Lullabies Behind Bars

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.

The Bedford Hills program is the oldest and largest in the country, with its own nursery wing and space for up to 29 mother-baby pairs. Women live with their babies in bright rooms stuffed with donated toys and clothes. During the day, while the women attend DOC-mandated drug counseling, anger management, vocational training, and parenting classes, their children attend a day care center staffed by inmates who have graduated from an intensive two-year early childhood associate training program.

Although the idea of babies living the first months of their lives behind bars is sad to contemplate, many experts say that separating them from their mothers is far worse. “If a woman is serving a short sentence and can look forward to a life with her child . . . so much research addresses the importance of that early bonding relationship,” says Sylvia Mignon, associate professor and director of the graduate program in human services at UMass Boston and coauthor, with Ransford, of the “Parenting from Prison” report. “The reality is, an infant does not know that she is in prison. All she knows is that she’s getting the warmth and love and attention of this wonderful being called mom.” Among women serving sentences of more than a decade, however, there is no clear consensus on what’s best for the child; the Bedford Hills program generally accepts only women serving sentences of five years or less. “We don’t want to create a bond that’s guaranteed to be broken,” says the children’s center program director, Bobby Blanchard.

Unlike in the general prison population, doors in the program’s wing are never locked; inmates come and go freely in order to warm bottles, do laundry, and comfort crying children out of the earshot of other sleeping babies. Rooms are decorated with photographs and handmade posters that say things like “Loving yourself is something to be proud of!” Danielizz Negron, 23, rocks her four-month-old son, Jeremiah, while he naps in a stroller. She was six months pregnant when, after a year of fighting burglary charges, she accepted a plea deal and turned herself in. “If I had not known about this program, I would not have came in. I would have been in Mexico somewhere by now,” she says, only half-joking.

As the number of prison nurseries continues to grow, some caution against becoming overly sanguine. They’re wonderful programs, says the WPA’s Sarah From, but our priority should be working in the community to put fewer women in prison rather than looking to build more prison nurseries.

Reprinted from Ms. (Fall 2008), a magazine about women’s status, women’s rights, and women’s points of view;

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