Raising babies behind bars

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A bold experiment in parenting and punishment is allowing children in prison. But is that a good thing?

The number of women behind bars increased more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2016, from roughly 26,000 to nearly 214,000, according to the Sentencing Project. The growth outpaced the increase in male incarceration by roughly 50 percent.

The latest statistics on parents in prison are from 2007, but the Justice Department reported a 122 percent increase in mothers in state and federal prison between 1991 and that year. Nearly 1.7 million children had a parent behind bars.

A number of states have done away with the common practice of shackling pregnant women during childbirth, while others have moved to require prisons to have medical plans, proper nutrition and other basics available for pregnant women. Prison nurseries are one of the most progressive approaches.

More than 90 women have gone through the Moms and Babies program in 11 years, and only two have returned to prison within three years of release, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Only two women have been removed from the program.

There are counselors and a child aide to help the mothers, and other inmates at the facility serve as day-care workers so the women can attend classes to get GEDs, improve life skills, and receive drug and alcohol counseling.

Research on prison nursery programs is limited, but some studies show similar promise. One found that a group of preschool-age children who were raised in prison nurseries were less anxious and depressed than a control group of children who were separated from their incarcerated mothers in the early years. Another concluded the recidivism rate of mothers who participated in prison nursery programs was only 4 percent.

But not everyone is on board.

Some advocates for female prisoners argue mothers with low-level offenses should be allowed to raise their children in less restrictive settings.

On the other side, James Dwyer, a professor of law at William & Mary who focuses on children and family issues, said many of the mothers are not good long-term prospects as parents, that prisons are dangerous and unstimulating for children, and that it may even be unconstitutional to place a child in prison when no crime has been committed. “There is no involvement of child protective services or juvenile court,” Dwyer said. “You just have prison wardens or their delegates deciding that a kid should enter into a prison without making any best-interest determination.”

From the Washington Post.

Read the full article here.

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