Family-friendly corrections

By Michelle Chen May 12, 2009

Many imprisoned women spent this past Sunday alone, cut off from their communities, maybe wondering anxiously about children left in the care of relatives or a stranger’s foster home. But some passed a more conventional version of Mother’s Day in a setting both familiar and tenderly tragic: a prison nursery. The Women’s Prison Association has published a report on nursery facilities based at women’s prisons in several states, as well as community-based residential parenting programs (in which parents live in a community setting while under state custody). The programs enable mothers who give birth during their sentences to care for their infants, generally until about 12 to 18 months of age. The goal is to encourage family bonding and promote family stability after the mother’s release. The participants are primarily serving short sentences for nonviolent offenses. While prison might seem like a generally awful place for adults, let alone children, the limited research on these programs shows that when equipped with adequate resources, participants tend to have lower rates of recidivism and develop healthy relationships with their babies. Still, despite the correctional system’s efforts to accommodate motherhood, there’s no escaping the atmosphere of imprisonment. One study on New York prison nurseries found that:

forming bonds with other mothers is often difficult for mothers in the prison nursery program. Because the program is inside a correctional facility, the mothers are involuntarily together and are subjected to an atmosphere of observation, suspicion and discipline. Often these mothers face post-release conditions where contact between each other is prohibited. These circumstances can foster negative isolation rather than positive socialization.

Overall, the Women’s Prison Association found that nursery-based programs can protect families from some of the most corrosive emotional effects of incarceration—helping women develop self-confidence and skills as parents and fostering bonds that are critical to childhood development. Yet the organization emphasized community-based alternatives, as even the most family-friendly facility can’t offer a full range of educational and social resources. The successes of some prison nurseries show that family bonds can still flourish despite the coldness of incarceration. But these outcomes make a stronger case for reforms aimed at keeping criminal justice-involved families in their communities—so that whenever possible, with or without her baby, a mother never has to spend a day behind bars. Image: Wee Ones Nursery unit at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis. (AP)