Criminal Justice Professor’s New Book Brings Visibility to ‘Invisible Mothers’
Janet Garcia-Hallett, Ph.D., a first-generation college student, went on to earn her doctorate and write a book. She hopes it tells the stories of mothers who have been impacted by the criminal legal system while also changing the narrative, and she looks forward to sharing her research with her students and the University community.
March 30, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When Janet Garcia-Hallett, Ph.D., was growing up in Harlem, she noticed the impact that incarceration had on communities of color, much like her own. Drawn to the field of criminal justice, she also noticed throughout her studies that the focus was often on men – men of color, in particular. But she, she says, realized an important demographic was not represented.
Through her internships and volunteer work, Dr. Garcia-Hallett often met women who were impacted by the criminal legal system, and she realized their stories weren’t being told. The disconnect between what she was learning and what she was seeing in the real world bothered her. She knew she wanted to focus on exploring and sharing the narratives of the mothers she was meeting. This would inspire her dissertation, and, later, her first book.
“When you see news coverage about the criminal legal system, there’s often a focus on the crime and on the harm done,” explains Dr. Garcia-Hallett, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven. “But meeting women in person and learning their full story and the reasons that led to their circumstances, it humanizes them and shows the whole history. That was exactly what was missing from the narrative.”
“The focus on ‘they did something bad, let’s lock them up and throw away the key without knowing the full context’ doesn’t address the problem,” she explains. “My hope is the book will help move away from this double-edged sword of not helping individuals beforehand and only caring to punish them afterward.”
‘Include my own experiences’
Researching and writing the book, Dr. Garcia-Hallett says, has been a journey. She began interviewing more than three dozen mothers of color in New York City – including African American, Latina, and West Indian women – in 2014. A doctoral candidate at Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, she was living in New Jersey at the time and driving to New York to conduct her interviews. She met the women wherever they felt most comfortable – at home, perhaps, or at a fast-food restaurant.
The interviews were often emotional, as the individuals opened up about everything from their upbringings to the impact their incarceration had on their children. One particular interview stands out to Dr. Garcia-Hallett, as she learned just how deeply the mothers’ and children’s circumstances had affected them and how much they wanted to tell their stories.
“There was one mother who was staying in a shelter, and when I went to our meeting location, she wasn’t there,” Dr. Garcia-Hallett recalls. “She called maybe half an hour later and told me she was at the hospital because her daughter had tried to commit suicide. My response was to tell her to take as much time as she needed to focus on her daughter, but in the midst of that, she said she still wanted to speak with me about her experience.”
Dr. Garcia-Hallett spoke with both the mother and the daughter a short time later, and the interviews she conducted deeply moved her. She also interviewed several of the children of the women she’d spoken with. She did not include them in the book, since she wanted to focus on the mothers’ experiences, but she may use them at a later time. She wanted these mothers’ stories and what she was learning from them to reach a larger audience, beyond that of the academic world. She knew she wanted to write a book.
Turning a work that was originally intended for an academic audience into something for a broader audience took time, but it also offered unique opportunities. Dr. Garcia-Hallett was able to include more of her own language in the writing as well as some of her own story and background – something she had not incorporated into the academic work.
“I was able to include my own experiences in neighborhoods and how I felt when I was interacting with the individuals I met,” she said. “I discussed how they responded to me when they learned I spoke Spanish and that my family is from Honduras and I was able to integrate some of that into the book.”
'Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t’
Dr. Garcia-Hallett, who is still in touch with some of the mothers she interviewed, hopes the book will inform and inspire a wide variety of audiences, whether or not they have intimate knowledge of the criminal legal system. She also hopes it will have an impact on a key group of readers: her students.
It was important to Dr. Garcia-Hallett that her students be able to access her book free of charge, and she made sure it was available to them in the University’s Peterson Library. She ensured it would be available to them before the Lunch and Learn event she’s hosting for the University community via Zoom on April 5. One of the formerly incarcerated mothers she interviewed will join her during the event.
The topic of Dr. Garcia-Hallett’s research and book is also closely connected to what she discusses in the classroom – in particular, in her “Race, Class, and Gender Issues in Criminal Justice” course. Dr. Garcia-Hallett, who teaches both online and in-person courses, says that although they can be challenging, the conversations these topics often lead to are invaluable for students.
“It’s important to create a space where students can share their thoughts and perspectives from different upbringings, and I see that a lot at the University,” she said. “We have students in class with very different backgrounds, experiences, and exposures to the criminal legal system. I think it’s valuable for me to hear those different perspectives in the classroom. Being able to talk about all these things that maybe they haven’t seen or experienced firsthand and being able to look at different perspectives in a space together is very important.”
For Dr. Garcia-Hallett, sharing her own experiences with her students is something that she believes is critical. A first-generation college student, she believes it is important for them to know about her, about where she learned what she’s teaching them, and about what her research entails. She says some of them tell her she was their first professor who was a woman of color, and she hopes her own experience will inspire and empower them.
“I want to be able to humanize the process and give them some encouragement,” she says. “I want to encourage my students that if there’s something meaningful to them that could have a larger impact on this world, they should do it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Don’t let self-doubt or fear prevent you from taking advantage of opportunities.”