Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling visits with a child in India in Asia's largest prison, Tihar Jail, which allows female inmates to keep their child in prison until the child is 5 years old.
updated 5/3/2004 6:59:43 PM ET 2004-05-03T22:59:43

National Geographic Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling examines the impact the U.S. prison system imposes on children whose mothers are behind bars, as she searches at home and abroad for solutions to this growing problem.

On a cold January morning in 2003, Newark, N.J., police were called to investigate a report about children being locked in a basement. Inside they found two boys, ages 4 and 7, who had been beaten, burned and starved. Authorities later found the body of a third child, 7-year-old Faheem, who died of starvation and blunt-force trauma. The mother had left the three boys in the custody of a cousin while she was in prison. This case is just one of many where children have been left in the care of family or friends while their parents are doing time, something that critics consider an inexcusable failure of the government to safeguard the health and welfare of these children.

In “Mothers Behind Bars,” National Geographic Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling examines the impact of the U.S. prison system on children whose mothers are behind bars. A 2000 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that half of the nation’s inmates are parents of children under the age of 18, and 1.5 million U.S. children have at least one parent in prison. Many of these children end up incarcerated as juvenile offenders.

In search of solutions to this growing problem, Ling investigates programs at home and abroad. In India, Ling visits Asia’s largest prison, Tihar Jail, which is home to some 13,000 inmates. It has devised a system of dealing with the children of inmates - female inmates are allowed to keep their child with them in prison until the child is 5 years old. But once they turn 6, the kids have to leave the jail and find a home on the outside. The system seems laudable, but does it really work?

At home, Ling travels to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, La., one of the largest prisons for women in the United States. Seventy-five percent of the prison’s nearly 1000 inmates are mothers. One inmate, Lula, gives birth to a little girl and, just 72 hours later, has to give up custody of her child and go back to prison. When Lula is released several months later, Ultimate Explorer follows her as she is reunited with her baby.

Join Lisa Ling for this emotional story of heartbreak and hope, as Ultimate Explorer takes on the controversial issue of mothers — and children — behind bars.

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