"Even a prison cannot ignore biology."

At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, a rather dreary maximum security prison about an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, there is one wing that bursts with color: painted murals on the wall, plastic beads and wind-up toys, and colorful cushions on the floor of a cheerful playroom.

This is the wing that holds Bedford’s prison nursery, where new mothers live with their infant children for up to 18 months. Although the individual rooms still have bars on the windows, the mothers in the program share their living space with a crib and their child. (When the nursery program is more full, the mothers double up.) They also participate in parenting classes, change diapers, nurse, and take their baby to regular check-ups with pediatricians who come on-site. In short, they live like many parents, only they—and their babies—can’t leave until their time is up.

The notion of mothering as inherently rehabilitative and worthwhile is not new; The program at Bedford, established in 1901, is the oldest and largest prison nursery program in the country.

"The conversation has been very one-sided because advocates for children haven’t been involved yet. It’s a question of what the child is entitled to, taking into account the likelihood of a good life with the biological mother."

Miriam Van Waters, a feminist social worker, was touting the idea of keeping mothers and children together during incarceration several generations ago: “The beneficent policy of some modern penal institutions for women is to have a nursery,” she wrote in 1938. “Even a prison cannot ignore biology.” Van Waters claimed that the women’s prison in Massachusetts had 60 babies under the age of three and contained a nursery and a playground for them. The prison used the parent-child relationship as a “natural incentive” not only for the parents but also for the other women in the prison.

Today’s programs rely on a similar idea, that the best thing for all parties is to retain the enduring and essential bond between mother and child. As the number of women in prison continues to climb, prison nurseries (also known as “mother-infant programs”) seem to be gaining traction. Typically these programs allow mothers— participants are screened; they must have no infractions and cannot have committed a violent crime—to live with their infants for a set period of time, between one to two years. Currently 10 states have some sort of prison nursery system: New York, California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming. (Connecticut is also considering the idea.)

There are reasons to be particularly concerned about women in prison, among them the fact that their number has increased 646 percent between 1980 and 2010. Of the 200,000 women in prisons and jails in the United States, more than two-thirds have children under the age of 18.. Mother-infant programs are mostly concerned with infants born in prison, which is a much smaller percent of children affected by incarceration. About four percent of women enter state prisons pregnant and give birth there.

Once mothers enter the prison system, the prospect of a continuing relationship with their kids is fairly grim. Only about nine percent receive visits during their incarceration periods from their children, most of whom end up being raised by a family member—others enter the foster care system. The Sentencing Project estimates that one in every 50 children in the U.S. has a parent behind bars, the effects of which can be devastating, resulting in documented difficulties, such as behavior problems, depression, and anxiety.

Interestingly, most proponents of mother-infant programs—very similar to Van Waters—argue that keeping mothers and children together is the best possible scenario, pointing to the outcomes for the participants in these programs. A 2009 report by the Women’s Prison Association's Institute on Women and Criminal Justice found that women in mother-infant programs have lower rates of recidivism, for example.

But even without the documented improvements, for most people—myself included—keeping mothers and children together just makes sense. In the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, one of the more gut-wrenching scenes involves a mother returning to prison after having given birth, her arms empty. Ripping infants from their mothers seems unspeakably cruel, violating an essential rule of biology.


Attachments formed between parent and child in a prison nursery setting can be as strong as attachments formed outside of prison, according to Dr. Mary Byrne, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Nursing who has examined the programs at Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities in New York. In her study, the first long-term look at parents and children in prison nursery settings, Byrne also determined that women in these programs were less likely to return.

Byrne’s 2011 study, “Intergenerational Transmission of Attachment for Infants Raised in a Prison Nursery,” concludes that “mothers in a prison nursery setting can raise infants who are securely attached to them at rates comparable to healthy community children.”

