Imagine you are eight months pregnant and about to complete a prison sentence. You give birth, and the baby is then taken away from you and placed into foster care.
Now imagine the same scenario, except you give birth in a prison, are allowed to care for your baby until your brief sentence is over and then walk out of the door together.
Which option is better for the baby and mother? Which option would likely reduce the chances that the mother would end up back in prison, as many do?
Prison nurseries are spaces within women’s prisons that enable women to give birth and co-reside with their infant for the duration of their sentence. This time varies from state to state, from three months to three years. Some nurseries are on-site within the prison complex, separated from the general population, while others are elsewhere in community corrections settings.
Participating women take classes focused on parenting, life skills, substance abuse and behavioral health challenges. The mother will be the primary caregiver for the child, but while mothers are taking classes or participating in other required activities, some states are allowing trained and vetted inmates to serve as caregivers. Rigorous mental health screenings ensure the mother is incarcerated for a nonviolent crime, has not committed any offenses against a child and is capable of caring for her baby.
Extensive research in states that have developed prison nurseries indicates that women who are allowed to stay with their babies in a prison nursery have much lower recidivism rates. Not only will this create a world in which the mother and baby can bond, research is showing the infants who are separated from their mothers and moved among caretakers often develop an insecure attachment style, raising the odds of cognitive and behavioral delays during childhood.
Particularly for children living in risky environments, the mother-child relationship is a crucial developmental step; insecure attachment typically hinders proper socio-emotional development.
One study found that infants who spent time with their mothers in a prison nursery had significantly lower rates of severe anxiety and depression than those separated from their incarcerated mothers.
Since about 6% of women arrested are pregnant, an estimated 2,000 women a year give birth while incarcerated — roughly 50 a year in Missouri over the last decade.
Additionally, allowing the baby to stay with the mother will significantly increase the opportunity to breastfeed. Breastfeeding has been proven to have strong benefits for mothers and babies. According to the Cleveland Clinic, breastfed babies have stronger immune systems, lower rates of infant mortality and SIDS, and fewer colds and infections among many other health benefits.
Breastfeeding is also healthier for the mother, from helping the uterus return to its original size to decreasing the risk of postpartum depression. It may also decrease the chances for several types of cancer in the mother and child.
While there is a minor cost associated with repurposing prison space into a nursery, paying for supplies and staff, the state will ultimately save money in two ways.
Women who form bonds with their babies have a new sense of responsibility and purpose and are less likely to end up back in prison, saving the state from housing her again (which runs $20,000 annually). Indeed, one study from a Nebraska prison nursery for 1994-2012, showed a 28% reduction in recidivism, a 39% reduction in women returning to prison custody and a cost savings of more than $6 million for those years.
Additionally, states eliminate the cost of placing another child in the foster care system would be eliminated. And given disturbing recent news about nearly 1,000 children in Missouri’s foster care system who went missing as of 2019, our system is struggling to keep up as it is. The last thing it needs is more kids whose mothers desperately want to keep them.
Prison nurseries are not a new concept in the United States. Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, started in 1901, is the nation’s longest running prison nursery. Currently nine states have prison nurseries.
Republican state Reps. Bruce DeGroot of Chesterfield and Curtis Trent of Springfield plan to file legislation that would create a nursery at a Missouri’s women’s prison.
I hope their colleagues review the research cited above and support this legislation so that instead of the state ripping babies from their mothers just after birth, we can give mothers the opportunity to nurture their child in a way many of them never themselves experienced — and give that child a loving mother instead of a broken bureaucracy.
This column first appeared in the Missouri Independent.