Pregnant women face heart-wrenching consequences when they are incarcerated: not only must they give birth under harsh conditions, but then, most likely, they will be forced to surrender their newborn into the hands of others.
Prison nurseries offer some of these women a chance to keep their babies with them, but is that always in the child’s best interest?
“Incarcerating babies may strike many as unconscionable,” child welfare advocate Naomi Schaefer Riley said recently in a National Affairs article. “We must grapple with the ethical implications of the alternatives.
“Such programs raise a number of complex questions. While they tend to produce better outcomes for the incarcerated mothers, it is less clear that they are beneficial for their infant children.”
With over 200,000 women currently incarcerated in this country, not many U.S. prisons have nursery programs available for the estimated 10,000 women who are pregnant and housed in our jails and prisons.
The A&E reality series, “Born Behind Bars” takes viewers inside Indiana’s Wee Ones childcare program—a special housing unit where fe- male prisoners live with their babies after giving birth. Only women with 18 months or less left on their sentences are allowed to participate—that way, the child can go home with them upon their release.
“You’re incarcerated with me and didn’t do anything,” Riley quotes one young moth- er on the show talking to the infant in her arms.
“It makes you feel guilty,” that same young women said. “Pregnancy and prison are the two worst things in life together”—not both bad, but a terrible combination.
The nation’s oldest prison nursery, Bedford Hills in New York, allows pregnant women with lengthy sentences—even life—to give birth, breastfeed and then live with their infant for several months before the child is surrendered to an alternative caregiver. Bedford Hills continues to operate since 1901.
The question remains as to whether the formation of the maternal bond behind prison bars is worth the baby being exposed to such a stressful environment alongside their incarcerated mother. “Because the program is inside a correctional facility, the mothers are involuntarily together and are subjected to an atmosphere of observation, suspicion and discipline,” the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice wrote about New York’s prison nurseries at Bedford Hills and adjacent Taconic Correctional Facility.
Riley, however, noticed in Indiana that “the tightly man- aged environment inside the prison nursery wing is almost certainly preferable to the kind of chaotic and neglectful environment that many of these babies would experience if they went home.”
Nebraska holds the women in its prison nursery unit to a “zero-tolerance” standard, where even the slightest disciplinary infraction can cause a mother to be removed from the program and separated from her child.
“These decisions are often made in less than 24 hours,” said Riley. “Prison guards, who already have extraordinary power over their wards, now also have the power to lower rates of recidivism later on.”
A small study in Nebraska showed that 33% of female in- mates who gave birth behind bars and had their infant taken away later reoffended. Once Nebraska started its prison nursery program, only 9% of the pregnant inmates who were allowed to keep their newborns with them ever re- turned to the system.
“Even if some kind of secure attachment may occur in a prison-nursery environment take away their children at the drop of a hat.
“When you take account of the fact that these women have just given birth and are also dealing with substance- abuse withdrawal, mental illness, and a criminal past, it’s surprising more of these women aren’t kicked out of the program.”
According to Riley’s report, “Women who keep their babies with them during these early years have significantly it is important to remember that no sooner do these babies and mothers bond than something might separate them completely, and for a long period of time,” said Riley.
“This kind of bonding followed by extreme and sudden separation seems to be one of the worst imaginable outcomes for a child.”
But without the rare option of being housed in a prison nursery, pregnant mothers must rely on someone else in their family—or child services—to help raise their young.
“What happens to these children when their primary caretaker is incarcerated?” Riley asks.
She offers Sentencing Project numbers: “about a third (37%) of the children of incarcerated women are living with their fathers. Most of these children are living with grandparents or other relatives, while one of every nine (10.9%) women in prison has a child living in foster care.”
What appears to be the most important factor for any infant child is a reliably consistent attachment to at least one caring adult. Studies indicate that their very first year—and ideally the first three years—are crucial for healthy and normal mental, emotional and physical development.