Babies in Prison? It’s Not What You Think

Washington Corrections Center for Women partners with Early Head Start to serve incarcerated women and their babies
Blog Post
Aug. 4, 2016

For fans of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, it's difficult to forget the story of Maria Ruiz in the first few seasons. She starts out season one at Litchfield (a minimum-security women's prison) as an extremely pregnant new inmate. After giving birth, her newborn daughter is almost immediately taken from her to go live with her boyfriend Yadriel as Ruiz returns to prison. She remains depressed at Litchfield, only expressing happiness when Yadriel brings the baby to visiting hours. Orange is the New Black

During their short visits Ruiz holds, speaks to, and plays with her daughter, trying to make up for lost time. When there’s a possibility that Ruiz may be transferred to a prison further away, she begs the very stoic Yadriel to talk to their daughter, explaining that interacting with him is important to her development. By season three, Yadriel has taken some interest in their daughter’s development and makes the heart wrenching decision to stop visiting because he believes she is getting old enough to understand that her mother is in prison.

The first few years of children’s lives are crucial to their healthy development, and much of the learning that takes place during these years depends on their relationships with the adults in their lives. Ruiz is denied the opportunity to cultivate a relationship with her daughter and doesn’t have the peace of mind that she is receiving the quality of care she needs at home. Stories like Ruiz’s are not uncommon. About 4 percent of women enter prison pregnant and in most cases, mothers only have 24 hours with their newborns before they are separated.  Further, about two-thirds of women in prison leave children under the age of 18 at home, with other family members, or in the foster care system. It’s easy to imagine why this separation can be damaging for both mothers and their children.

But what if new mothers like Ruiz didn’t have to leave their children at all? For select inmates in the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Washington state, this is a reality. Since 1999, about 500 mothers and babies have been served in a residential unit housing the Residential Parenting Program (RPP). Mothers who are pregnant upon arrival in prison are able to care for their babies while incarcerated. To participate they must also be minimum custody and have no history of violence. They must also be eligible for release by the time the child is 30 months old, so that both parent and child can transition back into society together.

But what is it like to be a parent raising a young child in prison? In the RPP, it’s better than you might think. Mothers and babies live in what are essentially dorms with a twin bed and a crib. They have a small window so that guards can see into the room, but there is also a sense of privacy. The rooms even have small kitchens for preparing children’s food. About 15 mothers and babies participate in the RPP at one time. Babies receive regular check-ups with pediatricians who come on-site and in urgent cases mothers can take their children out of the facility to seek medical care.

While prison nurseries are not a new idea —the first prison nursery program was established in 1901 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York —this program is unique in that it is the only correctional facility that provides Early Head Start (EHS) on-site for mothers and their babies. In fact, this program was highlighted at the National Head Start Association Early Childhood Innovation Summit last week as an example of innovation in action.

The EHS component of the RPP functions similarly to any other EHS program. EHS, which serves pregnant mothers and their children until they reach three years old, provides developmental screenings and assessments, infant/toddler care and activities, healthy meals, and family support. EHS centers are held to much higher standards than the average child care center serving this age group. The mothers drop off their babies at the on-site child care center in the morning, go to their day jobs in prison, and pick up their babies at the end of the day. EHS centers have low teacher-child ratios and teachers must have a Child Development Associate, or the equivalent training in early education and development. Mothers can rest assured knowing that their children are in good hands.

While infants and toddlers in the RPP have plenty of opportunities for social interactions with their mothers, caregivers, and other children, the EHS program also gives children the opportunity to get out and see the world beyond the correctional facility. EHS staff occasionally take toddlers on field trips to do everyday things like go to a grocery store, a park, or a fire station. Mothers also can arrange for family and friends outside of the prison to take their children for any amount of time.  

Like all Head Start programs, there is a focus on parent engagement.  According to the correction center’s Early Head Start Site Manager, Jaymie Roswell, “We have four mothers who represent our parent group on the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD) Early Learning Policy Council - they attend and fully participate in the monthly meetings...” EHS also hosts regular parent meetings which are attended by all RPP mothers and gives mothers the opportunity to provide curriculum and other programming input. Additionally, the correction center has semi-monthly New Moms Groups for pregnant and postpartum mothers and regular Mother/Caregiver Workshops. Like all inmates, RPP mothers also have access to programs that support pro-social behavior and their successful reentry into the community. These programs include basic education/GED classes, vocational training, and a variety of mental and physical well-being classes.

Although prison nurseries were once very popular, every facility but Bedford Hills in New York closed in the 1970s and early 1980s. Reasons behind the closures included rising costs, as well as concerns about security, management, and child welfare. However, since the 1970s the female incarceration rate has increased twice as fast as the male rate. In response to this large increase in the female prison population, there has been a renewed interest in expanding programs which allow some female prisoners to take care of their infants.  As of 2014, there were programs in 10 states — California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. The length of the programs usually range from one month to three years. Most states allow 18 months.

These programs are built on the belief that it is best for both the mother and the child to be able to form a strong bond during this critical time of child development. But there are critics of prison nursery programs. They fear the programs do not keep the best interests of the child in mind and are concerned about the potentially adverse effects of prison on the child’s health and development. However, the limited research on participation in the programs has suggested very positive outcomes.

First, prison nursery programs can reduce recidivism rates for incarcerated mothers who are released. The results from a 10-year study of a Nebraska program published in 2009 shows that 50 percent of mothers who had been separated from their babies at birth returned to custody, while only 17 percent of mothers who participated in the program had. The RPP at Washington Corrections Center for Women reports very similar findings. Their general recidivism rate is 46 percent while it is only 13 percent for mothers who participated in the RPP. These programs also reduce the likelihood that children end up in foster care.

As attachment theory suggests, it is important for babies to form a “secure” relationship with a primary caregiver as this leads to a greater likelihood of healthy development in childhood. Research by Dr. Mary Byrne, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Nursing, shows that the attachments formed between a parent and child in a prison nursery setting can be as strong as attachments formed outside of prison. Byrne’s study, which examined the programs at Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities in New York, also determined that women in these programs were less likely to return to prison.

Finally, there is hope that prison nursery programs can improve outcomes for the children, as well as mothers. Research shows that children whose parents are behind bars are at elevated risk for academic, behavioral, and emotional problems, as well as future involvement with the criminal-justice system. While it is too soon to tell whether the programs reduce intergenerational incarceration, Byrne and her team are starting to analyze how the children in the longitudinal study fare as they go through grade school. So far they have found that children raised in the nursery perform no differently than their peers across a number of measures.

While more research is needed, the findings above explain some of the potential positive outcomes that both mothers and babies experience by participating in prison nursery programs. Until the issue of mass incarceration is addressed in the U.S. and in the absence of other prevention and intervention services, prison nursery programs provide a partial but effective dual-generation strategy to positively affect both incarcerated mothers and their children.  Continued research will be important to ameliorate concerns as well as to reveal any positive intergenerational and child development outcomes of the program.