A cradle behind bars: the controversy of letting incarcerated mothers keep their newborns while in prison

a few women in New York prisons and jails keep their babies with them for their first few months of their lives.

While carceral nurseries are a justifiably contentious topic, nursery inside Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women, in Bedford Hills, New York is notably respected by its community.

“[Prisons are] not places built for anyone, but especially not for children,” Dr. Lorie Goshin, an expert in nursing and associate professor at Hunter College, said of the few nursery programs inside women’s prisons. “But local advocates want it to stay open. There are no other structures to keep women and children together in the context of mass incarceration,” Dr. Goshin said, highlighting the fundamental controversy at the center of the discussion surrounding carceral nurseries.

The criminal justice system is not kind to many, much less pregnant women. Most who give birth while incarcerated are separated immediately from their newborns. But in select prisons across the country, a few women can participate in a program where their newborn lives with them for the first few months of their life.

These nurseries are part of a larger discussion about incarcerated women and more specifically, incarcerated mothers. The national number of women in prisons and jails is now seven times higher than in 1980 and the number of women incarcerated in jail rose over the past couple of years. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, over 60% of women in state prisons and 80% in jails have children under 18 and most of these incarcerated women are single mothers.

With so many of these women being unsupported mothers, the question of what happens to their children is a constant question to these mothers and those advocating for them. With no end in sight for mass incarceration and its pervasive effects, many are just trying to do damage control for women and children affected by the criminal justice system in 2021. Advocates often look at these nurseries as a necessary band aid.

For most, carceral nurseries are not an option. Though many countries throughout the world utilize nurseries in their prisons, they are a fairly rare occurrence in the United States. As of right now, the only states with prison nurseries are New York, Delaware, West Virginia, Indiana, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and California.

Because they are so uncommon, many are unaware of these nurseries’ existence and there is currently no widespread movement in favor or against them. But in New York, those fighting for women in criminal justice are acutely aware of the one at Bedford Hills.

New York has the oldest and most established prison nursery in the country at Bedford Hills. It is enshrined in state law in section 611, the same law that prohibits the use of shackles on incarcerated women giving birth.

According to the New York Department of Corrections, there were four mothers currently at the facility in August, and it can house up to 27 women and their babies at a time. It is run by an outside organization called Hour Children. The maximum-security prison has a $510,000 contract with the organization. A correction officer is on site 24-hours, seven days a week and Hour Children has volunteers that work at the prison during the week. Medical personnel and other officers check in on the mothers and babies regularly.

“The benefit of the nursery,” the NY DOC wrote in an email, “is to provide the nursery mother the opportunity to learn the skill[s] necessary to become a good parent in an environment that frees them from the daily struggles that they face in the community.”

“[It] allows mothers to bond, and care for their children while still serving their state prison sentence and participating in their regular mandatory correctional programming.”

These benefits are not unfounded. Goshin has worked on multiple studies concerning the effects of prison nurseries, including one that tracked children born in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility until five years old.

The data was clear: “Children are able to develop strong attachment styles in prison nurseries which is usually not the case in mothers who have a history of insecure attachments [like many of the women in nursery],” Goshin said. Insecure attachment classifies all nonsecure attachment styles and is typically categorized by feelings of anxiety or fear in relationships; this is usually influenced by parent-child relationships during youth. She and fellow researchers found that kids in prison nurseries had stronger attachments than ones separated from their mother in prison.

She believes that the Bedford Hills nursery is a place with the best interests of the women and their children in mind, especially with the guidance and oversight from Hour Children. But that still doesn’t make it a place for babies.

“These women and children are kept under constant supervision. But toddlers want to roam around, be curious, and explore; prison is just not a place for that at all,” Goshin said.

Another issue for Goshin lies with the set of restrictions for women to be eligible for the prison nursery program. Participants must have a “nonviolent conviction, no history of child welfare, and must be on track to give birth in prison,” she said. This set of guidelines is standard for prisons across the country and when examining the women who are in these programs, Goshin begs the question, “why are these women even in prison?”

Potentially even more concerning is the idea of women in jail nurseries with their newborns. “They’re designed to be temporary,” Dr. Goshin said, emphasizing why jails should not house children.

Nevertheless, multiple jail nursery programs do exist in New York. Aside from one on Rikers Island, there is one in operation at Yaphank jail in Suffolk County, Long Island. Advocates for New Hour, a group on Long Island that works under the larger group of Hour Children, are actually looking to expand this to the neighboring, much larger Nassau County, which bans carceral nurseries.

The jail nursery is not as structured as the Bedford Hills one and the requirements are up to the local sheriff, according to Serena Liguori, the executive director for New Hour.

“Most of the people who run the jails, and oversee the courts, are men and they often don’t understand or consider what is best for the mothers and their children,” Liguori said, which makes New Hour’s work all the more important.

New Hour provides “weekly nursery programs, parenting advice, wellness services, and check-ins with the mothers and children.”

“We want to continue to be a resource for these women and create support systems for them, which will help their children, as well,” Liguori said.

Still, Liguori wishes these nurseries didn’t have to exist at all. Like Goshin, Liguori expressed her frustration at the fact that these women are in jail at all. “Having mothers and their babies behind bars is really barbaric,” she said. “Ultimately we want these women to be in alternative to incarceration programs.”

That seems to be the goal for incarcerated women’s advocates throughout New York. Kristin Edward, a social worker and director of the Women’s Community Justice Project (WCJP), also expressed her dislike of jail nurseries: “If we ever find out there’s a woman there who’s pregnant, we try to get them out as soon as possible,” she said. However, most of her work focuses on serving women, often mothers, under threat of incarceration at Rikers. 

WCJP is a consortium of organizations that includes Housing Plus— where Edwards works, Providence House, Greenhope, and Hour Children. Across these groups they provide 59 total units of supportive housing for women impacted by incarceration. Ten of them are specifically for women and their families.

WCJP is only four years old and they rely on funding from the New York City mayor’s office of criminal justice. “It was very clear that most of the women we were serving at WCJP were mothers, and one of the main areas that they wanted to focus on was reunifying with their families and children,” Edward said. The spaces WCJP provides have been “really successful” in that area,” she added.

Edwards and her consortium are connected to the close Rikers efforts. “Our hope is that we can, you know, continue to build out this program and successfully house and assist as many women as possible so that they can close [the Rosie M. Singer Women’s Center at Rikers Island] way sooner than they plan on closing the other facilities,” she said. In the meantime, WCJP offers diverse resources to support these women. “Hopefully we can lessen the chance that they would end up back in the system again,” Edwards said. 

The efforts to close Rosie’s and ultimately Rikers itself offer hope that alternatives to incarceration will be relied on more, especially for pregnant women and new mothers entering prison or jail. Goshin also believes there is hope for a larger shift toward incarceration alternatives: “Even in conservative states, there has been a focus on incarceration reduction, for financial reasons, at least,” she said, echoing a hope that one day their will not even be the issue of newborn’s mothers being incarcerated.

COVID-19 resources: State policy changesNewsBureau of Prisons updatesState court changesPrison holistic self care and protectionJailhouse Lawyers Handbook.

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A guest post by
Abby Ilfeld attends Columbia University and Trinity College Dublin, where she majors in Political Science and European Studies. Abby has worked for the Block Island Times, the CharlotteFive magazine, and is excited to intern for The Des.