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Babies behind bars.

The benefits of keeping mothers and babies together while mom serves time are producing more community-based, alternative programs around the country.

Sandy sold drugs and got caught. Fortunately for her and her child, she lives in California. She is serving her time, with her baby daughter, at the Elizabeth Fry Center in San Francisco. Sandy has earned her high school diploma and has gone through medical assistant's training at the local community college since being accepted in the program. When she's finished serving her time, her daughter will know her, and she'll have a job at the local hospital. "She'll be making more than many of my staff at the center," says Deborah Haffner, director.

Sandy is among the growing number of women incarcerated every year. Due partly to the "war on drugs" thas has changed mandatory sentencing laws, the number of women in state and federal prisons at the end of 1989 was a record 40,556, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (Another 30,299 were in jails.) That's a 200 percent increase since 1980. And whie women still accounted for only 5.7 percent of the nation's prisoners, it's the highest percentage since data collection began in 1926. This rate of growth exceeds that for men in each year since 1981.

For women who come to prison pregnant or with small dependent children at home, the stress on them and their children can be fatal. What happens to them is the focus of more and more alternative sentencing programs for women designed to allow mothers to stay with their children, avoid foster care and return to the community prepared to stay out of trouble. Proponents of these residential care programs say they are also saving taxpayers' money and easing prison overcrowding.

"What all this increased incarceration of women is doing to the family structure and the way it is affecting the next generation," says Gail Smith, executive director of Chicago Legal Aid for Incarcerated Mothers, "makes it--from a taxpayers' perspective--so foolish that we haven't done something about it."

In 1986, most women in prison (42 percent) were there for property offenses. And the percentage of women in prison for drug offenses exceeded that of men. Forty-one percent of the women were in for violent crimes, increasingly for killing their abusive husbands and boyfriends.

More than three-fourths of the women in prison are mothers--young, single mothers with two dependent children at home. They are often undereducated, unskilled, unemployed, poor and hooked on drugs. Ten percent of women prisoners are pregnant.

For the women sentenced while pregnant, health care in prison can be inadequate. Doris was convicted of a parole violation and sentenced to six months in county jail in Oakland, Calif. She was seven months pregnant at the time and addicted to heroin. Instead of receiving methadone treatment, she was forced to withdraw cold turkey. She suffered severe withdrawal, with headaches, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. When she was eight and one-half months pregnant, she had extreme uterine pain and felt no fetal movements. Three days later her still-born daughter was removed by Cesarean section.

Louwanna was pregnant when convicted of welfare fraud in Bakersfield, Calif. Although she was a low-security prisoner, she was confined for 24 hours a day and forced to sleep on the floor of an overcrowded cell. She was exposed to several contagious diseases, including tuberculosis and measles. She was never seen by an obstetrician. When she went into labor the guards told her that she would have to wait because there was no medical staff available at the time. Three hours later she gave birth outside the door of the clinic. The baby experienced oxygen loss at birth and died several months later.

Critics argue that correctional systems--with taxpayers' money--need not provide better medical care than the women were giving themselves before being convicted. They often do not or cannot. Women, after all, still make up less than 6 percent of the prison population.

"What we've discovered," says Ellen Barry, director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, "is that prison systems--across the board--have serious deficiencies in their prenatal care." Her organization represented Doris and Louwanna in lawsuits challenging the quality of medical care for pregnant women in those county jails.

For women lucky enough to deliver healthy babies while incarcerated, they must return to their cells 24 to 72 hours after giving birth--without the baby. Mothers must find alternative care for their children, often relatives but sometimes foster care. Many prison systems allow children to visit and may conduct parenting classes, but few allow mothers and children to stay together.

Experts agree it is important for a baby to develop a close attachment to his caretaker early on to ensure emotional, mental and even physical health. Citing Freud, among others, Barbara Bloom, a criminal justice consultant with the National Council on Crime and Delinquentcy, says, "An infant or young child who is prevented from establishing such an attachment may go through a number of stages including active protest, withdrawal from interpersonal relationships and perhaps a complete separation from any effective interaction." She goes on to say that in a study of infants and preschool children of incarcerated mothers the children showed a wide range of unhealthy behavior such as constant crying, little response to stimulation, little effort to crawl and incidents of self-punishment. The incarcerated mother also gives up the choice of whether to breastfeed.

For those women who already have children at home, the separation from them when incarcerated can be devastating. Mothers in prison often face infrequent visits with their children. Relatives or foster parents may be reluctant to allow the children any contact with their incarcerated parents. Or transportation may be a problem, involving long distances from home to the prison. Jails often do not allow physical contact during visits. One toddler, never before apart from her mother, refused to eat and drink and experienced dehydration when not allowed any physical contact with her mother.

Incarcerated mothers also face the threat of loss of parental rights. Nora was sentenced to 18 months in prison for forgery in Illinois. Her 4-year-old daughter DeeAnn, who had never been away from her mother before, was placed in foster care. The foster parent wanted to adopt, and the state filed a petition to terminate Nora's parental rights. The caseworker admitted that DeeAnn wanted to go home to her mother and suffered depression when she couldn't see her. When a psychologist determined that DeeAnn had been sexually abused in the foster home, she was moved to a new home, and the adoption stopped.

Critics argue, though, that women shouldn't be treated differently just because they are pregnant or have small children. Punishment for breaking the law should be administered equally.

