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Opinion: Prison nurseries make sense

Imagine the horror of after 40 weeks of pregnancy giving birth to your child and having your baby ripped from your arms hours later. There is no breastfeeding, no bonding, and no physical contact between mother and child. Sometimes a mother will never see her child again.

Sadly, these heart-breaking scenarios occur to incarcerated women and their babies in Missouri. Newborns are routinely taken from mothers and often sent into the foster care system.  

Fortunately, there is a way to intervene immediately to help prevent the trauma experienced by incarcerated mothers and babies alike when separated at birth: Missouri can build a prison nursery like nine other states — including South Dakota, West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, and Nebraska — have done.

Prison nurseries are dedicated units within women’s prisons that allow women who give birth while incarcerated to care for their infant children and participate in programmings, such as evidence-based parenting classes and substance abuse treatment. Evidence suggests these nurseries benefit both infants and mothers. 

First, they help infants develop secure attachments to their mothers, minimizing the likelihood that infants develop more serious problems later in childhood. We know kids are most likely to thrive when they are safely able to remain with their birth mother. Infants who are separated from their mothers and moved among caretakers often develop an insecure attachment style, raising the odds of cognitive and behavioral delays during childhood. According to a research study of one New York prison nursery, the infants of mothers who received an educational intervention by a nurse practitioner were as likely to demonstrate secure attachment as not-at-risk infants in the outside community.

Second, research indicates that preschool-age children who lived in prison nurseries between the ages of 0-18 months are less likely than preschool-age children who have experienced separation from incarcerated mothers to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.

According to several studies, significant and lasting benefits also accrue to incarcerated mothers who are able to care for their infants in prison nurseries. For example, mothers participating in prison nurseries have low rates of recidivism, suggesting an enhanced sense of purpose and responsibility. 

Lower recidivism rates would not only help these mothers, their children, and their communities; they would help all taxpayers. In any given year, Missouri releases roughly half of its prison population. And yet, while the number of prisoners has decreased slightly, recidivism remains a serious challenge for the state. 

Critics of prison nursery programs worry that mothers and infants who participate in prison nurseries will just be separated later when the mother recidivates. But in fact, according to a study of New York’s prison nursery graduates, 74.6 percent of mothers who left prison with their infants were living with their child 3 years after release.

In addition to reducing recidivism, prison nurseries save taxpayers money in other ways. A report commissioned by the Idaho Legislature on prison nurseries suggests prison nurseries may pay for themselves. The Idaho report cited the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s estimate that the Ohio prison nursery actually saves the state $35,000 in general revenue annually by reducing adoption and foster care costs.  

There are many compelling reasons to support prison nurseries including improved maternal health, child development, recidivism, and foster care cost savings.

We believe babies belong with their mothers. The Missouri Legislature should do everything in its power to promote and preserve healthy families. Gov. Parson has taken the lead in Missouri on both protecting babies and criminal justice reform. We will work closely with his office in the upcoming legislative session to ensure all of Missouri’s babies thrive.