Babies Behind Bars

Nurseries for incarcerated mothers and their children

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Katilee and Micah (9 months old), 2008. Photo by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott

The Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia, has been glamorized by the famous: Tokyo Rose, Billie Holiday, Squeaky Fromme, and recently, Martha Stewart. But to me, Alderson is no more than my first home; it's my birthplace. My mother, a heroin addict and single at the time, was pregnant with me during one of her sentences. Like many, her crimes were drug-related.

I lived at Alderson for nearly a year, and I hold some vague yet powerful sensory and preverbal memories. As with many offspring of incarcerated women, I ended up in foster care and was later adopted. My story veers from the usual, though, for I was adopted into a unique family of academics who encouraged education and creativity. My parents were both English professors who encouraged me in the fine arts and nurtured a love of learning, travel, and personal discovery.

However, having a good family didn't stop me from the common path taken by many kids with the same early roots: drugs, crime, and a life of self-destruction. My formative years in Seattle in the 1960s were a time when there were few transracial families, let alone one with a multiracial child like me--considered "at-risk and special needs." I was born heroinaddicted, like many babies of incarcerated women who are born drug-exposed. With luck, a lot of hard work, and a strong support system surrounding me, I came out the other side.

What Happens When a Woman Gives Birth Inside Prison?

Today, there are nearly 2 million children under age 18 with a parent in prison or jail. The majority of those children are under age 10. Nationwide, 4% of women in state prisons and 3% of those in federal prisons are pregnant at sentencing. This leaves their families, and the professionals and policymakers involved, in a quandary: What should happen when infants are born in prison?

Early Head Start Playground, 2009. Photo by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott

Nine state women's prisons have built nursery programs for pregnant women: California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota, Washington, and West PHOTO BY CHERYL HANNA-TRUSCOTT Virginia. It's only in recent years that the nursery programs in California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, South Dakota, and Washington opened. West Virginia is the most recent addition, with its nursery program opening in 2009. New York state opened the country's first prison nursery in 1902, and it stood alone until 1994, when Nebraska's nursery followed.

Prison nursery programs allow a mother to parent her infant for a finite period of time, anywhere from 30 days to 30 months, depending on the facility. As a general rule, though, an incarcerated woman can participate in a nursery program if her conviction is for a nonviolent crime and she has no past history of child abuse or neglect. Some nurseries are on-site within the prison complex, either as a wing or unit of the prison separated from the general population, and others are off-site in community corrections settings. The verdict is still out regarding which model works best. "Quality matters, and there are so many variables about why one program on the inside or outside is better than another that it's hard to come up with a blanket statement," says Yali Lincroft, a consultant to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Lincroft and many other experts agree there is a need for more research comparing significant benefits between the on-site nurseries and the community-based nurseries (see sidebar on page 13 for a recent report on this issue).

There's currently no standard policy for what happens when a woman gives birth while incarcerated. While the nine state prisons mentioned earlier do have nurseries, many do not. This makes more sense when looking at the larger context of women's health issues in prisons; in fact, it wasn't until the 1990s that mandatory health care for incarcerated women came into effect. And only recently have states begun to ban the shackling of pregnant women during active labor and childbirth.

Babies in Prison, or Not?

As with any new social service, there is active dialogue about whether prison nurseries are good for babies. Advocates of these nurseries say that the bond between a mother and her infant in the first months following birth has long been seen as the strongest single predictor of the child's future emotional wellbeing. Studies indicate that when a mother-child bond is disturbed, these children often develop severe problems related to a disorganized attachment pattern and other deviant behaviors.

The American Psychological Society found that infants who bond securely with their mothers become more self-reliant and www.cwla.org Children's VOICE 11 have higher self-esteem as toddlers. Marie-Celeste Condon, a specialist in infant mental health and development at the University of Washington School of Social Work, supports this findingthrough her own research and involvement with the nursery in the Washington Corrections Center for Women. "Those early months are when a baby learns that the world can be trusted, and the focus needs to be on what is best for the baby," she says.

Critics of prison nurseries, however, argue that statistics indicate many offenders reoffend and that keeping a baby in prison just delays the inevit-able trauma of separation. Some say a child who stays with her mother in prison is being unfairly punished or sentenced herself, given the restrictions and deprivations of prison environments.

The dialogue hinges on this question: Should these children be allowed to bond with the mother, or be removed as soon as practical and placed in adoption, foster care, or with the mother's extended family?

The answer to that question matters now more than ever because incarceration rates, particularly for women, have been rising at a rapid rate over the past several decades. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 25% of the world's prisoners, although the nation is home to slightly less than 5% of the world's population.

According to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1977 and 2007, the number of women in prison in the United States increased by 832%. In 2008, there were 115,800 women in state or federal prisons--more than 7% of the total U.S. prison population of more than 1.6 million. The rise of drugs and drug-related crimes, mental illness, and other nonviolent violations is thought to contribute to this increase, which means there will be more stories like mine. Since 2008, the explosive rise in the nation's prison population has slowed, as tight budgets have led some states to allow early release of nonviolent inmates.

