Prior to the 1950s, nurseries for prisoners who gave birth were fairly common. But by the 1970s every state prison and jail system except one had eliminated efforts to keep mothers united with their newborns. Only the nursery in New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, which was founded in 1901, has remained in continuous operation.
Not surprisingly, it was also during the 1970s that the United States ushered in draconian lock-’em-up policies and practices. According to a report released by the WPA’s Institute on Women & Criminal Justice in May 2009, the number of women incarcerated in the U.S. increased by 832 percent between 1977 and 2007. The report also stated that in 2004, “four percent of women in state prisons and three percent of women in federal prisons were pregnant at the time of admittance.”
Currently only seven states have prison nursery programs: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota and Washington. Two states, California and West Virginia, are in the process of creating prison nurseries. Just one jail system, Rikers Island in New York, offers such a program.
In other jurisdictions pregnant prisoners are usually separated from their newborns within a matter of hours. Female prisoners in Texas can’t live with their children after giving birth, but are allowed liberal visitation through the Love Me Tender program at the Carole Young Medical Facility.
Prison nurseries vary greatly from state to state as there are no standardized requirements or federal guidelines. The Illinois program at the Decatur Correctional Center only accommodates five mothers and their children, while New York’s Bedford Hills facility can house 29 mother/infant pairs. The Bedford Hills program includes a parenting center, prenatal center, day care center and child advocacy office.
In June 2010, Indiana prisoners raised money for the Wee Ones Nursery at the Indiana Women’s Prison, which is funded through donations and grants. Within the first week prisoners had contributed $4,000 to the program, which was founded in 2008 and has provided services for 30 incarcerated mothers and their children.
“I just know that I was motivated and feeling strong about keeping my baby here, because my other two kids, I lost them, because after coming to prison, I had to let somebody adopt them,” said Indiana prisoner Balbina Hernandez, 33, who participated in the Wee Ones program with her newborn daughter, Angelina, for one year.
The length of participation in prison nursery programs varies. South Dakota only allows prisoners to nurse their babies for thirty days, while the Washington Correctional Center for Women lets children live with their incarcerated mothers for up to three years. For most facilities the average duration is 12 to 18 months.
To be eligible for nursery programs, most states require that women be pregnant upon their arrival at prison. They must also sign a waiver releasing prison officials from responsibility for children who may get sick or injured. Prisoners who become pregnant during their incarceration (e.g., on furlough) or who plan to give their child up for adoption are disqualified.
Despite the variations, every prison nursery program currently reports favorable results for both the prisoners and children involved.
The University of Nebraska conducted a study of the nursery program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women. According to that study, prisoners who participated in the program received 13 percent fewer disciplinary cases than those in general population. A five-year evaluation concluded that women who were immediately separated at birth from their newborn children returned to prison at a rate of 33.3% within five years of release.
Women who participated in the prison nursery program had a 9% recidivism rate.
A study conducted at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) had even more impressive results. Established in 2001, 118 mothers and their newborns took part in the ORW nursery program over a five-year period. The three-year recidivism rate for women in the program was a mere 3% compared to an overall 38% for general population prisoners, both male and female.
A 2002 follow-up survey of prisoners in the New York State Department of Correctional Services yielded less dramatic but still noteworthy results. For women who participated in the nursery program, 13.4% returned to prison within three years of release compared to 25.9% of female prisoners in general population.
The most extensive study was conducted by Prof. Mary W. Byrne at Columbia University. Her longitudinal research covered prison nursery participants at New York’s Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities. Ninety-seven prisoners and 100 infants who participated in the nursery programs from 2003 to 2008 were studied. The results indicated that mothers and their children developed a stronger attachment as a result of such programs, and according to a “one-year follow-up, the women also appear to have a lower recidivism rate than similar women in the community.”
According to Dr. Byrne, “Prison nurseries offer needed services to a population of women and infants who might otherwise be overlooked.” Dr. Angela M. Tomlin, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, agreed, stating, “The prison nursery is an investment in the future, one mother and baby at a time.”
Despite such favorable data and endorsements, prison nursery programs are not without their critics. For example, a 1992 study conducted by Dr. L. Catan found that while children in prison nurseries did develop a strong bond with their mothers, they also demonstrated deficiencies in motor skills and cognitive development. Follow-up studies have concluded that those deficiencies disappear soon after children leave the prison environment.
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), a non-profit advocacy organization, endorses community-based rather than in-prison programs for mothers and their infants.
While acknowledging the benefits of prison nurseries, LSPC supports “implementing a true community-based program without guards for parents who have sole custody of their young children instead of putting these children in prison,” noting that prison officials “have difficulty providing adequate care for adults; they certainly aren’t qualified as experts in child rearing.”
In addition to prison nurseries, the WPA report also profiled community-based residential parent programs for prisoners in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Vermont, and in the federal Bureau of Prisons, which operates Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together (MINT) programs at facilities in Florida, Texas, Connecticut, Illinois and West Virginia.
Almost all prison nursery programs include some educational component for prisoners such as GED, parenting and care-giver courses. Children participating in the longest programs are offered Head Start classes. In almost every case, female prisoners involved in nursery programs are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.
“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,” said Chandra K. Villanueva, the primary author of the WPA report. She also emphasized the need for community-based alternatives that will “enable women to address the issues that brought them into the criminal justice system in the first place.”
Unfortunately, although an estimated 744,200 male prisoners in the U.S. are parents, no comparable programs exist that allow incarcerated fathers to live and bond with their young children. If there were such programs, it is likely that male prisoners also would benefit from closer familial relationships and lower recidivism rates.
“A strong bond between a father and his family helps that inmate succeed upon release and shows children how important they are in their parent’s life,” acknowledged Matthew Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
In June 2010, the CDCR and the Center for Restorative Justice Works brought hundreds of children to four California prisons to visit their incarcerated fathers for Father’s Day through the Get on the Bus program.
According to a February 2009 report by The Sentencing Project, titled Incarcerated Parents and Their Children: Trends 1991-2007, as of 2007 there were 1.7 million children in the U.S. with a parent in prison. About half of those children were under 10 years old.
Sources: Women’s Prison Association: “Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternatives” (www.wpaonline.org), The Sentencing Project, Huffington Post, www.prisonerswithchildren.org, www.corrections.com, Galveston Daily News, www.wthr.com
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