The former prison in Christianshavn, Copenhagen, that was demolished in 1928. (Photo: Public Domain)

The former prison in Christianshavn, Copenhagen, that was demolished in 1928. (Photo: Public Domain)

“In the absence of community with both prevention and intervention services and with high rates of maternal incarceration,” Byrne writes in an email, “prison nursery programs provide a partial but effective way to enhance family strengthening, child health, and adult re-entry success.”

There have not been many outspoken critics of prison nursery programs, but James Dwyer, a professor at William & Mary School of Law, writes in his law review article, “Jailing Black Babies,” that prison nurseries do not keep the best interests of the child in mind. Instead, he writes, they may exacerbate problems or place children in a potentially dangerous situation. (Dwyer also argues that prison nurseries violate the Fourteenth Amendment by incarcerating infants who haven’t been found guilty of a crime.) He points out that no empirical evidence shows that mother-infant programs in prisons actually improve the outcomes for children, and that prison is a hostile and unhealthy environment for everyone, especially children.

On their face, Dwyer’s arguments seem potentially problematic. He suggests that the children of incarcerated mothers should be more quickly surrendered for adoption, and bases his view on studies that show children adopted sooner have better outcomes than those who experience a great deal of displacement in their early life. He says that there is substantial evidence to show that women in prison suffer from a variety of health and substance abuse problems—as well as issues resulting from histories of domestic and childhood abuse—and may not make the best parents. As a result, Dwyer concludes that prison nursery programs are “a failure for the vast majority of children and a reckless gamble for all.”

"In the absence of community with both prevention and intervention services and with high rates of maternal incarceration, prison nursery programs provide a partial but effective way to enhance family strengthening, child health, and adult re-entry success."

“The conversation has been very one-sided because advocates for children haven’t been involved yet,” Dwyer says in a phone interview. “It’s a question of what the child is entitled to, taking into account the likelihood of a good life with the biological mother.”

While Dwyer’s arguments may seem unnecessarily harsh, even prisoner advocacy organizations have begun to question the assumption that nurseries can work. Legal Services for Prisoners With Children issued a report in 2010 evaluating the mother-infant programs in California. (Some of which no longer exist.) The report gives the example of Denisha Lawson, who was serving time in a San Diego mother-infant program operated by Center Point when she noticed that her daughter Esperanza had troubling physical symptoms and wanted to take her to see a pediatrician. The officials refused, according to the LSPC report, and, two weeks later, Esperanza was rushed to a hospital in near-cardiac arrest at the orders of a nurse.

Carol Strickman, at attorney at LSPC who represents mothers in prison, says that prisons are prisons first, and nurseries second. “Prison systems shouldn’t run these programs,” she says. “Mother-infant programs should be focused on the children and parenting.”

The LSPC report further notes that women may be reluctant to complain for fear of being ejected from the program. (Dwyer makes a similar point in his work, writing that women in these programs live under such a fear of losing their privilege that there’s no way to really know the extent of the problems.)

Stickman and other advocates believe that mothers should serve their time in a community-based program, another type of custody arrangement where mothers and their children live in some sort of residential facility more like a college dormitory than a prison. Typically, these programs allow women to bring their small children with them for their determined sentencing period. Such facilities provide access to services—addiction counseling, parenting classes, and employment training—while allowing women to maintain ties with their community.

The debate over these programs shows the conflict in the way society looks at mothers and inmates and the future of a growing population of women in prison.

Is it fair to deny incarcerated women the genuine desire to parent their children when there’s no other reason to think that she would be an unfit parent? Should the main concern be stability for the child at all costs, or something else? A study of prison nursery participants in Nebraska found that 95 percent of women felt that they had a better connection with their child as a result of the programs. Of course, this study was about satisfaction, not measurable indicators, but should feelings be totally discounted when it comes to the personal experience of raising children?

Most of all, correctional systems need to consider how to keep families together for everyone’s benefit, which may also require a re-thinking of what families should look like. The women themselves universally lament the loss of connection they feel with their kids. But the men in prison I speak with do too. Children, it seems, can create a kind of hope in people who are generally hopeless.

Lead photo: Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. (Photo: Public Domain)