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Mothers in Prison

Mothers In Prison

[The following article about Mothers in Prison was excepted from the "Pacific" section of the December 2, 1990, issue of the Seattle Times/P-1, and then edited further to meet the informational needs of Prisoners' Legal News readers.]

Lori and Raynette are both inmates at the Washington Prison for Women near Purdy, and each of them, like many of their peers, have given birth while behind bars. The experience is much the same for all of Purdy's inmate mothers. They are taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tacoma where the delivery takes place, then within two or three days the infant is taken away and the mother is sent back to prison. Lori and Raynette describe the parting as the single most painful event of their lives and the source of their deepest anguish.

"The second I handed her over, I didn't want to live again," Raynette says. "I just wanted to get up and run. I wanted to scream, 'No! No! No!' But I couldn't say anything, couldn't do anything. I almost blacked out." Such separations are endured with increasing frequency at Purdy, where three-quarters of the prison population are mothers, and where there are between 10 and 15 pregnant inmates at any one time (out of an inmate population of approximately 280).

As the number of women prisoners nationwide has soared from 12,000 to 40,000 in the past decade (a result of more women in poverty, tougher drug laws and a complex maze of other social developments), there is a concomitant need to examine conditions being faced by incarcerated mothers, including policies regarding inmate mothers and their children. Some women leaders on the outside argue that separating a mother from her newborn child is cruel and only helps perpetuate a cycle of instability that can lead the child to prison or worse years later.

"There has to be a stronger word than cruel. It's beyond cruel," says Sister Elaine Roulet, who runs the nation's oldest live-in nursery for children of women prisoners. The program in New York's Bedford Hills prison allows newborn children to stay with their mothers for up to 18 months. Roulet is working to increase it to two years. The purpose of the program is to encourage the all-important bonding between mother and child and to prepare for a smooth transition to the outside world.

As reported in the last issue of the PLN, inmate mothers in Soviet prisons give birth in the maternity ward and see their children daily in the child care center until the infant is two years old. Prison officials in the U.S.S.R. are now considering raising this age to three years old. Why shouldn't American mothers in prison be entitled to at least as much access to their children?

"You can't measure how important those first years are - both to the mother and to the child," Roulet says. Caring for their children helps to build mothers self-esteem and motivates them to stay out of trouble. The child, in turn, learns to trust and feel secure, a foundation upon which all character development is built. "If the child has a bad first year, she'll have a bad second year, she'll have a bad third year and so on...

Nine other states, including New Jersey, Minnesota and California, have started up their own nursery programs in recent years. The warden at Purdy, Eldon Vail, says he'd do the same thing if he had the money. Yet there is always enough money to increase the levels of security and repression against these women. It is, we submit, simply a matter of priorities.

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