Prison Nurseries: Are They Good for Mother and Baby?

Prison Nurseries: Are They Good for Mother and Baby?

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Being pregnant is a time that many women feel hope and connection and a commitment to making the world a better place for themselves and their children.

photo from Daily Beast
photo from Daily Beast

So today was supposed to be the day! I was going to be interviewed on a national TV show – Raising America. They were going to send a car and get me there early for hair and makeup. The topic?  Prison nurseries.  Here’s the link:

In some places (New York State and federal prisons for example), a pregnant woman who is incarcerated can give birth and keep her baby with her in a “prison nursery.” This allows mother and baby to bond with each other. Different locales have different rules about how long a baby can stay with the mother – it can range from 6 months to two years.  However, in many cases they are not separated because the mother’s sentence comes to an end and both mother and baby are released together.

I was invited to speak on the subject because I advocated for many years for incarcerated parents when I was Policy Director at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children .

For some reason, my segment on Raising America was cancelled. I was disappointed because I have something to say about this topic, so I thought I would go ahead and share my thoughts here.

Prison nurseries are complicated. I have known many women who would have been excellent mothers and never gotten the chance because they were incarcerated and then lost their parental rights because they had no one to take care of their children.

Over the past 18 years, I have spoken with countless women who lost their parental rights as a result of incarceration. I spoke with many women who were pregnant and were dreading the moment of separation after giving birth. Women who give birth in jail and face separation don’t get to feel the hope and excitement that many new moms experience. Often, they feel grief and stress. And that’s not good for them or for their babies.

Most incarcerated women are convicted of non-violent crimes, mainly related to poverty or drug addiction. The number of women in prisons and jails in this country has been increasing steadily since the mid-1980s. The imprisonment of women continues to rise at a faster rate than men, and the number of children in foster care continues to grow as well. Californians across the state agree that people with non-violent convictions should not be doing jail or prison time. They prefer that people received drug treatment to incarceration. They are tired of putting good money after bad into jails and prisons rather than providing education, health care and social services to communities in crisis.

So with all that, you’d think I would be a strong advocate for prison nurseries! But when I hear about prison nurseries, I always have to pause. I believe that most mothers should be with their newborn babies. I just don’t believe that they should be together in prison! Why do we insist on putting pregnant women with non-violence offenses in jail? They shouldn’t be in jail at all. Most would do much better in drug treatment or with basic social services. Being pregnant is a time that many women feel hope and connection and a commitment to making the world a better place for themselves and their children.  Yes, prison nurseries are a better alternative than separation, but I can’t help but wonder why we settle for the better alternative rather than the best one.

That’s what I would have said on Raising America. At least I got to say it to you!

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