Growing up Incarcerated

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By Nikki A. Sambitsky

I walk into the nursery and see several women sitting on the toy-strewn carpet playing with toddlers in a room that could be easily mistaken for any other daycare facility. Sleeping babies rock peacefully in their swings as mothers relax into the warmth of the swaddled infants in their arms. Rocking chairs, toys, and a designated nap area decorate the colorful flooring.

Though it may look like most other daycares, this room differs because it is located within the walls of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford, New York. The babies, along with their incarcerated mothers and caregivers, reside here in the women’s prison that operates the longest running prison nursery in the country. Since 1901, pregnant women incarcerated for minor crimes at Bedford Hills have been allowed to give birth to and stay with their babies for a mandated period of time in hopes that permitting mother and child to establish a bond immediately will benefit both parties. Unfortunately, this facility is now one of few remaining in the United States.

According to the Indiana Law Journal, prison nursery systems, which were once fully operational in a majority of states across the nation, were closed down with the advent of the women’s rights movement in the 1960s. Because the women’s liberation movement emphasized equal treatment for men and women, only a handful of prison nurseries ranging from California to West Virginia survived. The nursery system in York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut, the state’s only women’s prison, closed down in the 1950s.

Today, touring the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in a small group of educators, policymakers, and students, I begin to understand the importance of a nursery within a prison facility. As I contemplate the history and success of the Bedford Hills program, I think about my own children of whom I have only been apart nine hours and can hardly imagine the heartache a new mother must feel to give up her newborn and return to prison alone.

More states are now reexamining the decision to reintroduce prison nursery systems due to the rising number of incarcerated women (which increased from 15,118 to 112,797 between 1980 and 2010) and growing concern for the psychological health and welfare of both women and their babies. Plans to revitalize prison nurseries are unsurprising; a 2011 report by The University of Alaska Anchorage states that due to the structure of the Bedford Hills Prison Nursery Program, only 10 percent of formerly incarcerated women returned to the prison system over a three-year period. Multiple studies from research groups like The National Women’s Law Center and Columbia University School of Nursing have demonstrated that establishing a bond between infants and mothers plays a crucial role in emotional and physical development. For most mothers, that bond is strengthened in the home environment. For incarcerated women in facilities without nursery programs, this basic need to bond goes unfulfilled when they are separated from their newborns just 48 hours postpartum.

In addition to the negative effects of the initial separation, those same studies show that long-term separation not only takes an emotional toll on mothers but also causes babies to suffer from low self-esteem and developmental delays such as emotional and learning difficulties later on. Infants who have strong attachments to their mothers and receive a high quality of care grow up to exhibit increased self-confidence, curiosity, self-control, feelings of security, and positive interactions with their peers.

Though some people may have initial reservations at the thought of a child living in a prison facility, the harsh reality of Bedford Hills is hidden by colorful sea creatures and smiling farm animals painted on the corridor walls, softening the sight of metal bar doors. The security staff is welcoming and relaxed. The nursery, separated into two sections, houses infants 0-3 months in one wing and 4-18 months in the other. Each mother and infant resides in a small private room adorned with only the bare essentials: a bed, crib, and solitary storage unit. Both mother and baby also have access to a community area where they can socialize with other incarcerated mothers and their babies.

According to personnel at Bedford who work with incarcerated mothers and their children, infants thrive in the prison nursery system because they enjoy a steady routine and constant access to their mothers and other caretakers. Staff reports that Bedford babies begin walking at nine months – an entire two months sooner than babies living outside of the prison system – suggesting babies reap life-long benefits due to the many doting caretakers.

The program is limited to 27 mothers and babies due to space constraints and finite state funding through Catholic charities, and incarcerated women who have committed arson, committed crimes against children, or whose state of mental health poses a threat to the child are excluded from the program. All other issues are negotiable relative to the best interest of the child. Women must pass an eight-week parenting class, literary classes, orientation, and transitional services for reentry into society before gaining access into the program. Under New York State law, pregnant women may keep their babies with them in prison for a maximum of 18 months. I enter yet another wing of Bedford and find strollers of all colors, shapes, and sizes lining the wall under a sign that says “Stroller Parking.” Despite the fact that the nursery is located inside a prison, mothers are encouraged to hold jobs while their infants are in daycare. The overall design of the program simulates the experiences of a working mother in her community.

Nursery managers supervise both the program and dedicated daycare, which utilizes approximately 20 caregivers from the general population of the prison. Those women have the option to earn an Associate of Arts Degree in Child Development while working in the daycare. Mothers and caregivers have access to child development experts, a pediatrician, nurse, and case manager. In New York, Medicaid and WIC and other state funds cover costs and medical care for the infant.

According to Jane Silfen, director of the program, officials from Kansas, Maryland, and Connecticut visited the facility in hopes of using Bedford as a model for constructing similar prison nursery systems in their designated states. However, just as raising a child on the outside is not without its costs, lawmakers are communicating their concerns regarding the price tag. Two years ago, the Connecticut Department of Corrections (DOC) proposed to remodel the Gates Correctional Institution in Niantic as a prison nursery system for approximately 7.2 million dollars. This and various other proposals to build prison nurseries in Connecticut have not been approved for this legislative session.

As I walk out of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility on an afternoon last June, a warm breeze and the early summer sun greet me, and I am grateful to return home to my family. After touring the facility, I see things as they are from the inside out instead of the distant view of someone from the outside. I am hopeful that one day soon, incarcerated women in Connecticut will be afforded the same privileges as those women and their children residing in Bedford.

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