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Mothering in jail: Pleasure, pain, and punishment

Brittnie Leigh Aiello, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines the role of motherhood in the women’s unit at Northeast Jail, a medium-security facility located in the Northeastern United States. Staff and administrators at Northeast Jail identify the facility as unique in the age of “get-tough” policies toward crime and punishment because the jail provides drug rehabilitation programming, educational opportunities, some job training, and a variety of classes and therapeutic groups. Preparation for parenting is an important part of the therapeutic agenda for women inmates at Northeast Jail. Officially, motherhood manifests in jail in the form of parenting classes and visitation, but motherhood is woven throughout other therapeutic groups, daily life and conversation. In these venues, staff promote an ideal form of motherhood that is not available to women in or out of jail. Thus, constructions of ideal motherhood punish women who cannot practice them. Motherhood is also tied to formal mechanisms of punishment that the jail uses to discipline inmates who break institutional rules. Or, motherhood is invoked to encourage women to behave in institutionally prescribed ways. Furthermore, since the purpose of Northeast Jail is to punish and confine, therapeutic endeavors are often superseded by punitive measures. In order to maintain a rhetoric of rehabilitation in the face of traditional punishment, staff and administrators construct inmates in ways that justify incarceration on therapeutic or punitive grounds. In short, motherhood is an integral part of life at Northeast Jail, even though women are practically and ideologically barred from practicing motherhood in their everyday lives. I will argue that this disconnect, and the primacy of motherhood to women’s lives makes motherhood an effective tool of gendered punishment.

Subject Area

Sociology|Criminology|Gender studies

Recommended Citation

Aiello, Brittnie Leigh, "Mothering in jail: Pleasure, pain, and punishment" (2011). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3445141.