Conn. official wants prison nursery for new moms

By Pat Eaton-robb

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 7 2012 10:35 a.m. MDT

Victoria Steele, 45, poses for a photo in West Hartford, Conn., on Friday, April 6, 2012. Steele, who was forced to give up her newborn at 18, when she was sent to prison, supports legislation to study putting a nursery at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic. Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone supports legislation to study the feasibility of building a nursery at the York Correctional Institution.

Pat Eaton-Robb, Associated Press

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Victoria Steele saw her daughter on the day she was born, and was not allowed to see her again for five years.

Steele, just 18 at the time, was wanted for violating the terms of her supervised home release on a robbery charge. She was sent to the York Correctional Institution directly from the hospital. The state placed the baby with her paternal grandparents, who spoke only Spanish and never brought the child to visit in prison.

"I was so depressed," said Steele, now 45, of West Hartford. "I was emotionally, mentally, and physically lost. I had no I idea how to connect. It was like losing my child. I lost her. There were no support services in prison."

Soon, though, there may be a nursery. Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone wants to study whether newborns could be allowed to live behind bars with their incarcerated mothers.

The legislature's Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would have the Correction Department study similar programs in other states and issues, determine how long an infant should be allowed to stay in the nursery, and recommend who might qualify for the program.

In the past year, 16 babies were born to women in the custody of the state. York, the only prison in the state for women, has just over 1,000 inmates. Under Connecticut's current policy, the mothers are allowed to stay with their newborns only while in the hospital. After that, and usually within 48 hours of giving birth, the parent returns to prison, and the child is placed with a relative or in foster care.

"And visitation is not child friendly," said Aileen Keays, who runs the Children of Incarcerated Parents project at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, which is housed at Central Connecticut State University.

She pointed to a new state rule that requires any prison visitors under 16 to have two forms of identification.

"When you are a newborn, you tend not to have two forms of ID right away," she said.

Connecticut once allowed imprisoned women to keep their babies with them behind bars for several months. That ended in the 1960s amid cost and liability issues.

But Arnone said he believes it's time to revisit the issue. He said studies have shown that familial ties are a big factor in determining whether a prisoner will successfully re-enter society, and in breaking the cycle of crime.

"It is widely known that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school and eventually be incarcerated themselves," he said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. "If we can provide programming that teaches parenting skills and help women to better bond with their children, then there is a chance that we can help to reverse the trend of children of incarcerated parents ending up also being incarcerated."

Steele, who has been in and out of drug and legal trouble as an adult, is working toward a college degree and has started a career in peer drug counseling.

She said she believes her life would have taken a much different course had she been allowed to keep her baby.

"It would have been a whole change," she said. "I would have done things so different because my life would have been about me and her. Those moments are critical, not only for the child, but the mother too. Because when you're in a situation like that, you feel that all hope is gone. Hope was just gone."

About 4 percent of women in prison in the United States are pregnant, according to federal statistics. Nine states have prison nursery programs, though they vary widely. Some allow mothers to keep their babies with them behind bars for just a few months, others, such as Washington, allow children to live in the prison for up to three years.

Most states require offer prison nursery programs only to nonviolent offenders and those with relatively short sentences.

"Ideally, it would be great if they could remain with the parent until the parent is released," said Keays. "It supports brain development in the infant, and attachment, which is really a key to preventing lifelong problems for the child."

The programs also often include a support network and parenting classes for the mother.

"That is the point of the study," said state Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, who co-sponsored the legislation. "We want to find out what works. But if all things being equal the child would be safe and the mother is competent to care for the child, it seems that this has the potential for positive social outcomes for both mother and child."

Steele never regained custody of her daughter. When they first reconnected, Steele spoke only English and the child spoke Spanish. They consider each other friends, but will never have a true mother-daughter relationship, Steele said.

"The chance for that is gone forever," she said. "I have a lot of guilt about that. She has a lot of abandonment issues."

The bill passed out of the legislature's Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support and is not expected to meet with much opposition on the House and Senate floors, where votes have not yet been scheduled.

The study would be completed by next January. Once the department has the results, it could build a nursery without any further legislative action, Wright said.

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