The Controversy of Nurseries in Jails and Prisons

 Advocates seem to agree that nurseries in jails and prisons are necessary, but far from ideal.

By Abby Ilfeld
By Abby Ilfeld

Abby Ilfeld attends Columbia University and Trinity College Dublin, where she majors in Political Science and European Studies.

While nurseries in prisons are a justifiably contentious topic, the one inside Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in Bedford Hills, New York, is respected by its community and advocates.


“[Prisons are] not places built for anyone, but especially not for children,” said Dr. Lorie Goshin, an expert in nursing and associate professor at Hunter College.


“But local advocates want it to stay open. There are no other structures to keep women and children together in the context of mass incarceration,” Goshin continued, highlighting the fundamental controversy at the center of the discussion surrounding prison nurseries.


The criminal justice system is not kind to many, much less pregnant women, as the News Station reported in September. Most who give birth while incarcerated are separated immediately from their newborns. But in select prisons across the United States, women can participate in a program in which their newborn lives with them for the first few months of his or her life.

These nurseries are part of a larger discussion about incarcerated women and, more specifically, incarcerated mothers. As of 2019, there were 231,000 women and girls in prisons, jails and other detention centers–a number seven times higher than in 1980, and the number of women in jails rose during the past few years. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 60% of women in state prisons and 80% in jails have children under 18. Most of these incarcerated women are single mothers.


Since many of these women are tackling motherhood alone, that leaves the question of what happens to their children when they are incarcerated. With no end in sight for mass incarceration and its pervasive effects, many advocates are just trying to do damage control for women and children affected by the criminal justice system, which leads advocates to look at these nurseries as a necessary Band-Aid.


For most incarcerated pregnant women, carceral nurseries are not even an option. Though many countries utilize nurseries in their prisons, they are fairly rare in the United States. Currently, the only states with prison nurseries are New York, Delaware, West Virginia, Indiana, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and California.


Because they are so uncommon, many people are unaware of these nurseries’ existence and there is currently no widespread movement in favor or against them. But in New York, those fighting for women in criminal justice are acutely aware of the one at Bedford Hills, which is the oldest and most established prison nursery in the country. It is enshrined in state law in section 611, the same law that prohibits the use of shackles on incarcerated women giving birth.


According to the New York Department of Corrections, there were four mothers at the facility in August, and it can house up to 27 women and their babies at a time. It is run by an outside organization called Hour Children; the maximum-security prison has a $510,000 annual contract with the organization. A correction officer is on site 24 hours, seven days a week and Hour Children has volunteers who work at the prison during the week. Medical personnel and other officers check in on the mothers and babies regularly.

“The benefit of the nursery,” wrote Thomas Mailey, the public information officer for the New York DOC, in an email, “is to provide the nursery mother the opportunity to learn the skill[s] necessary to become a good parent in an environment that frees them from the daily struggles that they face in the community.”


“[It] allows mothers to bond and care for their children while still serving their state prison sentence and participating in their regular mandatory correctional programming.”


These benefits are supported by evidence. Dr. Goshin has worked on multiple studies concerning the effects of prison nurseries, including one that tracked children born in Bedford Hills until five years old. The data was clear. 


“Children are able to develop strong attachment styles in prison nurseries, which is usually not the case in mothers who have a history of insecure attachments [like many of the women in the nursery],” Goshin said. 


“Insecure attachment” classifies all non-secure attachment styles and is typically categorized by feelings of anxiety or fear in relationships; this is usually influenced by parent-child relationships during youth. Goshin and fellow researchers found that kids in prison nurseries had stronger attachments than ones separated from their mother in prison.


Goshin believes the Bedford Hills nursery is a place with the best interests of the women and their children in mind, especially with the guidance and oversight from Hour Children. But that still doesn’t make it an ideal place for babies.


“These women and children are kept under constant supervision. But toddlers want to roam around, be curious and explore. Prison is just not a place for that at all,” Goshin said.


