Babies Behind Bars

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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,...
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