The Women’s Prison Association, an organization working to address issues faced by women with criminal justice histories, has released a new report on prison nurseries: “Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternatives.”
The report examines U.S. prison nursery programs, which allow incarcerated women to keep their newborns with them in prison for a finite period of time, and community-based residential parenting programs, which allow women to serve criminal justice sentences with their infants in a non-prison setting. Both types of programs are intended to promote bonding and parenting skills, and potentially reduce recidivism.
The report describes the scope of the problem of parenting for incarcerated women thusly:
Between 1977 and 2007, the number of women in prison in the United States increased by 832 percent. According to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2004 four percent of women in state prisons and three percent of women in federal prisons were pregnant at the time of admittance. In 1999, BJS reported that six percent of women in local jails were pregnant at the time of admittance. As the number of women in prison has skyrocketed over the past 30 years, states have had to consider what it means to lock up women, many of whom are pregnant or parenting.
Among the findings regarding prison nurseries:
- Nine states – California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota, Washington, and West Virginia – currently have or will soon open prison nurseries.
- The amount of time infants are allowed to remain in prison nurseries ranges from 30 days to 18 months.
- The largest prison nursery program in the country has capacity for up to 29 mother/child pairs. Some programs have much smaller capacities, such as the Decatur Correctional Facility in Illinois, which has room for just 5 pairs.
- All of the prison-based programs provide educational programming in child development and parenting skills.
- All states with prison nursery programs only allow this arrangement when the child is born in state custody.
- In general, only women who committed crimes and who do not have a past history of child abuse or neglect are accepted into the programs.
- Mothers are often required to sign waivers releasing the facility from any responsibility if their children become sick or injured.
The authors also describe community-based facilities, in which women serve their sentences in a residential setting. The women are usually allowed to leave to attend doctor and social service appointments and other community programs, and often receive drug or alcohol abuse treatment. Children in this program are usually not infants born in custody, but small children brought by their mothers into the programs.
The authors also note – in addition to the overall lack of programs to deal with pregnancy, motherhood, and incarceration – a lack of standards for the treatment of pregnant women under criminal justice supervision and for the health care or housing needs of the infants.
Finally, the organization makes three recommendations:
- 1) Increase use of community corrections and reduce reliance on incarceration;
- 2) Enhance program features that promote overall family well-being in prison nurseries and community-based residential parenting programs;
- 3) Fund scientific research, participatory action research, and program evaluations of prison nurseries and community-based residential parenting programs to reveal best practices and the potential benefits of system reforms.