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Lullabies Behind Bars

Beth Schwartzapfel

It's midday on a recent Tuesday, and Rachael Irwin, 27, scurries across the floor on her hands and knees, playing peekaboo with her 10-month-old daughter, Gabriella. The baby's big blue eyes dance with delight. Like many children her age, Gabriella is in day care. Unlike most children her age, though, Gabriella is in prison. She and her mother are participating in the Bedford Hills (N.Y.) Correctional Facility's nursery program, one of only nine programs in the country that allow incarcerated women to keep their babies with them after they give birth.

Nationwide, nearly 2 million children have parents in prison. The number of those with incarcerated mothers, in particular, is growing exponentially: A recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the number of minors with mothers in prison increased by more than 100 percent in the last 15 years.

"These children are sort of victims by default," says Paige Ransford, research assistant at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston, and coauthor of the recent report "Parenting from Prison." Most of the children go live with grandparents or other relatives; one in 10 is placed in foster care. About half are separated from their siblings. These children are prone to a whole host of social developmental difficulties, and are more likely than their peers to be in trouble with the law later in life.

In the case of women who enter the system as mothers-to-be, the usual excitement of pregnancy is replaced with a sense of dread. The choices that, on the outside, are understood to be a woman's right-such as where and how to give birth, and whether or not to breastfeed-are transferred from the woman to bureaucrats and officers at the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

Of the 115,308 women incarcerated in the U.S. as of 2007, some 4,000 women-4 percent of women in state custody and 3 percent in federal- were pregnant when they entered prison. In the vast majority of cases, babies are removed from their mothers immediately after birth and placed with relatives or in foster care. However, a small but growing number of states are recognizing that the mother-child bond formed in the first few months of life is crucial to the child's development, and that the bond need not be broken.

"We're definitely seeing more states grapple with what it means to send women to prison, some of whom are pregnant," says Sarah From, director of public policy and communications for the Women's Prison Association (WPA) and coauthor of the agency's forthcoming report on prison nurseries. Eight states now have some sort of program to house female offenders together with their newborns, the newest being Indiana. The West Virginia legislature recently passed a bill establishing a program in its correctional facility for women, which is slated to open in 2009.


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babys playing togetherThese programs vary widely in the length of time babies are allowed to stay with their incarcerated mothers and in the services provided while they're in prison with them. South Dakota's program allows babies to stay for just 30 days-with the mother in her regular cell-while Washington state allows children to stay for up to three years with their mothers in a separate wing of the prison. The Washington facility offers a federal Early Head Start program for prenatal health and infant-toddler development, and partners with the nonprofit Prison Doula Project to provide doula services to the women during and after pregnancies.

Originally started way back in 1901 when the prison was a state reformatory, the Bedford Hills Program is the oldest and largest in the country, with its own nursery wing and space for up to 29 mother-baby pairs. Women live with their babies in bright rooms stuffed with donated toys and clothes. During the day, while the women attend DOC-mandated drug counseling, anger management, vocational training and parenting classes, their children attend a day care staffed by inmates who have graduated from an intensive two-year Early Childhood Associate vocational training program.

Although the idea of babies living the first months of their lives behind bars is sad to contemplate, many experts say that the alternative-separating them from their mothers-is far worse. "If a woman is serving a short sentence and can look forward to a life with her much research addresses the importance of that early bonding relationship," says Sylvia Mignon, associate professor and director of the graduate program in human services at UMass Boston and coauthor, with Ransford, of the "Parenting from Prison" report. "The reality is, an infant does not know that she is in prison. All she knows is that she's getting the warmth and love and attention of this wonderful being called mom." Among women serving sentences of more than a decade, however, there is no clear consensus on what's best for the child; the Bedford Hills program generally only accepts women serving sentences of five years or less. "We don't want to create a bond that's guaranteed to be broken," says the children's center program director, Bobby Blanchard.

Unlike in the general prison population, doors in the program are never locked; inmates must be able to come and go freely in order to warm bottles, do laundry and comfort crying children out of the earshot of other sleeping babies. Rooms are decorated with photographs and handmade posters that say things like, "Loving yourself is something to be proud of!" Danielizz Negron, 23, rocks her 4-month-old son, Jeremiah, while he naps in a stroller. She was six months pregnant when, after a year of fighting burglary charges, she accepted a plea deal and turned herself in. "If I had not known about this program, I would not have came in. I would've been in Mexico somewhere by now," she says, only half-joking.

As the number of prison nurseries continues to grow, some caution against becoming overly sanguine. Prison nurseries are wonderful programs, says the WPA's Sarah From, however "we shouldn't be looking to build more prison nurseries, but rather work in the community to put less women in prison."

--Beth Schwartzapfel

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