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Opinion: Babies born in prison should stay with their mom

This legislative session, Rep. Bruce DeGroot, Rep. Curtis Trent, and Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer have sponsored bills to establish a prison nursery program in Missouri. This program would allow pregnant women sentenced to prison for nonviolent crimes to live in a designated nursery unit and bond with their babies after birth. I support the foundation of a prison nursery program in Missouri.

Although I am a formerly incarcerated woman, my children and I are very fortunate in that we were not separated immediately after they were born. We were separated later, but not before we had a chance to bond. Generally, the critical period for an infant in creating a secure attachment with their mother is between 12-18 months. Infants who do not create a secure attachment with a caregiver during this period are at risk for developmental and behavioral problems.

Over the last few months, I’ve spoken with several women who gave birth at one of Missouri’s two prisons for women, the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center. In anticipation of Missouri’s Department of Corrections creating a prison nursery program, I asked them what it was like for them and their children to give birth under the current rules, where mothers and newborns are separated hours after birth. The baby is given to a family member or to the foster care system. The mother returns to the prison alone. Many women do not have a family member to care for the baby so their options are limited to the foster care system. These brave mothers shared their experiences with me and gave me approval to write about their stories in order to help legislators and voters understand this issue and why it’s important.

One mother gave birth and the baby’s father picked up the child immediately after. He sent pictures of the baby, periodically. She told me, “Yes, I had postpartum. I didn’t want to do anything.” Then the parole board denied release, knowing she just had a baby. Four months before her release, the baby’s father was arrested for leaving the child outside in very hot weather. The child was put into foster care. After being released, the mother had to go to court and complete classes. She earned custody of her child a year after her release. The mother and her child have remained together since they were reunited; however, if Missouri had had a prison nursery unit, they would not have needed to be separated. The mother and her child could have bonded during the crucial first 12-18 months of her child’s life, and a lot of their suffering could have been avoided.

Letting incarcerated mothers and their children bond is good for the mothers as well as the babies. Studies from prison nursery programs in Indiana, Nebraska, and New York show that women who participate in prison nursery programs have low rates of recidivism.

In conclusion, a prison nursery would be good for mothers and good for their babies. I write in the hope that the Missouri Legislature will pass the prison nursery bills sponsored by Rep. DeGroot, Rep. Trent, and Sen. Luetkemeyer.