The number of women in prison has risen dramatically in recent years, and it’s happening all over the world. Since 1980, the number of women incarcerated in the United States has increased by more than 700 percent. In the past decade alone, the number of women jailed has increased by more than 100,000.
New data released by Penal Reform International and adopted by the UN shows that there are more than 741,000 females in prison around the globe, and experts predict that 1 in 25 female inmates in the United States is pregnant.
“The number of women in prison globally is climbing at an alarming rate – even though they are typically convicted of low-level, nonviolent crime,” said Olivia Rope, executive director of Penal Reform International.
With the rising number of women behind bars, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood in prison are issues that prisons around the United States are having to face now more than ever.
Up until recently, most American prisons treated pregnant inmates like all others. Outside of regular appointments with a prison doctor and some extra food at the chow hall, pregnant inmates weren’t treated much differently than everyone else behind bars.
When it was time to deliver, the inmate would be taken to a local hospital. After giving birth, the inmate would usually have about 48 hours at most to bond with her baby before going back to prison. The baby would go to family or social services, and the mother would have often have to petition for custody of their children after their release.
In recent years, things have started to change. New programs are popping up at facilities all over the country that are taking new approaches to pregnant inmates who give birth while incarcerated. So, let’s answer today’s question – can you keep a baby in prison?
In today’s blog post I will cover the following topics:
Generally, women who deliver a baby while incarcerated are not allowed to keep their baby when serving their sentence. They either have to give their baby to a family member, a social worker, or put them up for adoption. But, there are a few facilities who do have prison nursery programs, and the number is slowly growing.
Bedford Hills in New York has the nation’s longest-running prison nursery. Opened in 1901, it has allowed hundreds of women who have started their sentences pregnant to bond with their babies while behind bars. Bedford Hills is one of just eight prison nurseries in the United States.
The Decatur Correctional Center in Illinois is one women’s prison who does have a nursery program. According to the Washington Post, it’s a bold experiment that’s caused a lot of debate about punishment and parenting.
When it’s time for a female inmate to deliver her baby, prison staff will usually take her to a local hospital. Sometimes, they remain on prison grounds and deliver in the medical unit. As a rule, only the medical staff and security guards are present for the delivery.
I should note that a pregnant inmate doesn’t always know her due date because it is believed that information could be used to plan an escape.
During delivery, the inmate is handcuffed to the bed, and they remain handcuffed until they are sent back to prison. Four states have laws that prevent shackling women during labor and delivery.
There are some situations where a baby is taken away immediately, especially if the mom has agreed to an adoption. But common practice is that mom holds the baby for a few hours while handcuffed to the bed. Usually, a mother is allowed to stay with her baby between 24 and 48 hours.
At the prison that I was incarcerated in, the inmates were not allowed to keep their babies after giving birth, but in a place like Decatur, the prison nursery program allows a select number of inmates to live with their babies in a separate unit from the rest of the prison population.
Decatur has six women and their infants, ages newborn to 11 months, who live in the special unit. Each mother and baby is housed in a typical prison cell that is specially outfitted with a crib, changing table, and lively painted murals.
These cells are not barred and the women are not handcuffed on the wing. They avoid this because they don’t want to upset the kids. However, security is still a top priority. There are cameras above every crib, and sex offenders are not allowed at the facility.
When a child is taken outside of the nursery unit, all other inmates are ordered to stop movement and remain where they are. For playtime, there is an outdoor prison yard that features a jungle gym.
These are pretty common practices in all nursery programs around the United States. However, there are some nuances depending on the facility. One thing that is common is that each facility has a strict criteria for their prison nursery program.
Women in the program can’t be convicted of a violent crime. And typically, the inmate has a sentence of two years or less. This rule is in place so that mom and child never have to be separated. It also limits the child’s time in prison to their earliest years.
All prison nursery programs have counselors and/or a child aide to help the mothers. Some facilities also allow other inmates to work as daycare workers so the moms can go to school and earn their GED, take classes, or receive drug and alcohol counseling.
“We tell them we are going to be up in your business,” Decatur warden Shelith Hansbro said. “We are going to be telling you things about how to raise your child that you might disagree with.”
Advocates of prison nursery programs say that they are crucial for the mother/baby bonding process. They say it creates healthier kids, and it’s a “spur for mothers to improve their lives” that lowers the recidivism rate.
However, those who are against these kinds of programs argue that prison is the wrong environment for children. Critics also claim that it violates the child’s constitutional rights with taxpayer money. They also claim that the programs do nothing more than delay the inevitable split between the children and their mothers, and that makes the situation even more painful.
Destiny Doud, a mother serving a 12-year sentence in Decatur for a low-level drug crime says that having her baby with her is a positive thing. Doud explained that her mother was in and out of jail, and she is determined to keep her daughter from being the third straight generation in her family to be incarcerated.
“She reminds me that I have something that’s great now,” Doud said, “something to live for.”
Hansbro agrees that prison nursery programs are needed. In her experience, the one thing that can keep women from reoffending is bonds with their children.
“If we expect them to be successful, we need them to give them those tools they need to be successful,” Hansbro said.
Do you think female inmates should be allowed to keep their baby in prison? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Raising Babies Behind Bars https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2018/05/11/feature/prisons-are-allowing-mothers-to-raise-their-babies-behind-bars-but-is-the-radical-experiment-in-parenting-and-punishment-a-good-idea/ 'Alarming': female prison population rises by 100,000 in past decade – report https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/dec/10/alarming-number-of-women-behind-bars-rises-by-100000-in-past-decade Prison nurseries give incarcerated mothers a chance to raise their babies — behind bars https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/prison-nurseries-give-incarcerated-mothers-chance-raise-their-babies-behind-n894171 15 Things That Happen When A Baby Is Born In Prison https://www.babygaga.com/15-things-that-happen-when-baby-is-born-in-prison/
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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