Women who give birth in the prison system and are separated from their newborns are three times as likely to reoffend as women who live with their babies in prison nurseries.
This is according to a 10-year study from the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, a York, Neb., facility that opened a prison nursery in 1994.
“Our nursery moms typically don’t come back,” said Mary Alley, parenting coordinator for the Nebraska women’s prison.
New York has allowed babies to stay with inmate moms since the early 1900s, but Nebraska is part of a new wave of states opening nurseries. Since 1994, nine other states, including California, Indiana and Illinois, have launched programs where babies live with their moms for up to 24 months.
Prison nurseries are gaining ground because of evidence they reduce recidivism, which saves the cost of housing repeat offenders. If such a program can keep five women from coming back to prison, it could save $100,000 to $150,000 a year, said Joseph Carlson Jr., a University of Nebraska-Kearney professor who conducted the 10-year study.
“If we can keep two-thirds of the people out, at a minimal cost, it’s fantastic for taxpayers,” Carlson said.
Iowa does not have a prison nursery and has no plans for one, said Fred Scaletta, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections.
“Many years ago the topic had been brought to our attention about mothers staying with their babies in prison,” Scaletta said. “It’s not really an option we’ve explored here in Iowa.”
Iowa does have a halfway house in the Des Moines area where women can live with their children.
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Nearly 80 inmates have given birth in Iowa’s prison system in the past five years. Inmate moms turn their babies over to family members to raise, seek temporary foster care or, in rare cases, give them up for adoption.
These mothers don’t get to bond with their babies, which makes it easier to ditch the children for drugs or other vices when they get out of prison, Alley said.
Inmates in the Nebraska nursery who have had previous children “feel a difference with the baby they have here. They feel responsible,” she said.
Prison nurseries are open to non-violent offenders with short sentences. Nebraska nursery moms must take parenting classes and work toward GEDs if they haven’t graduated from high school.
The Indiana Department of Corrections has a waiting list for the Wee Ones Nursery it opened in 2008.
Besides 10 offenders and their babies, the unit houses four nannies, who are female inmates who help care for the children when the mothers meet with prison staff. Babies sleep in cribs in their mothers’ cells. There is a shared dayroom and an outdoor space separate from the general inmate population, said Betty Cunningham, public information officer for Indiana corrections.
“We were looking for a way to break the cycle,” Cunningham said. Indiana also offers extended visiting hours and summer camps for inmates and their children to help maintain family bonds.
The cost of prison nurseries is minimal, Carlson said. Nebraska launched its nursery with a $24,000 grant and some supplemental support from the state Legislature. The annual cost for running the 15-mother unit is $102,000, which includes other programming for families.
The average annual cost for one inmate in Iowa’s prison system is $31,500.
The Women’s Residential Correctional Facility in Des Moines is the only Iowa program that allows offenders to live with their children. The minimum-security facility opened in 1993 and houses up to 48 women, who are on probation, work release or who are serving short drunken-driving sentences.
There is room for eight women and their children ages 5 and younger, said Peggy Urtz, residential manager. She said moms must find child care and hold down jobs but can get parenting support and advice from staff.
“They get an opportunity to do the real-world stuff with some help,” she said.
Khrista Erdman, a 32-year-old inmate at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, wishes Iowa was like other states with prison nurseries. She gave birth Dec. 26 at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and gave her baby to her husband two days later.
“I’m not really ready to let her go,” Erdman said Dec. 27. She is serving time for forgery and burglary as a habitual offender and will have her first chance at parole in June 2012.
Prison nurseries aren’t without critics. A West Virginia legislator bashed a plan there, saying that prisons were designed to punish criminals, not cater to their desires.
Carlson was not a nursery supporter when he started his research in 1994.
His study, published in 2009 in the Corrections Compendium, shows that half the 30 mothers who gave birth from 1991 to 1994 in Nebraska prisons violated their parole and ended up back in prison, compared with just 16.8 percent of 65 women who lived with their babies in the Nebraska nursery.“The bottom line is that it reduces recidivism,” Carlson said.