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  • Despite the colorful walls and baby toys in these nurseries, the mothers and their babies are still in prison, and conditions are stressful. Tweet This
  • There are currently eight states with prison-nursery programs, some of which allow children to live with their mothers up to the age of three. Tweet This

Editor's Note: The following essay is a condensed version of a longer essay that appeared first in National Affairs.

Last year, A&E ran a reality program called "Born Behind Bars," which provides a glimpse into life inside a prison nursery. During one episode, a young mother looks at her infant son and says, "You're incarcerated with me and [you] didn't do anything." Then she looks up at another mother, also raising her baby in the nursery at Indiana's maximum-security prison, and says, "It makes you feel guilty. Pregnancy and prison are the two worst things in life together." Not that they're both bad, she explains, just a bad combination, adding, "Pregnancy is supposed to be happy and prison is like the closest thing to dying."

As heartbreaking as her analysis is, her understanding is also a much more realistic take on what it means to raise a child in prison than many advocates of prison nurseries seem willing to acknowledge.

Fewer than a dozen states have such programs, but because of the growth in the number of women in prison, there is increasing pressure to expand them. It is worth examining these programs more closely—not only because we do not fully understand the impact of such environments on children, but also as part of a larger effort to weigh the effects of incarceration on families and the effect that contact with imprisoned parents has on young children.

The oldest prison nursery in the nation was started at Bedford Hills, New York, in 1901 and has been in continuous operation since. There were others in the first half of the 20th century, but their popularity waned in the 1970s as people began to realize that this might not be an acceptable environment in which to raise children. There are currently eight states with prison-nursery programs, some of which allow children to live with their mothers up to the age of three. Most ban prisoners who have committed violent crimes from the program, although there are a few exceptions.

Proponents of such programs point to studies that suggest they produce lower recidivism rates for the mothers who participate. In Nebraska , for instance, of the 30 women who gave birth in prison in the five years before the implementation of the nursery program, 33% reoffended. For a similar period of time after the program was implemented, among 44 women who participated, there was only a 9% recidivism rate, and another two individuals returned to prison for parole violations.

There are problems with this study and others—including selection bias and a lack of information about what happened to a number of the initial participants. But even if these programs produced good results for mothers, their effect on children is much more questionable. A study by Liza Catan, which was released in 1992, found that infants in the prison nursery showed a strong attachment to their mothers, but experienced short-term detriments to development if they were there for four months or more. Another study by Nancy Busch-Rossnagel found that only about half of the infants were securely attached and that 33% were below the mean in overall development. An British study from the 1980s found that all infants in the nursery experienced "progressive developmental decline in motor and cognitive scores."

Despite the colorful walls and baby toys in these nurseries, the mothers and their babies are still in prison, and conditions are stressful. Outwardly it seems like the prison-nursery unit is calm and stable, but one always has the sense of tension bubbling just beneath the surface. The inmates' rooms are regularly searched. Guards listen to their conversations and watch their every interaction. Given what we know about the ways that even small children can sense and internalize the fear and stress experienced by the adults around them, this alone should raise serious concerns about prison nurseries.

In addition, the relationships among the inmates can be fraught. The women in these environments are often involved in turf battles of one sort or another. And sometimes the mothers become involved in sexual relationships with one another, despite it being prohibited. A 2001 study of Nebraska's prison-nursery program found that, of the 44 babies who were in the program, seven of their mothers were "involuntarily removed," and "the main reason was fighting with another inmate."

Even if some kind of secure attachment may occur in a prison-nursery environment, it is important to remember that no sooner do these babies and mothers bond than something might separate them completely, and for a long period of time. Whether because of a disciplinary action against a mother that might result in her removal from the program, a health problem for a baby, or simply the fact that a mother’s sentence is longer than the baby is allowed to stay, the traumatic effects on the child of being removed from the single person he or she has formed an attachment with can be devastating.

It's also true that even if a prison nursery tries to ensure that the end of a mother's sentence coincides with the point at which her baby ages out of the program, mothers can have their sentences lengthened for violating prison rules. This kind of bonding followed by extreme and sudden separation seems to be one of the worst imaginable outcomes for a child. Keep in mind that while they are in the prison nursery, they have almost no contact with any other adult like a father or grandmother—the people who are most likely to take them if they are forced to leave.

The other question, especially as children get older in these programs behind bars, is how their earliest memories will shape their future. Children as old as three may easily have memories of being in prison, or they will grow up hearing from others that they spent their first years of life incarcerated. This has the effect both of normalizing prison as well as presumably bringing them a kind of shame that is unnecessary and difficult to escape.

It is tempting to conclude that there is nothing worse than separating a child from his or her mother. But prison nurseries may be the exception.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.