the fears, the unimaginable love has consumed me entirely.

One of my favorite poets, Kate Baer[i], writes a poem called “Motherload” that seems to cover it for me:

She keeps an office in her sternum, the flat bone in the center of her chest with all its urgent papers, vast appointments, lists of minor things. In her vertebrae she holds more carnal tasks: milk jugs, rotten plants, heavy bottomed toddlers in all their mortal rage.

She keeps frustration in her hallux: Senseless chatter, jealous fangs, the spikes of a dinosaur’s tail. The belly is more complicated- all heartache and ambition. Fires and tidal waves.

In her pelvis she holds her labors, long and slippery. In her clavicle, silent things. (Money and power. Safety and choice. Tiny banquets of shame.) 

In her hands she carries their egos, small and flimsy. In her mouth she holds their laughter, gentle currents, a cosmos of everything.

There are few mothers who cannot relate to these words and these emotions. These worries span across race, socio- economic class, states, and nations. But for some, these emotions simply do not cover the entire reality. I am speaking specifically about our nation’s incarcerated mothers.

As a public defender, I find myself frequenting tiny closet sized boxes where my clients and I meet. These boxes can be found in the Santa Barbara County Jail, the basement of the courthouse and most recently during the pandemic tiny zoom rooms with garbled sound. My job has a way of checking my privilege and my worries at the door, abruptly and immediately upon entry into these boxes. The Motherload, of my incarcerated female clients, span well beyond the confines of the aforementioned poem.

Below are important statistics to understand when we speak about incarcerating our mothers:

    • Nearly two-thirds of women in prison are mothers.[ii]
    • In 2021 nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children.[iii]
    • We know that particular circumstances can cause women’s involvement in the criminal justice system, poverty, mental and physical illness, trauma, gender-based discrimination.[iv]
    • Incarcerated women are more likely to have their children removed from their care and placed in foster care, reinforcing cycles of family disruption and separation.About 1 in 10 women in state prison were in the foster care system themselves.  States can terminate parental rights when a child has been living in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months. More than 60% of mothers in prison are expected to serve more than 24 months on their current sentence. Placement in foster care has been linked to an increase in behavioral, psychological, developmental and academic problems. Approximately 75% of children with an incarcerated parent were identified to have trauma-related stress.[v]
    • One in three mothers has never spoken with her children by phone while incarcerated. A majority of parents in prison are held over 100 miles from their home, making it extremely difficult to maintain relationships with their children.Over 50% of women in prison have never had a visit from their children.[vi]
    • Further incarcerating a mother may mean they don’t return home. The bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) recently came out with the 2018 mortality data for local jails. Nationwide there were 1,120 deaths reported or a rate of 154 deaths per 100,000 people in jail, the highest levels since BJS’s first report on this topic in 2000. Suicide was the leading cause of death for people in jails, accounting for almost 30% of deaths. Someone in jail is more than three times as likely to die from suicide as someone in the general U.S. Population. Women made up one-sixth of all jail deaths in 2018, which was slightly more than their share of the total jail population. Women also had a 7% higher mortality rate than men in jails. Women are also more likely than men to enter jail with drugs in their system, with a medical problem or chronic condition, or with a serious mental illness.
    • 80% of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford bail.
    • An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons. These women will receive abysmal pre-natal care.[vii]
    • Women will suffer the brutal side effects of going to jail: Aggravation of mental health problems, a greater risk of suicide and much higher likelihood of ending up homeless or deprived of essential financial benefits.[viii]

When we think of the motherload of women, we realize the gaping wound that is left in their family and community when they are taken from their homes and unable to provide for their children.  Who will pick up their children from school? Who will put food on the table? Who will wipe their child’s tears? Who will hug and kiss their child before bed? And when a child is not provided for in this way, how will they maintain focus at school with an empty belly and a sleepless night? How will they know how to process the trauma of being separated from their mother? How will they process seeing the same hands that once stirred their mac n cheese, in metal handcuffs and in a cage?

We of course recognize and understand that some mothers must be separated from their home environment and the option of remaining at home is not always the best solution. But I hope to challenge our criminal justice partners to be creative and find less archaic solutions to the standard, jail to prison pipeline. There are evidence-based programs available to help find and address the root cause of criminality. There are treatments outside our criminal justice system that have been shown to work and are simply not accessible in our jails and prisons. We can provide programming for the children and family members of incarcerated mothers. We can prevent this cycle from ever occurring.

Multiple organizations have taken note of this issue and formed non-profits to address these disparities. Still She Rises, in Tulsa, Oklahoma offers client-centered, innovative and holistic legal representation to indigent mothers.  Also, The Bail Project, which recognizes that more than 60% of prisoners in California’s county jails are there because they cannot afford to post bail. The Bail project receives referrals from local public defender offices and leverages bail reduction hearings as well as help clients access drug and alcohol treatment and mental health services as alternatives to custody. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently recognized their success and approved their expansion within the Los Angeles Court System. These organizations recognize the ripple effect incarcerating mothers pre-trial has on families and communities.

The Santa Barbara Public Defender’s office has fueled and grown its holistic defense practice to address this issue. Our attorneys can reach out to social workers and holistic practitioners in our office to provide a needs assessment and treatment plan for our clients as alternative means to incarceration in hopes that parents can return home and families reunited with a treatment plan that increases their chances of success in re-entry, creating a safer community.

It is the rare case, if any, that a Judge considers the fact that someone is a mother in determining pre-trial release. Not often discussed or understood, are the long-term consequences and impact the incarceration of a mother has on a community as a whole. When a mother is incarcerated, the resulting trauma of their child contributes to a cyclical incarceration pattern for a family and their community.

A few years ago, I represented a women who was seven months pregnant and in jail. She was in custody because she was accused of stealing a bra from the 99 Cents Store and pushing the clerk away who tried to physically apprehend her upon her exit. I will never forget the fear in her eyes as we calculated her release date based on the district attorney’s offer and whether she will be delivering her child while incarcerated or out of custody. She asked me questions I did not know the answer to, like how she would be transported to the hospital or even if she would be transported to the hospital for delivery. Her motherload was something unimaginable for most of us, but so very cold and real for her.   She asked me if she would be handcuffed while in labor and whether she would remain with her baby after delivery. All questions that could only be answered by jail medical and their available resources at the time.

I would like to imagine a world where I do not get asked these questions; a world where our society frowns on the incarceration of mothers and looks to sufficient alternative means to incarceration in order to ensure public safety. I hope for a time where we will not continue to stack more weight on the mothers within our community and instead provide adequate services, job opportunities, and education opportunities to empower our mothers instead of caging them.

Rebecca Seldin is a Deputy Public Defender with the Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office working currently in the Felony Trial Rotation.  She is also a member of the office’s Racial Justice Committee.


[i] Kate Baer:

[ii]  The Issue, Still She Rises Tulsa:

[iii]  W. Bertram, W. Sawyer; May 5, 2021: Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2021, Prison Policy Initiative:

[iv] The Issue, supra.

[v] Ibid.

[vi]  Ibid.

[vii] Prison Policy Initiative, supra.

[viii] Ibid.