Raising babies in prison

April 1, 2014

Jessica Hansen-Weaver looks at the political and social questions raised by prison mother-infant programs in an article originally produced for University of California Berkeley's "Journalism for Social Change" class.

PRISON IS no place to raise a baby. Or is it?

Prisons are punitive, inhospitable by design. So, not surprisingly, the fact that some prisons house infant babies is shocking to most people.

While prison nurseries have existed in this country for a century--the first was established in 1901 at Bedford Hill Correctional Facility north of New York City--there is renewed interest in expanding these programs today.

There are currently prison nurseries in 10 states--California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. And state Rep. DebraLee Hovey recently introduced a bill to establish a prison nursery in Connecticut.

These programs allow a mother to parent her infant for a finite period of time--from 30 days to 30 months, depending on the facility. To participate, the woman must meet certain criteria: a nonviolent offender status with no history of child abuse or neglect. Some nurseries form a wing or segregated unit of a prison complex, and others are off-site in community corrections settings (often called mother-infant programs.)

An incarcerated mother holds her infant child inside her prison cell
An incarcerated mother holds her infant child inside her prison cell

While there are important differences between prison nurseries and mother-infant programs, they both rely on a shared premise that some women prisoners ought to have the opportunity to nurse and bond with their infant.

Support for prison nurseries is informed by some research that claims these programs reduce recidivism rates and provide a way for mothers and babies to bond during critical periods of infant development. Attachment theory suggests that infants need to establish a relationship with at least one primary caregiver in order to ensure healthy social and emotional development.

The expansion of mother-infant programs coincides with the increasing incarceration of women. Over 200,000 women are behind bars and over 1 million are on probation or parole, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.) And the number of prisons for women has multiplied eight times over the last three decades, according to a 2006 report from the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice.

The majority of incarcerated women are charged with nonviolent, drug-related offenses. While three out of every five women in state prisons have a history of drug dependence, only one in five of these women receives substance abuse treatment.

Because women tend to be the primary caretakers of children, the massive increase in women's incarceration has had devastating effects on families. According to the Sentencing Project, one of every 50 children in the U.S. has one or more parents incarcerated.

THESE TRENDS challenge many of the moral and ethical principles of both those concerned with the welfare of children and the rights of offenders, begging big-picture questions about the prison system itself.

Outspoken opponents of prison nurseries include the likes of Jim Dwyer, a professor at William and Mary Law School in Virginia. "What's really shocking," Dwyer said on CBC Radio's The Current, "is that no one talks about the legality of putting children in prison." Dwyer argues in his 2013 research paper Jailing Black Babies that housing a child in prison violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights to citizenship and equal protection under the law.

Dwyer considers himself a supporter of children's rights, but consistently counterposes the interests of children to their criminalized parents. His proposed alternative to prison nurseries and mother-infant programs is to terminate the parental rights of pregnant offenders in order to steer their children toward adoptions.

Incredibly, he argues that "[i]t is imaginable that women awaiting a criminal trial likely to result in a prison sentence will try to get pregnant in anticipation of incarceration. Dwyer is also infamous for advocating that "the state should zone some horrible residential areas 'no child zones' and remove children born into them."

Through this sort of inflammatory rhetoric, as well as a failure to investigate the systemic inequalities that underlie child maltreatment, Dwyer supports a racist ideology that classifies incarcerated people of color as unfit to be parents.

Why does Dwyer's supposed concern for the rights of Black babies not lead him to question the racist nature of criminal justice system? While he may profess concern for the lives of "innocent Black children," he cannot bring himself to show any solidarity with their mothers.

Many experts on prisons and child welfare don't take such extreme positions, but they are still are uneasy about the theory and practice of prison nurseries.

Jill Berrick, a University of California Berkeley social welfare professor who sits on the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care, expressed "ambivalent feelings" after visiting the nursery program at the California Institution for Women in Chino, Calif.

"I was filled with pleasure in seeing babies with their parents," Berrick said. "This program really does give mothers a fighting chance to form deep attachments with babies, which we know is important for infant development and it can inspire women to get out quickly...with obvious benefits to parents, children and society."

But Berrick also had reservations and asked questions. "At what age is it appropriate to move children out of prison? When do they realize where they are, what are children's stories that they take with them into childhood and adulthood when they have been born and raised in prison? What we don't know is whether this makes a difference later on in development."

ANOTHER CONSIDERATION is the potential re-traumatization of mothers and babies when the period of bonding afforded by these programs is severed.

Carol Strickman is a staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), where she serves on the Family Unity Project. LPSC was one of the advocates that helped establish mother-infant programs in California in the 1980s.

At that time, the implementation of these programs was understood within a rights framework. As Stickman puts it, "Every child has right to lifelong relationship with their parents, and every parent deserves lifelong relationship with children." However, Stickman pointed out that LSPC can no longer support these programs after a child almost died in a San Diego correctional facility.

Denisha Lawson was incarcerated in a community-based correctional facility operated by Center Point, Inc., where she resided with her infant daughter Esperanza. When Esperanza developed a serious respiratory infection, Denisha demanded that she be able to take her daughter to get medical help.

Center Point refused to grant Esperanza medical attention as she was not a prisoner, and thus not its responsibility. After two weeks of impasse, a visiting nurse checked Esperanza's lungs and demanded the facility send Esperanza to the hospital for emergency care.

Strickman explained that "these programs are prisons first and day cares second. Mother-child relationship will never trump security issues in a prison."

Organizations like LSPC advocate for alternatives to prison. "We don't want to send any pregnant women to prison," says Stickman. "People need more options in their community that can reduce unemployment, crime and increase education in low-income communities." Stickman pointed to community-based programs such as Delancey Street Foundation, a residential re-entry program, as an alternative to mass incarceration.

In many ways, the discussion around mother-infant programs represents a step forward in the national discussion of mass incarceration by focusing on the rights of women prisoners to bond with their babies. In a March 6 interview on Democracy Now! author, scholar and activist Angela Davis described the challenge facing prisoner's rights advocates:

It's a problematic moment. Those of us who identify as prison abolitionists, as opposed to prison reformers, make the point that oftentimes, reforms create situations where mass incarceration becomes even more entrenched...therefore, we have to think about what in the long run will produce decarceration, fewer people behind bars, and hopefully, eventually, in the future, the possibility of imagining a landscape without prisons, where other means are used to address issues of harm, where social problems, such as illiteracy and poverty, do not lead vast numbers of people along a trajectory that leads to prison.

The image of a mother nursing her child in a prison nursery belies the scale and brutality of our system of mass incarceration. Prison nurseries acknowledge the humanity of the mothers participating in these programs. At the same time, they force us to look at the contradictions of such a system and ask why women who have been trusted to take care of newborn babies are being treated as threats to society?

If we want to have a society where babies don't have to experience life behind bars, we need to address the collective rights of the men and women who bring these babies into the world.

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