But must a child also be punished when his mother breaks the law? "These kids suffer unique hardships," says Bloom, "particularly when they don't have any contact with their moms." If they wind up in the foster care system, they may be bounced around from home to home and separated from their brothers and sisters. They face the stigma of having their mothers in prison. And studies have shown that children of inmates are five times more likely than their peers to be labeled as delinquents.

New York was the first state of address this problem when it established--by law--a prison nursery way back in 1901. Women of all security levels can apply to live in the nursery; babies may stay for a year, or longer, with special permission from the superintendent. Inmates must undergo evaluation of their mental and emotional state, and placement is determined by the best interest of the child. Through the Children's Center at the prison, inmates learn about being parents--from changing diapers to basic nutrition to child development. Babies stay in the nursery, which is staffed by a nurse and several counselors, while their mothers take classes or work.

But do we really want babies in prison nurseries? "I don't think so," says Smith of the Chicago Legal Aid for Incarcerated Mothers. She says prison security and procedures often don't adapt well to sick babies in the middle of the night. "We want them in community-based facilities, where the orientation is child development and family needs," says Smith.

That's what California decided was best when the Legislature passed a bill in 1978 to develop the Mother-Infant Care Program. The program was designed to reunite law-risk, non-violent inmates with their young children (under age 6) in a halfway house setting for the duration of the mother's sentence. Mothers take parenting classes, do community service work and have access to job training and other classes. It took a lawsuit in 1985 to expand the program to its present seven centers housing around 100 women.

"When there are over 6,500 women in state prisons in California, it's ludicrous that we're serving only 100," Haffner says.

Seymour Morgan of the California Department of Corrections, says a major obstacle is finding suitable homes for the centers. "Nobody wants inmates living next door," he says. "These programs make the public uneasy and nervous. Rezoning is very difficult."

San Francisco's Elizabeth Fry Center, a two-story Victorian home, faced strong neighborhood objections. "But the support now is great," says Haffner who had to work hard to convince her neighbors the center would not ruin their middle- to upper-middle class neighborhood or put them in danger. "Foes turned into friends," she says.

After women are screened (no one convicted of violent offenses or found to be an unfit mother by any court is allowed into the program),they are sent to Haffner to be reunited with their children and begin rehabilitation. All 10 women share in household chores and child care. Older kids go to preschools and the women can choose between education or finding a job. There are schools and transportation near by. Parenting classes are required. "Learning to live together and get along is part of the challenge," says Haffner. "It's kind of like dorm life."

Carrie came to the program when her son was a baby. She had been kicked out of her parents' house when she was in junior high school and had lived on the streets since then. She had an alcohol problem that ended when she killed someone in a traffic accident. Though it is very unusual for someone convicted of vehicular homicide to be accepted into one of the programs, Carrie was. By the time she was released, she had earned her real estate license and was hired by her father. She is now working at Hewlett-Packard, and her son is in a Head Start program.

California is viewed as the leader of these residential, alternative programs, but it is not the only state where they exist. Massachusetts' Houston House serves 15 pregnant women who have been incarcerated at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Framingham. Pregnant women within 18 months of parole are transferred to Houston House for intensive perinatal care and alcohol or drug addiction treatment. It works with a nearby hospital to prove medical care for high-risk, difficult pregnancies. By the time the women leave the program, they have found affordable housing, gotten a job or enrolled in training and know about community treatment services. During the year following their release, Houston House staff continue to provide support, including continuing recovery services, assistance with family re-unification and medical care.

Summit House, with some funding from the North Carolina legislature, provides similar services to pregnant women and mothers in Guilford County, N.C. Women take courses in interpersonal, parenting and practical skills. These include problem solving, anger control, cooking, housekeeping and budgeting. Children up to age 7 can live with their mothers in the house and receive family counseling, education and health care.

Critics argue that these programs are too cushy for law breakers. Although most programs are kept secure with 24-hour supervision, alarm systems, urine tests and random room searches, they do allow felons the freedom to work and go to school.

Do these programs work? "Any program that helps to maintain the mother's tie with her children," says Bloom "while giving her parenting education, dealing with her substance abuse problem, preparing her for employment and connecting her with community resources, puts her in a far better position when released than those released straight out of prison."

Barry says the California program has been shown to be successful. She says statistics show that women in the program have a 20 percent lower recidivism rate than women who are incarcerated. Haffner claims an 84 percent success rate at the Fry Center. (Those women, of course, may be more successful at staying out of trouble because they were screened for the program and finished it. Twenty-five percent drop out of the program and return to prison.) Maintaining ties with her family is what some criminal justice experts say keeps the woman offender from coming back to prison.

Besides easing prison overcrowding, exacerbated by a 200 percent increase in incarceration rates, the programs save money. "What we are spending to incarcerate the mother in what is, in effect, a maximum-security prison, plus foster care for her kids--which is not doing the children any great favors--is so much more than it costs to run small, community-based facilities," says Smith. Although the actual operating costs of keeping a women in a community-based home is not a lot less than keeping her in prison, the other benefits make it worthwhile. The programs are cost-effective, says Barry, if you factor in that they also can prevent recidivism, foster care, medical problems for the baby and mother, and future delinquents.

"It really is to everybody's benefit," says Smith, "because there's nothing that's more likely to make a woman angry and upset and feel like lashing out than out knowing what's going on with her kids."
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Title Annotation:programs for incarcerated mothers and pregnant women
Author:Lays, Julie
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:May 1, 1992
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