Lullabies Behind Bars

In a few innovative prisons, babies find a safe haven with their moms

| March-April 2009

It’s the middle of the day, and Rachael Irwin, 27, scurries across the floor on her hands and knees, playing peekaboo with her 10-month-old daughter, Gabriella. The baby’s big blue eyes dance with delight. Like many children her age, Gabriella is in day care. Unlike most children her age, though, Gabriella is in prison. She and her mother are participating in the Bedford Hills (N.Y.) Correctional Facility’s nursery program, one of only nine programs in the country that allow incarcerated women to keep their babies with them after they give birth.

Nationwide, nearly 2 million kids have parents in prison. “These children are sort of victims by default,” says Paige Ransford, research associate at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston and coauthor of the recent report “Parenting from Prison.” Many of the children go live with grandparents or other relatives; 10 percent of incarcerated mothers report that their children are placed in foster care. About half are separated from their siblings. These children are more likely than their peers to experience social developmental difficulties and to be in trouble with the law later in life.

In the case of women who enter the system as mothers-to-be, the usual excitement of pregnancy is replaced with a sense of dread. The choices that, on the outside, are understood to be a woman’s right—such as where and how to give birth, and whether or not to breastfeed—are transferred from the woman to bureaucrats and officers at the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

Of the 112,459 women incarcerated in the United States as of 2006, about 4,300—4 percent of women in state custody and 3 percent in federal—were pregnant when they entered prison. In the vast majority of cases, babies are removed from their mothers immediately after birth and placed with relatives or in foster care. However, a small but growing number of states are recognizing that the mother-child bond formed in the first few months of life is crucial to the child’s development, and that the bond need not be broken.

“We’re definitely seeing more states grapple with what it means to send women, some of whom are pregnant, to prison,” says Sarah From, director of public policy and communications for the Women’s Prison Association (WPA). Eight states now have programs to house female offenders together with their newborns, and West Virginia is slated to begin a program this year.

These programs vary widely in the length of time babies are allowed to stay with their incarcerated mothers and in the services they provide. South Dakota allows babies to stay for just 30 days—with the mother in her regular cell—while Washington state allows children to stay for up to three years with their mothers in a separate wing of the prison. The Washington facility offers a federal Early Head Start program for prenatal health and infant-toddler development, and partners with the nonprofit Prison Doula Project to provide doula services to the women during and after their pregnancies.

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