Posted: June 20th, 2021

Babies Behind Bars

The rate of women being incarcerated in prisons has dramatically risen over the last decade. While these women are being locked up for crimes ranging from drug possession to murder, they often come into the prison system with children or pregnant. Nationwide, nearly 2 million children have parents in prison. The number of those with incarcerated mothers is growing rapidly. A recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the number of minors with mothers in prison increased by more than 100 percent in the last 15 years [ (Schwartzapfel, 2008) ].
While some women must give up their children before or after they enter prison, a handful of women get to keep their children. These women serve their sentences at one of nine prisons that have prison nurseries. However, not all women are afforded this privilege which comes with strict qualifications. A prison nursery is a program that allows a child born to an incarcerated women to remain in the care of its mother for a restricted amount of time within a correctional facility [ (Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternative, 2009) ].
Prison nurseries in the United States are only open to mothers who give birth to their children while they are serving their sentence. Prison nurseries are not fairly new to the United States. In the 1950s, many women’s prisons had nurseries in which infants could stay with their mothers from several weeks to two years, depending on the institution. Within two decades, every state except New York closed them. The nurseries were deemed too expensive, the mothers too ruined and the babies too precious for such an environment [ (Kauffman, 2001) ].

The only program left operating was at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Bedford Hills, New York. The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, which is a maximum security facility, has the oldest prison nursery in the United States. Opening its doors in 1901, the program is also the largest, having space for 29 mother/infant pairs. Women live with their babies in bright rooms stuffed with donated toys and clothes.
During the day, while the women attend DOC-mandated drug counseling, anger management, vocational training and parenting classes, their children attend a day care staffed by inmates who have graduated from an intensive two-year Early Childhood Associate vocational training program (Schwartzapfel, 2008). Qualifications to participate in the program are stringent. Several aspects of a woman’s past are examined before she can participate in the nursery.
This includes determining who is going to have custody of the child, if the mother has a history of involvement with the child-welfare system, the length of her sentence, past episodes of incarceration, and the nature of her crime. Women who have committed arson or who have a history of child abuse are not eligible for the nursery. At Bedford Hills the infant can stay for up to 18 months if the mother will be paroled by then, otherwise the child must leave the facility at 12 months of age (Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternative, 2009).
There are currently prison nursery programs in nine states: California, Illinois, New York, Nebraska, Washington, Ohio, Indiana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Many of these programs started within the last few years. These programs are relatively rare and focus on the concept of the bond formed between mother and child within the first two years of life. Taconic Correctional Facility, also located in Bedford Hills, New York, was the second facility to host a prison nursery program. Opening in 1990, it models the first program; the qualifications and length of stay for infants are similar.
However, Taconic only houses 15 mother/infant pairs. Nebraska opened its prison nursery program in 1994. The Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, located in York, Nebraska, holds 15 mother/infant pairs. Infants are allowed to stay up to 18 months in the Parenting Program. To participate in the nursery the mother must give birth while in state custody and not have a violent criminal record. She also should not have any serious mental health concerns. A screening committee reviews each case before women are placed in the nursery.
The mother must be able to complete her sentence by the time the child is 18 months old to be eligible (Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternative, 2009). Four years later, Pierre, South Dakota opened its prison nursery in the South Dakota Women’s Prison. The Mother-Infant Program is the only prison nursery that doesn’t have a limit to how many infants can stay. However, it has the shortest length of stay being thirty days. Women who give birth while in custody are allowed to participate in the program as long as the mother’s crime was non-violent in nature.
All expenses related to the baby’s care are the responsibility of the mother, including health care expenses. Mothers keep their infants in their cells. Other women at the facility are able to take classes to become babysitters and the mothers are able to choose who they would like to act as their babysitter. The Washington Correctional Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington, opened its doors to a prison nursery in 1999. To qualify for the Residential Parenting Program, the mother’s sentence must be completed within three years of giving birth. The women must also be classified as minimum custody and be convicted of a non-violent offense.
