A group of mothers in prison with their infant children.
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Babies Behind Bars: The Positive Results of Prison Nurseries

Due to prison populations of women increasing, programs are starting to be created for mothers and their babies. Prisons with nurseries are one solution.

Raising a child is one of the most rewarding yet challenging things a person can experience. It becomes even more of a challenge doing it alone…while in prison.

That is exactly the story of LaTonya Jackson.

An incarcerated mother watching over her daughter, lying down as they bond together.
Incarcerated mother LaTonya Jackson watching over her daughter Olivia as they spend some quality time together.
Image Source: The Washington Post

Latonya Jackson: ‘Moms and Babies’ Program Allows Parenting Behind Bars

LaTonya Jackson had been stealing from malls since she was 15. She would steal clothes to try and make money, to raise her children.

Predictably, all the stealing caught up with her and she ended up in prison. Prison is hard enough. For her, it was even more difficult because she was imprisoned while pregnant.

“I just prayed, like, if I could just make it to 37 weeks, just 37 weeks,” LaTonya says.

At exactly 37 weeks, her baby Olivia was born at 5 pounds and 8 ounces.

When a baby is born to a mother who is incarcerated, the child is usually given to a family member or friend to care for the child. If no one is available, the child is transferred to the Office of Children’s Services.

Thanks to the Decatur Correctional Center’s Moms and Babies program, LaTonya was blessed with the opportunity to take care of her child while imprisoned.

Moms and Babies in Prison with No Bars

Established in 2007, the Moms and Babies program allows pregnant inmates to raise their children in prison nurseries after they’re born. That is, as long as the inmates meet certain requirements.

The Decatur Correctional Center (DCC) was previously a mental health institution. It was transformed into a daycare to house the inmates and their children. There are a jungle gym and a church. Along the walls hang portraits of the children’s artwork. Mom and baby have a cell fashioned with changing tables and a crib.

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There are no bars at this facility and inmates are not handcuffed. It may cause distress for the children.

Still, security remains a priority. The prison does not house sex offenders.

Cameras are placed above each crib. When a child is taken outside of the nursery area, all inmates are ordered to stop moving and remain as they are.

The program currently consists of six mothers and six babies.

Can all pregnant inmates be a part of the program? No.

To be a part of the program, the offender must not have any violent crimes on record and be within 2 years of release.

A group of mothers in prison with their infant children.
Prison mother LaTonya Jackson holding her daughter, Olivia (middle) amongst fellow mothers and their children. Image Source: Washington Post

Moms and Babies Program Benefits

On the premises, there are counselors and a child aide to assist the mothers. Other qualified inmates serve as daycare workers. All the help gives inmates opportunities:

  • Attend classes to improve their life skills
  • Get their GEDs
  • Receive drug and alcohol counseling

One of the mothers in the program, Destiny Doud, is taking advantage of the resources available to her. She had been arrested for meth trafficking. She is taking every class available to her and remaining sober.

On Monday morning, all the women gathered to read to their children. With the help of a volunteer, each mother took turns reading to their baby.

LaTonya Jackson read to little 5-month Olivia. She was dressed as Minnie Mouse with a black bow on her hair.

The warden at Decatur, Shelith Hansbro, said the program starts with the very basics, such as reading books to the children.

Nationwide Approach

Located in central Illinois, the DCC program is one of several prison nursery programs currently employed in various parts of the country.

The nation is facing a rapid increase of women in prison, including many mothers. A 2007 study, compiled by the Justice Department, reported a 122 percent increase of imprisoned mothers from 1991 to 2007. This is at the state and federal levels.

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Also noted, 1.7 million children had a parent behind bars!

Eight different states have established prison nursery programs. There are no federal programs in place.

The goal is for the mothers to form a bond with their children. This improves the chances for the baby to have a healthy childhood. The mother-child bond developing will motivate the mother to improve her life and not end up behind bars again.

An incarcerated mother playing with her baby son, who is handing her a toy.
Candida Suarez (right) bonding with her son Ezra (left) during her incarceration.
Image Source: The News Tribune

Babies Need to Bond with Mothers in Prisons

Some, however, don’t share such an optimistic point of view.

James Dwyer, a professor of law at William and Mary, believes many of the incarcerated mothers won’t make good parents. Prisons are dangerous environments for children and placing a child there may, in fact, be unconstitutional.

Dona Zavislan is superintendent of the Washington Corrections Center. They also have their own prison nursery. Zavislan does not share the opinion of Dwyer.

“These babies are really happy. They are with their moms. They’re not at the age where they have any idea what razor wire is or what anything like that is. I think it is a great place for them to get a start, given some of the alternatives,” Zavislan says.

Michele Thrush, a counselor for the Washington program, adds a more powerful statement:

“When we take their babies away from them — and I’ve heard this over and over — they say, ‘I just give up. They have that mentality where, ‘I’ve lost my child, so I’m a loser, I’m no good, I’m a terrible parent — so I might as well make that come true.’”

However when they remain in the program:

“I see they have hope.”

Is Mothering Behind Bars Working?

Research on prison nurseries is somewhat limited. But positive results have been observed.

One study found, a group of preschool-age children who were cared by their mothers in prison nurseries, were less affected by depression and anxiety than another group of kids of the same age that were separated from their incarcerated mothers.

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Of the 90 women who have participated in the “Moms and Babies” program since its inception, only two have returned to prison within three years of their release.

The Ohio Reformatory for Women shows the recidivism rate for prison nurseries is as low as 3 percent. It is 33 percent in the rest of the state’s prisons.

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Benefits for Moms Parenting Babies in Prisons

Candida Suarez is part of the Residential Parenting program in Washington. The program has helped her after she was arrested for drug possession. Now, she plans to go to a trade school and become an X-ray technician or a dental hygienist.

” I just think I’ve come a long way, mentally and emotionally. I feel like I’m a whole new person today than I was a year ago when I got here,” Suarez says.

LaTonya Jackson feels just as grateful for the opportunity she was given.

She candidly says:

“I’m just blessed to be here because I get to stay here with my baby and raise her better and become a better mom to my other children and better myself.”

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Jorge Flores is a part-time writer with a wide array of interests ranging from physics to football and of course, prison news. His near unboundless curiosity and his love for people are two qualities you can see in his writing. Jorge currently writes news reports for prison loved ones on Prison Rideshare Network. When not writing, he loves to play football and read.