Education from the Inside Out

Nursery programs include educational programs and support groups for the mothers so that they can learn about parenting and infant growth and development. Life skills, overcoming chemical dependency, parenting, and other classes for coping skills are offered, and sometimes required. These classes encourage incarcerated women to develop a reflective capacity, think about their child's needs, and focus on parenting and personal growth. "Prison presents a crisis opportunity to improve inmates' abilities to serve as productive members to their families and communities once they are released, through enhanced parenting classes, addiction treatment programs, increased literacy, and other programs to prepare for life outside prison," explains Lincroft.

The nursery in the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), a 75-acre facility located near Gig Harbor, opened in 1999. A mother must have a nonviolent violation in order to qualify, and each situation for acceptance into the nursery program is considered case-by-case. The nursery capacity is 18 mothers, and the typical count is 15. WCCW's nursery program is unique in that children are allowed to stay up to 30 months with their mothers, although most mothers are released before their babies are 2 years old.

Rosalinda and Esmeregildo, Jr. (2 days old), 2009. Photo by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott

The WCCW nursery unit is a wing devoted to residential parenting, and Early Childhood Head Start staff run the program. Each baby has a primary educator and a primary caregiver--another incarcerated woman who helps when the mother is at work. A typical day flows much like a day on the outside. School time starts at 7 a.m. in the Child Development Center and ends at 3 p.m. The mothers drop off and pick up their children before and after their day jobs in prison or their own educational classes. The unit is equipped as most nurseries: each room, about 10'x10' in size, has a bassinette or crib, a glider rocking chair, storage bins, and a metal locker--"cozy" for mother and baby. But prison protocol must go on. Security times mean lights are on and off at specified times, and the three daily inmate counts are announced on the loudspeaker, whether it's baby naptime or not.

Since its opening, 200 women total have passed through WCCW's nursery program, and more babies, since some are twins. The program is in its 11th year and they are currently analyzing the statistics. Condon says it's clear that recidivism is reduced, but she's unable to provide the details about the data collected over the past decade until the analysis is complete. Reduced recidivism will be one argument in support of establishing nurseries in other states, but until further research and statistics are collected and analyzed, the dilemma still stands: Does motherhood in prison really reduce recidivism, or as some opponents say, just offer a "get out of jail free" card?

And How Are the Children?

Whatever the approach for babies in prison, the solution ought to focus on the child's best interest. "These early months are when all those neural pathways are building. Babies learn to understand that the world can be trusted," Condon says. A child's secure attachment would be one of the best reasons to keep an infant with his or her mother.

For a mother in the nursery program at WCCW, the stakes are high for compliance. Within hours of any infraction, her child is removed. That's cause enough to think twice about a fight or a verbal encounter, or throwing water or food. That's all it takes to be thrown out of the program.

For the mothers not accepted into a nursery program, the outlook is painful. Their infants are removed into foster care, sometimes into adoption, or sent to live with a relative. "It's rare that adoptive families are arranged early, so often these children enter the foster care system," says Condon.

The traditional greeting used by the Masai, an African tribe, adds meaning to the discussion about prison nurseries. "And how are the children?" the Masai ask. This greeting makes clear how the well-being of children is embedded in their values. Even those adults with no children will respond, "All the children are well," meaning life is good, that the priorities of safety for children and protecting the young and powerless are in place, and that their reason for being is purposeful and intact.

I wonder what would change if we opened every policymaking discussion about the children of the incarcerated with the same question: "And how are the children?" and then made sure that the discussion ended with, "The children will be well."

Mama, Do You Love Me?

As one who came out of this system, I can speak from my own story. If someone were to ask me, in the past, "And how are the children?" I would have to answer, "The child has not been well." I believe that my year in prison as an infant contributed to my current sense of security. But it took decades to return to this feeling. The uprooting journey after prison, into foster care, and eventually to my final adoption around age 3 or 4 has taken years to settle in me. I was a girl, a teen, and a woman on edge for all of my life until recently. I found it next to impossible to reconcile my roots, for I've never met a peer with a story quite like mine.

The lingering questions for all children separated from their mothers, especially those born in prison, as they were for me, are simple ones: Am I still lovable? And, what's wrong with me? Those question sits buried deep down in any child who comes through the foster care system. Inmates are an outcast class, by design cast out of society, so without the rightsupport, it's natural for a child born inside to end up feeling outcast as well.

I answered the question of whether I am still lovable with the support of my adoptive family, friends, and professionals. Now, I'm trying to help others answer it for themselves. I've returned to the Alderson prison a number of times to address the women and offer my story of hope and possibility as proof that anyone can reconcile a life from such fractured beginnings. I've also made presentations in other women's prisons, and recently six more women's prisons have invited me to address their populations. My personal and professional mission is to make a difference for incarcerated mothers, their children, and the professionals involved. I leverage my story to reach out to women in prisons, giving them an opportunity to build on their innate strengths and personal resiliency. I hope, with my help and the help of many others, the children will be well.

Deborah Jiang Stein is a writer and speaker. Her books are in development, including a memoir and short story collection. She is currently seeking funding to visit several prison nurseries around the country. To contact her about speaking engagements, e-mail info@deborahstein.com or visit www.deborahstein.com.

Cheryl Hanna-Truscott is a photographer and former nurse midwife in Pierce County, Washington. For the past seven years, she has been photographing incarcerated mothers and their children in the prison nursery program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. For more information, visit her website, www.protectivecustody.org.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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