The program houses 20 mother/infant pairs and allows the infants to stay up to 36 months (Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternative, 2009). Marysville, Ohio implemented its prison nursery at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in 2001. The program houses 20 mothers and up to 21 infants. Infants stay for a maximum of 18 months. To qualify for the Achieving Baby Care Success Program, women must give birth while in state custody and cannot have a violent criminal record. Women must attend family training courses, adhere to rules and be in good mental and physical condition.
Only women who are serving a sentence of 18 months or less at the time of delivery are eligible. The Moms and Babies Program at Decatur Correctional Center in Decatur, Illinois started in 2007. The capacity for the program is 5 mother/infant pairs with infants staying up to 24 months. A woman must have committed a non-violent offense and be within two years of release after giving birth (Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternative, 2009). The more recent nursery programs were started in the last four years.
Indiana, California, and West Virginia were the last states of the nine to implement prison nurseries. Because the programs are newer, various changes are still being made. In 2008, Indiana Women’s Prison, in Indianapolis, Indiana, established its prison nursery. The Wee Ones Nursery Program houses 10 mother/infants pairs and 4 nannies. To participate in the program the child must be born in custody and the mother must be eligible for release by the time the child is 18 months old. Mothers and nannies who have been convicted of child abuse or a violent crime are not eligible to participate. The final two prison nurseries started in 2009.
Corona, California started its Mother-Child Reunification Program at California Institution for Women. The program can hold up to 16 women: 10 with infants and 6 who are pregnant. Like most programs, the infants stay up to 18 months. After women spend up to 18 months in the nursery they will be transitioned onto parole or into a community-based program such as the Community Prison Mothers Program. In addition to the planned nursery, the facility runs a child-visiting program and mother-father mediation program. All pregnant women are placed in this institution and other women can request to be sentenced or transferred here.
West Virginia’s Lakin Correctional Center for Women, located in West Columbia, has the KIDS Unit program. KIDS, Keeping Infant Development Successful, is available to pregnant women who are within 18 months of release or parole. The nursery is made up of modular homes located outside the prison’s perimeter fence. To participate in the nursery the mother must not have been convicted of a sex crime or a crime against a child and must be free of disciplinary write-ups (Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternative, 2009).
Many experts believe that prison nurseries increase the bond between mother and child and lowers recidivism rates. Chandra Villanueva, Policy Associate at WPA and author of the report commented, “Prison nursery programs keep mothers and infants together during the critical first months of infant development, and the research shows that these programs produce lower rates of recidivism among participating mothers. ” (Women’s Prison Association, 2009).
Researchers studying prison nurseries found that “infants who lived with their mothers for a year or more in the prison nursery program were significantly more likely to be securely attached in spite of their mothers’ insecurity than those who were released earlier. ” “Development of an attachment relationship is a long and fragile process and requires ongoing supports for mothers raising infants in prison nurseries, for future alternate caregivers living in the community, and for the children who will ultimately experience a multitude of environmental risks. ” (Byrne, Goshin, & Joestl, 2010).
On the other hand, some believe that babies don’t belong in prison, for their primary role is punishment and rehabilitation. Not to mention that the programs are expensive, averaging about $24,000 a year per infant (Schiavocampo, 2010). As the number of incarcerated women continues to grow, we can expect to see the number of prison nurseries growing as well. Because the programs have been deemed successful, other states may start implementing them into their prison systems. This gives the mother some form of responsibility while she is incarcerated without separating her from the child.
However, we should focus more on keeping women out of prison than creating more nurseries. Bibliography Byrne, M. , Goshin, L. , & Joestl, S. (2010). Intergenerational transmission of attachment for infants raised in a prison nursery . Attachment and Human Development, 375-393. Kauffman, K. (2001). Mothers in Prison. Corrections Today, 62-65. Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternative. (2009, May). Retrieved from Women’s Prison Association : http://www. wpaonline. rg/pdf/Mothers%20Infants%20and%20Imprisonment%202009. pdf. Schiavocampo, M. (2010, April 13). Reporter’s notebook: A look at babies behind bars. Retrieved from The Grio: http://thegrio. com/2010/04/13/reporters-notebook-a-look-at-babies-behind-bars/. Schwartzapfel, B. (2008). Lullabies Behind Bars. Retrieved from Ms. Magazine: http://www. msmagazine. com/Fall2008/LullabiesBehindBars. asp. Women’s Prison Association. (2009, July 13). Prison Nursery Programs a Growing Trend in Women’s Prisons. Retrieved from Corrections. com: http://www. corrections. com/news/article/21644.

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