Programs that allow pregnant prisoners to keep their babies and raise them in prison appear to have benefits for both the babies and their mothers.
According to a recent report, two-thirds of the over 200,000 women incarcerated nationwide have children under the age of 18. About 2,000 prisoners give birth in U.S. prisons each year, and the vast majority are separated from their babies soon after delivery. But at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York, a small program allows prisoners to raise their babies while incarcerated for up to eighteen months following birth. Bedford has the oldest prison nursery in the country, dating back to 1901.
The prisoners who participate in the program are carefully selected and do not include anyone convicted of a violent crime, arson or a crime with a child victim. Those accepted into the program reside in a unit separated from the general prison population; they are still subject to the usual prison rules, including prohibitions on jewelry and makeup.
“We don’t have a lot of space,” said Jacqueline McDougall, 26, whose son Max lived the first nine months of his life in prison. “It’s hard.”
McDougall said giving birth to Max was a blessing. “I’ve had time to clean up my act and really see where I was headed,” she stated. “It wasn’t in a good direction. I think at the end of it all now, I kind of think this saved my life.”
McDougall’s experience isn’t unusual. A study found 33% of pregnant prisoners who were separated from their babies returned to prison while only 10% of those allowed to raise their babies while incarcerated came back. That reduction in recidivism saves $30,000 per year for each former prisoner who would otherwise have returned to prison, and helps make up for the $24,000 cost to keep a baby with its imprisoned mother.
“If that woman stays out of jail for five years, think of the savings,” said Liz Hamilton, who runs the prison’s nursery program. “It’s keeping that child from the foster care system. That’s another expensive program.”
The babies also appear to benefit. Pediatrician Dr. Janet Stockheim visits the Bedford facility every other week, performing checkups that might not have happened if the babies were living elsewhere.
“These babies aren’t aware [of the prison environment]. They get excellent care,” said Stockheim. “They are very well bonded to the mothers ... bonding gives a baby trust in the world that they will be taken care of. The babies do better here than they would on the outside with some of the mothers.”
Prisoners in the nursery program spend most of the day with their babies, performing chores in the unit. They are also taught how to bath, diaper and nurse their children, and receive classes in parenting.
According to a 2015 study by Columbia University’s School of Nursing, children who spent one to eighteen months in a prison nursery program were less likely to be anxious, depressed or withdrawn compared to babies separated from their mothers at birth. The study further noted the adverse effects that a lack of maternal contact and breastfeeding can have on an infant’s development.
South Dakota is another state that offers several mother-infant programs. Once a pregnant prisoner is approved for a program, she must first pass a parenting class before her newborn is allowed to stay with her for up to 30 days. As in New York, the mothers and children are housed away from the general population and provided additional care and counseling.
Once the babies leave the prison program, permanent placement and extended visitation options are evaluated with family members and the Department of Social Services. The support programs have shown positive results in both alleviating the stress of incarceration on both the mother and child, and preparing the family for reunification once the prisoner has served her sentence. Most of the incarcerated mothers have been able to regain custody of their children upon release.
The prisoners are still subject to prison regulations, and violating a rule could result in a return to the general population and their baby being removed from the program.
California, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Washington, West Virginia, Wyoming and the federal Bureau of Prisons all have similar programs, and several other states are considering implementing them. The length of time a mother is allowed to raise her baby in prison varies from three months in the BOP to up to three years in some states’ programs. The ultimate goal is to help the prisoners become successful parents following their release. According to Sister Teresa Fitzgerald, a nun who founded an organization in New York to help incarcerated women and their children, such programs are a “win-win” for the mother, baby and society.
There are, however, no similar programs that allow incarcerated fathers to live with their infant children. According to an October 2015 report released by Child Trends, a research group, an estimated 5 million children in the U.S. – one in 14 – has had a parent in prison at some point in their lives.
“Progress has been slow,” said David Murphey, the lead author of the report. “This is a vulnerable group of kids that is often hidden from public view. We need to pay more attention.”
Sources: ABC News Nightline, www.thestylus.net, www.hlntv.com, www.doc.sd.gov, www.pix11.com, www.theglobeandmail.com, www.psmag.com, www.national.deseretnews.com, www.theguardian.com, Huffington Post
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