Only eight U.S. prisons allow infants with their mothers

By Charles David Henry

Across the United States, there are just eight prisons that allow infants to remain with their mothers who are serving sentences. According to The Associated Press, Bedford Hills Correction Facility is a maximum security prison where 24-year-old Jennifer Dumas is serving a two-year sentence for attempted burglary along with her 6-month-old daughter, Codylynn.   

Dumas is one of 15 mothers and 16 babies, including a set of twins, who can spend up to 18 months in the nursery facility. In a story she told to The Associated Press, “She gave birth just days after accepting a plea agreement with prosecutors for the attempted burglary.”

Her daughter was born inside the maximum-security facility in Westchester County, north of New York City. The bars on the window are a clear indication the facility is not a normal nursery, although instead of the industrial greens and grays of the prison system, there are brightly colored pictures on the wall, the story said. 

Outside the window there are high walls topped with barbed wire, similar to any other high-security facility. In many instances, women have to hand over their babies to a relative or send them into the foster care system within hours of their birth.

“Before I came here, I thought it was a terrible idea. A baby in prison? No, thank you. But it’s actually wonderful to be able to spend this much time with my little girl. I’m blessed to be able to go through this,” Dumas said.

According to a recent narrative published by the International Journal of Social Science Studies (Studies), infants and toddlers have a constitutionally protected right to have secure attachment with their long-term caregiver, their mothers. “This is especially true when their mothers are incarcerated by the government’s action.”

“These children have an affirmed right to have the government provide them with opportunities for achieving secure attachment with their long-term caregiver. Given that mothers are usually the primary long-term caregivers, prisons should provide opportunities in the form of prison nurseries,” the narrative revealed.

About 112,000 women are in state and federal prisons, mostly for drug or property crimes, the Daily Mail reported.

Nearly 4 percent of women in state prisons and 3 percent in federal prisons were reportedly pregnant at the time of their admission. Notwithstanding, 5 percent of female jail inmates reported being pregnant at the time of admission, the Studies wrote. However, there are no national statistics on the number of babies born to inmates.

Some women have been dropped from the program from time to time for breaking the rules, but corrections officials and advocates said they could not recall any instances in recent years in which a baby was harmed. Still, some argue that prison should be reserved for punishment and that women should instead consider putting their children up for adoption, the AP reported.

“It’s still scary. At any given point if you do what you’re not supposed to your baby could get sent home,” Dumas said.

There are many supporters of the program who question why these women need to be incarcerated at all. Typically, they are accepted into programs that are for nonviolent offenders serving fairly short sentences.

Many advocates believe these women are ideal candidates for less-expensive, halfway-house-like programs that allow mother and child to stay together, the story revealed.

Scholars pointed out the vital need for infants to acquire secure attachments in order to have a healthy future. According to the Studies, secure attachment is a fundamental basis of personal growth and self-actualization. 

Elaine Lord, a former superintendent, said there were many nurseries years ago. But, they fell out of favor amid a huge influx of prisoners in the 1980s and a shift in policy that said, the privilege of living with your baby was inconsistent with the concept of punishment.

“Most of the nation’s prison nurseries have cropped up in the past 20 years. The nursery at the Indiana Women’s Prison houses up to 10 mother-infant pairs for up to 18 months. In South Dakota, a child can stay only 30 days. In Washington State, it’s three years. The Decatur Correctional Center in Illinois opened a nursery in 2007, and 73 moms have participated.”

There are no prison nurseries in California, the AP reported. The Community Prisoner Mother Program is a community substance abuse treatment program where nonserious, nonviolent female offenders may serve a sentence up to six years in the program in lieu of state prison. Pregnant and/or parenting mothers and their children under 6 years of age are provided programs and support services to assist in developing the skills necessary to become a functioning, self-sufficient family that positively contributes to society.In the Female Offender Treatment and Employment Program, a transitional re-entry program for eligible female offenders, children may reside with their mothers as they progress through their reentry programs.

The Studies reported that the physical separation of the infant and mother after birth severely impacts the development of the mother-child bond and can be viewed as traumatic for both parties. This bond is important to mothers who desire to care for their children after they have completed their sentence of incarceration.

“Some scholars argue that by not separating the mother and child, a prison nursery can provide them with an opportunity to bond, since mothers will be allowed to hold, breastfeed, change diapers, protect, and provide caregiving duties to the child,” the Studies reported.

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