Date of Award

May 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Peninnah Kako

Second Advisor

Susan J Rose

Committee Members

Jennifer Doering, Lucy Mkandawire-Valhmu


Incarceration, Jail, Mental health, Prison, Reentry, Women


Mass incarceration in US jails and prisons is a major public health concern. Over one million women are released from US jails and prisons each year. Incarcerated women experience disproportionately high rates of mental health issues and most incarcerated women are mothers of minor children. Mothers of minor children who leave jails and prisons with mental health issues face increased risks of experiencing substance use, risky behaviors, homelessness, and recidivism. Their children are also at increased risk for adverse mental health, behavioral, and social outcomes. The purpose of this study was to explore the mental health experiences of mothers of minor children after their release from incarceration.This study used a cross-sectional, exploratory, narrative inquiry qualitative design and a transitions theory-intersectionality framework. Convenience and snowball sampling was used to recruit 25 adult women participants from the community. Data were collected using individual semi-structured interviews. Data were analyzed using narrative and thematic analysis techniques and led to 8 major themes: a) Overwhelmed, b) Shifting Perspectives; c) On Edge for A While; d) I’m Not Sure I Understand; e) A Tiring Routine; f) Deciding What I Have to Lose; e) Disconnecting; and h) Gaining Strength. These findings suggest several implications for nursing practice, research, and policy. Nurses working with mothers with histories of incarceration can self-reflect on their biases to provide non-judgmental care and take active roles in pre- and post-release care coordination and follow-ups focused on building mutual trust. Policymakers can decriminalize substance use- and mental health-related behaviors as well as fund mental health- and family-centered diversion and reentry services that promote access to housing and basic needs. Researchers can explore factors related to mothers’ post-release access to basic needs resources, social support, and mental health treatment; rates and trends of mental health symptoms, traumatic events, and service use; perceptions of mental health-related terms and coping strategies; factors that reduce substance use-related harms and promote recovery from trauma; and the roles of nurses in jails and prisons.