Another issue for Goshin is the restrictions for women to be eligible for the prison nursery program. Participants must have a “nonviolent conviction, no history of child welfare and must be on track to give birth in prison,” she said. This set of guidelines is standard for prisons across the country, and when examining the women who are in these programs, Goshin asks, “Why are these women even in prison?”

Potentially even more concerning is the idea of women in jail nurseries with their newborns. “They’re designed to be temporary,” Dr. Goshin said, emphasizing why jails should not house children.


Nevertheless, multiple jail nursery programs do exist in New York. Aside from one on Rikers Island, there is one in operation at Yaphank jail in Suffolk County, Long Island. Advocates for New Hour, a group on Long Island that works with Hour Children, are looking to expand New Hour’s programming to the neighboring, much larger Nassau County, which bans carceral nurseries.


The jail nursery in Suffolk County Correctional Facility is not as structured as the Bedford Hills one, and the requirements are up to the local sheriff, according to Serena Liguori, the executive director for New Hour.


“Most of the people who run the jails and oversee the courts are men, and they often don’t understand or consider what is best for the mothers and their children,” Liguori said, which makes New Hour’s work all the more important. New Hour provides programs that include services for parents, children and their wellness.


But New Hour has not been able to access in-person programming at the jail since September, when they were locked out because of COVID-19 cases among officers. “They had over 80 out sick with COVID and [the officers] refuse to wear masks most times that we have been there,” Liguori said.


Programming has continued online, Danielle Donaphin, New Hour’s director of programming, said. This includes classes focusing on health and wellness, as well as the parenting program. When asked about when the organization expects to return in person, Donaphin said, “It’s unlikely to be soon with the [COVID-19] transmission rate over 6%.” She described the current atmosphere in jail as “tense.”


“We want to continue to be a resource for these women and create support systems for them, which will help their children as well,” Liguori said.


Still, Liguori wishes these nurseries didn’t have to exist at all. Like Goshin, Liguori expressed frustration that these women are in jail. “Having mothers and their babies behind bars is really barbaric,” she said. “Ultimately we want these women to be in alternative-to-incarceration programs.”

That seems to be the goal for incarcerated women’s advocates throughout New York. Kristin Edwards, a social worker and director of the Women’s Community Justice Project (WCJP), also expressed her dislike of jail nurseries. “If we ever find out there’s a woman there who’s pregnant, we try to get them out as soon as possible,” she said. However, most of her work focuses on serving women, often mothers, under threat of incarceration at Rikers.


WCJP is a consortium of organizations that includes Housing Plus, Providence House, Greenhope and Hour Children. Across these groups they provide 59 total units of supportive housing for women impacted by incarceration. Ten of them are specifically for women and their families.


WCJP is only four years old and relies on funding from the New York City mayor’s office of criminal justice. “It was very clear that most of the women we were serving at WCJP were mothers, and one of the main areas that they wanted to focus on was reunifying with their families and children,” Edwards said.


Edwards and her consortium are connected to the effort to close Rikers. “Our hope is that we can continue to build out this program and successfully house and assist as many women as possible so that they can close [the Rosie M. Singer Women’s Center at Rikers Island] way sooner than they plan on closing the other facilities,” she said.


In the meantime, WCJP offers diverse resources to support these women. “Hopefully we can lessen the chance that they would end up back in the system again,” Edwards said. 


As of October, women in the Rosie M. Singer center have been moved upstate to facilities like Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facility due to dangerous conditions at the Rikers facility. “It is unclear to me how they will handle pregnant women currently detained at Rikers,” said Edwards.


The efforts to close Rosie’s and ultimately Rikers itself offer hope that alternatives to incarceration will be relied on more, especially for pregnant women and new mothers entering prison or jail. Goshin also believes there is hope for a larger shift toward incarceration alternatives. 

“Even in conservative states, there has been a focus on incarceration reduction, for financial reasons, at least,” she said, echoing a hope that one day there will not even be the issue of newborn mothers being incarcerated.

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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.