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For Some Mothers In Prison, A Sentence Doesn't Mean Separation


There are about 200,000 women in prison in America. And about two thirds of them are moms with kids under 18. In 10 states, some female prisoners with infants are allowed to take care of them in prison nurseries. Jessica Pishko writes about the institutions in the Pacific Standard Magazine. She says prison nurseries are actually an old idea. The first was established in 1901 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York.

JESSICA PISHKO: Today, Bedford is a medium-security prison. They have the prison nursery program - is basically a wing of Bedford - where they have rooms for the mothers and their infants. The program is actually not full. So when the program is more full, there might be two mothers, two infants in a room.

I think now - today, the program is less full. It's typically one mother, one infant in a room like a small apartment. And there's play rooms, sort of shared living spaces where the parents take the children to play, where the parents also engage in parenting classes and that sort of thing.

RATH: What's the thinking behind this? You know, what's the payoff for these kind of programs? Is this for the benefit of the mother, for the child or for society?

PISHKO: For many people, one of the great payoffs is indeed for the mothers. There are reasons to believe that mothers in these programs have a lower rate of recidivism. There are reasons to believe that mothers in these programs are - they're more motivated to get through programs, to do, you know, maybe addiction counseling, to get employment. There are also some reasons to believe that these are good for infants as well. There's been really only one comprehensive study. And that's by Dr. Mary Byrne at Columbia School of Nursing. And she found that in these programs that the infants were attaching to the mothers and getting all the benefits of that emotional development, physical development, speech development that you might expect on the outside.

RATH: You write that there haven't been a ton of outspoken critics of prison nursery programs. But what are the concerns?

PISHKO: Well, one of the more outspoken critics is a law professor at William and Mary Law School. His name is James Dwyer. He wrote an article called Jailing Black Babies. And Professor Dwyer thinks that maybe prisons aren't in the best interest of the child. There's reasons to believe that prisons are stressful. There's reasons to believe that medical care in prisons may not be as good as medical care on the outside. And prisons are really designed to house adults. So I think that that's a valid argument as well.

RATH: From your article, it sounds like there are a lot more proponents of prison nursery programs than there are critics. And it's not a new idea. Why aren't there more of these programs? Why haven't these programs taken off more widely?

PISHKO: Probably some of it is resources. And, you know, from a prison authority's point of view to sort of take children - you know, when a prison system takes people into their care, they are now responsible for the care of those people. I would say plus most prison simply aren't built for children. If you've been inside of prison - I mean, the modern-day prison facilities just sort of aren't - they aren't child friendly.

RATH: And what about the cost factor? I imagine making prisons child friendly or the staffing requirements have to cost more.

PISHKO: Right, I'm sure that the cost is definitely a factor. Any change is difficult and any change costs more.

RATH: You can read Jessica Pishko's article about prison nurseries for inmates with small children in Pacific Standard Magazine. Jessica, think you.

PISHKO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.