Providing Prenatal Care and Nursery Programs to Incarcerated Mothers

[February 2019] Claire Anderson and Maeve Sheridan from GCC 3018 work to raise awareness of the benefits of implementing nursery programs in prisons.

Your project was about nurseries in prison. Can you elaborate on the current issue and what your project was trying to tackle?

Claire: When women are pregnant when they’re put in the prison system, they are often given very little prenatal care. They are given little option as to who the baby is going to stay with after it’s born. And oftentimes women are given, at most, a few hours with their baby after they’re born before it’s taken from them. We learned about attachment theory in class, which is the attachment you have with a parent or another figure. A parental figure when you’re young has a lot of influence on the outcomes later in life. Babies who are born to incarcerated mothers don’t have the opportunity to form that bond, because if they’re given to a family member outside the prison they often change hands of caretakers multiple times within the first year. The baby might even go to the foster system. This is why Maeve and I looked into prison nurseries. There are currently only ten states in the US that have prison nursery systems, and even those states don't have nurseries state-wide. Many of those states just happen to have one prison nursery.

In a prison nursery program, a baby is able to stay in a separate wing with their mother, away from the other inmates, for a period of 12-24 months. This is where the mother and child are able to form that initial attachment that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. One of the major criticisms people hear about these programs is that they are "dangerous," but that is not true; there’s increased security, increased staffing, and social workers present 24/7.

How did you choose that topic?

Claire: The title of the class was, “What American Dream? Children of the Social Class Divide.” We looked into how we could prevent children of incarcerated mothers from going to prison once they grow up. We don’t have data yet on how prison nurseries effect incarceration rates for children who were born of an incarcerated mother, simply because the programs are so new. However, if you look at things like attachment theory, we figured if children of incarcerated mothers were able to form an attachment, it might counteract the effects of having an incarcerated parent so young.

How do you collect data for a project like this?

Claire: It would be an obviously long time period, because you’d have to find mothers who were pregnant and willing and eligible to go into a prison nursery system. If they were violent offenders, they often don’t have the ability to become a part of that prison nursery system. You would have to find those that are willing and able, and then you’d have to track the child as they grow up.  We talked to Rebecca Schlafer, who is a professor here and does work on the prison systems and on prison nurseries, but more so on the families of incarcerated individuals. She said it’s really hard to keep track of a child after they leave the prison nursery system. So that would be something to overcome. After that, seeing how the child is growing and developing would be the most straightforward way to do that research.

Why did you decide to take GCC 3018?

Claire: I have always been interested in issues of social justice, intersectionality, and class structure; the class divide was not something I was super knowledgeable on, so I knew this would be a good way to learn more about it. I was also really drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of the Grand Challenge course structure because, being a political science major, I’m kind of only with political science majors all the time. Also, I was looking for something that would fulfill an Honors credit that wasn’t just taking a normal class, like an Honors seminar or something. I’m taking one of those now and it’s fine, but the Grand Challenge course was something a little different that I could do and try to actually perhaps make a difference in something  or at least get started on an idea that could maybe formulated into a plan to make a difference. I thought that was interesting about it.

Has GCC influenced your academic or personal goals at all?

Claire: I wasn’t really interested in doing research before I took the class. Before I was wondered why would I do research in political science or social sciences and I just wasn’t sure what path that would take me to. But now that I’ve done research on a more social science topic, I see that there is a lot of research to be done, so that’s something that’s interesting to me now.

Do you have plans to continue pursuing this idea now that you’re not in GCC anymore?

Claire: Even though I’m not taking that continuation course, Maeve and I talked about bringing it to Acara. During the Classroom to Community event, we had three former GCC students who hadn’t taken the continuation course but had brought their project to the Acara program. We decided that even though I wasn’t taking that course, we would still probably be able to continue. We hadn’t brought it to them yet because we were trying to let the semester settle in and get kind of back on our feet with the new semester. But that is our plan to hopefully bring it to them and see what we can accomplish further on.

What are your goals going forward with it?

Claire: We looked into the Women’s Correctional Facility in Shakopee, which does have a prison doula program but not a prison nursery program. So, we looked into what it would take to implement a prison nursery program in Shakopee. However, that is a very lofty goal because there is so much that needs to be done before then. So a more realistic goal would be to perhaps raise awareness on the issue of prison nurseries and lobby the legislation to start writing legislative agendas that could support a budget increase for Shakopee. In order to implement a prison nursery, prisons would need a lot more money than they have currently, because it is expensive. That’s the one part that is kind of difficult about it.

Do you know about how much money Shakopee would have to raise to be able to implement that?

Claire: One of the things that’s super interesting about prison nursery programs is  that it has been shown to decrease recidivism rates, which is when people go back to prison after being released the first time. It’s cheaper to have a baby in a prison than it is to have a full grown inmate. By having a baby there for a year, it will be more expensive for that year, but it’s also taking into account that the mother, when she’s released, will have a connection with her child. Therefore, she’s less likely to return to prison, thus saving that amount of money per year if she doesn’t come back. So, since it’s more expensive to have her in the prison than to have a baby in the prison, it’s actually in the long run been shown to be cheaper to have prison nurseries than it is to not because then women simply continue recommitting crimes.

Is there anything people can be doing now to help, or resources you know of that they can look in to?

Claire: In terms of resources, that’s kind of tough because everything right now is kind of theoretical. If you live in an area where there is a prison nursery, prison nurseries often rely heavily on donations from the public to keep running with diapers and formula and baby food.  So that’s something that’s more kind of a one and done thing you can do if you live in an area where there is a prison nursery. But right now it would be emailing your state senators, your state representatives, working with local organizations if there are any, which we couldn’t find any locally.

The first prison nursery was in Bedford, New York, and that was formed in the early 1900s. It’s super old, but all the other ones are very new. There are organizations that work with those specific prison nurseries, where you can be trained and you can volunteer at a prison nursery if you have background clearance. You have to be trained by these organizations, so there might be something there but really right now it’s just lobbying for the budget to be increased and working with the state. Because Shakopee is owned by the state, it can be easier to lobby for change because it is run by the state. When you get private prisons it can be a little more difficult because they are for-profit and so something that isn’t directly bringing in profit isn’t really desirable for them. But it could be easier to do with a state-run prison. So, that’s kind of where we’re at right now.

Has your view of everyday life changed since taking this course and doing your project?

Claire: We talked a lot about intersectionality. Because of this course, I’ve become so aware of how hard it is to separate out issues from each other. We learned about the class structure of our country and about socioeconomic status, so I tried focusing on those things for our project; however, I kept running into the fact that this also has to do with your gender, your sexuality, where you live... It’s hard to separate issues from each other because everything is so interconnected.

What was your favorite aspect of your course?

Claire: My favorite part was just getting to know my classmates and their opinions on things, and hearing about things that other students were passionate about. Having these issues brought up that I never would have thought about. For example, other people did projects on school resources officers, class sizes in elementary schools, social capital, and more- because the class was so broad, everyone was able to find something they were passionate about.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

Claire: When I first told my roommate that I signed up for a Grand Challenge Course, she told me it was going to be so diffucult and asked why I would do that to myself. I think people should be open to taking them, especially if you find one you really care about. It is a lot of work but it doesn’t feel like a lot of work, because you’re doing something that you care about.