More than 10,000 American children are born in prison every year. And in most cases, the incarcerated mothers have to hand those children over to friends, family members or the foster-care system, according to The Atlantic. Sometimes these mothers, even when they have short prison sentences, don’t get to see their child again because their child is lost in foster-care.
But in recent years, some prisons have created day care and nursery programs to give newborns a better shot at life and help mothers stay out of prison, according to The Atlantic.
Right now, eight states — soon to be nine — as Wyoming just finished building a nursery and will join Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Washington and West Virginia — allow mothers to rear their child in a separate housing facility at the prison for one month, three years or, as is the case in most of these programs, 18 months, The Atlantic reported.
According to The Atlantic, the nurseries are a little more homey than normal prisons cells. For example, the nurseries at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York City have a dining room, a kitchen, a private yard and even a recreation room for parents and their children.
Some don’t support these nurseries since it keeps inmates in isolation from others and forces parents to rear their children on their own, The Atlantic reported. But others advocate for more prisons to add these nurseries because they lower the recidivism rates, as was the case at Bedford Hills, according to The Atlantic.
“The program seems to be working: Research has suggested that women who participate in the nursery at Bedford Hills are significantly less likely to return to prison than inmates in the general population,” Sarah Yager reported for The Atlantic.
But in many ways, these nurseries are meant to help babies find a better life, according to The Atlantic.
A 2015 study from researchers at Columbia University’s School of Nursing found children who spent one to 18 months in a nursery program were less likely to be depressed, anxious or exhibit withdrawn behavior than those who didn’t live with their incarcerated mothers after birth, Pacific Standard reported. In fact, the study said the nurseries kept children from certain environmental factors children with incarcerated mothers often face.
“In the absence of community with both prevention and intervention services and with high rates of maternal incarceration,” Dr. Mary Byrne, the lead author of the study, told Pacific Standard in an email, “prison nursery programs provide a partial but effective way to enhance family strengthening, child health, and adult re-entry success.”
Prison-based nurseries also allow children and their mothers to have skin-to-skin contact, which research has said can make children form a stronger bond with their mother, as I wrote about back in March. The practice — known to many as kangaroo care — can especially help premature babies, who are less likely to suffer fevers and are more likely to eat when they have skin-to-skin contact with their mothers.
These nurseries also give babies a chance to receive the benefits of breastfeeding, according to The Guardian. Babies born in prison who are handed off to friends, family or foster-care systems often miss out on their biological mother’s breastmilk, which shields them from receiving some of the benefits breastmilk brings, like “crucial antibodies, reducing the risk of respiratory illness, diarrhea, allergies and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome,” The Guardian reported.
This is good news considering children who are raised in families where one of their parents is incarcerated often suffer worse health effects than children of divorce, Lois Collins of Deseret News National reported in 2014.
Collins reported on a University of California, Irvine study that found children who have parents in jail can have “higher rates of asthma, obesity, attention deficit/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and anxiety. It was also related to learning disabilities, developmental delays, and speech or language problems,” Collins reported.
Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret News National. Send him an email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @herbscribner.