Prison nursery programs remain rare nationwide, but eight facilities have opened amid dramatic growth in the number of incarcerated women.
The bold experiment in punishment and parenting has touched off a fierce debate.
Advocates say the programs allow mothers to forge a crucial early bond with children, creating healthier kids and a spur for mothers to improve their lives. Detractors say prison is no environment for children and that the programs may simply put off an inevitable split between many children and their mothers, making it that much more painful.
Destiny Doud and her daughter Jaelynn are among dozens of test cases.
Doud gave birth to Jaelynn while incarcerated. The Decatur Correctional Center in Illinois is the only home Jaelynn has known in her 11 months.
At 21, Doud is serving a 12-year sentence for bringing methamphetamine across the Illinois state line. She is trying to tame a drug addiction and figure out a career with only a high school diploma. She’s allowed to send Jaelynn’s father baby photos, but he too is in prison.
The program has given her fledging family a lifeline, she said. Doud, whose own mother was in and out of jail when she was a child, said she is determined to make sure a third generation of her family does not end up incarcerated.
At the Decatur Correctional Center, six women and their infants, ages newborn to 11 months, live in the “Moms and Babies” program unit, which is segregated from the prison’s general population. Each pair’s home is a typical cell, specially outfitted with cribs, changing tables and lively murals.
Decatur’s warden, Shelith Hansbro, said the cells are not barred and women are not handcuffed on the wing because it can distress the children, even as young as they are. Still, security remains paramount.
Cameras are perched above each crib. The prison doesn’t house sex offenders. And when a child is taken outside the nursery unit, all prisoners are ordered to stop moving about the facility and remain where they are. The children can play outdoors in a prison yard retrofitted with a jungle gym.
There are strict criteria for selecting participants. The women must have only nonviolent offenses on their records and typically have sentences that are two years or less, so mother and child never have to be separated and the children’s time in prison is limited to their earliest years. Though Doud’s sentence is longer than most women in the program, she could qualify to serve some of that in a residential drug treatment center.
There are counselors and a child aide to help the mothers, and other inmates at the facility serve as day-care workers so the women can attend classes to get GEDs, improve life skills, and receive drug and alcohol counseling. Hansbro said the approach is compassionate, but also tough.
“We tell them we are going to be up in your business,” Hansbro said. “We are going to be telling you things about how to raise your child that you might disagree with.”
The mothers learn rudimentary parenting skills, like how to read to their children. Hansbro said if the mothers leave prison with the right tools, their chances of reoffending may decrease.
“We have found that if there is going to be anything that keeps women from reoffending, it’s going to be their bonds with their children,” Hansbro said. “If we expect them to be successful, we need them to give them those tools they need to be successful.”
More than 90 women have gone through the Moms and Babies program in 11 years, and only two have returned to prison within three years of release, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Only two women have been removed from the program.
James Dwyer, a professor of law at William & Mary who focuses on children and family issues, disagrees with Hansbro and the concept of prison nurseries in general.
Dwyer maintains that prisons are dangerous and unstimulating for children, and that it may even be unconstitutional to place a child in prison when no crime has been committed.
He said the programs also don’t take a considered approach to making hard decisions about what’s best for children in challenging family situations.
“There is no involvement of child protective services or juvenile court,” Dwyer said. “You just have prison wardens or their delegates deciding that a kid should enter into a prison without making any best-interest determination.”
The number of women behind bars increased more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2016, from roughly 26,000 to nearly 214,000, according to the Sentencing Project. The growth outpaced the increase in male incarceration by roughly 50 percent.
The latest statistics on parents in prison are from 2007, but the Justice Department reported a 122 percent increase in mothers in state and federal prison between 1991 and that year. Nearly 1.7 million children had a parent behind bars.
Some experts attribute the increase in women’s incarceration, in both jail and prison, to spiking drug arrests and an emphasis in some areas on aggressive enforcement of minor offenses such as theft and public drunkenness.
The trends have pushed officials and reformers to focus on mass incarceration’s impact on women and children.
There are no current figures for how many women give birth while incarcerated, but a number of states have done away with the common practice of shackling pregnant women during childbirth. Others have moved to require prisons to have medical plans, proper nutrition and other basics available for pregnant women. Prison nurseries are one of the most progressive approaches.
Although research on prison nursery programs is limited, some studies show promise.
One found that a group of preschool-age children who were raised in prison nurseries were less anxious and depressed than a control group of children who were separated from their incarcerated mothers in the early years. Another concluded the recidivism rate of mothers who participated in prison nursery programs was only 4 percent.
Doud and Jaelynn still have a long way to go before becoming one of these positive statistics, but Doud’s father, James McQuinn, said he’s noticed a change in his daughter.
She is taking every class she can at Decatur and has remained sober. In January, Jaelynn watched as Doud graduated from her substance-abuse class. Doud said Jaelynn also appears to be hitting her development marks, even reaching many early.
McQuinn is cautiously optimistic for his daughter and granddaughter.