The Club Nobody Wants to Join: Mothers with Sons in Prison

Mothers around the world want the best for their children.  These hopes and dreams include wanting their kids to be healthy, educated, loved, respected, and also have productive and prosperous lives.  However, for an alarming number of black mothers, these wishes won’t be realized.  Even worse, some of these mothers will join a club that none of them want to become a member, which is “mothers with a son in prison”.

For example, Dr. Ivy Hylton of the Hearts Strings Project in the D.C. Metropolitan area taught her son about values, the importance of a quality education, and the necessity to have good character.  Dr. Ivy’s love, shelter, and guidance still weren’t enough to prevent her son from being convicted of murder.  Some individuals blame mothers – like Dr. Ivy – for the increasing number of black men who follow the school-to-prison pipeline.  Unfortunately, this rush to blame mothers for failing to properly raise their sons distorts the reasons that so many black men go to prison, which is primarily due to an individual’s choice(s).

Mothers can only do so much to instill values, character, and decision making skills in their children.  After a certain point, each individual must make appropriate choices to avoid negative actions, behaviors, situations, environments, and consequences.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “”Zero-tolerance” policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in school lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.”  Moreover, the ACLU advises that, “Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.”

Based on the data from the ACLU’s infographic about the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s estimated that black students are about 16% of public school enrollments, but account for approximately 42% of multiple suspensions and 31% of school arrests.  Furthermore, black students are suspended and expelled three times more than white students.

This type of punishment imbalance occurs too often for black people in the U.S., specifically black males, who are sometimes considered aggressive, difficult, or worse perceptions before there’s an opportunity to learn anything about them.  Many times, these judgments are based on physical appearances related to their skin color, clothing, walking style, speech pattern, or other superficial considerations.  Furthermore, black men can be described as ‘thugs’ due to stylistic expressions instead of thoughtful considerations or deliberations about a black man’s character, accomplishments, social status, income, or future potential.

Imagine being negatively profiled just for walking the street, entering a store, being in a certain location, or wearing certain clothes.  Might these collective experiences during an individual’s or related individuals’ lifetime effect the manner in which someone views themselves or their actions and behaviors?  The answer unfortunately is a resounding ‘yes’.  Therefore, how can years of social conditioning based on these factors be reduced or eliminated?

Changes won’t occur in societies until black men are no longer considered to be a threat due to outward appearances. Furthermore, wherever there’s a history of civil, criminal, or economic disparate treatment, there must be remedies and controls to provide independent oversight in an expeditious manner to prevent further injustices.  Otherwise, baseless judgments related to a black man’s actions, behaviors, value, and potential will continue to be diminished without any justifiable reasons, actionable changes, along with shortsighted perceptions.

Black mothers can raise their sons with all the best care, attention, and love; however, black men must make appropriate choices to minimize the potential to be involved in the judicial system for things that are within their control.

Notwithstanding, black mothers must have ongoing conversations with their sons to: educate about the dangers of the streets, the power of choice, and the necessity to be responsible and accountable for their actions and behaviors — while oftentimes being evaluated using a standard that many other racial groups never have to endure.  Consequently, black mothers can do everything within their power to raise strong, independent, thoughtful, and productive black men; however, these mothers cannot live their son’s lives or make choices for them while confronted with societal injustices and difficult decisions.

There aren’t any justifiable reasons that the alarming school-to-prison pipeline trends should continue.  These systemic issues don’t just take a village to address; it takes a nation and a world to resolve any ongoing and preventable injustices.  Part of the solution to resolve these challenges begins with reversing the upward trend of disproportionate criminal remedies assigned to black men and toward solutions that are targeted to support issue resolution, statistically equitable punishment assignment, character building, skill development, and investments to transform the overwhelming burdens of living in economically depressed communities.

It’s time to invest in more community based programs and organizations that move beyond traditional models of education and social services to innovative approaches, which can be better aligned to meet the challenges that face these communities. These solutions are a starting point, but there also must be a downward trend away from severely and inequitably punishing black men for actions and behaviors that in other racial groups would be addressed with solutions outside of the legal system.

American jails are filled disproportionately with black males.  The significant incarceration rates for black males in the U.S. according the ACLU’s 2011 data should make many people ask tough questions about the reasons for these troubling numbers, such as: Is it the communities that these men live in that can be attributed to the increasing number of black men in prison; is it the disproportionate harsh punishments given to black men compared to other racial groups; are there too many societal prejudices that prevent black men from having equal opportunities to achieve success?

There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but as a society let’s collectively delve into these long unresolved issues to create better solutions and outcomes for black men, their mothers, and society.

Additional information on Dr. Ivy Hylton’s work can be obtained at: