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Raising Babies in Prison

Supporting the bond between inmates and their newborns gives these families a better start.

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Misty photo by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott

Misty at 9 months pregnant.

Some prison nursery programs discourage inmates from forming these kinds of close, family-like relationships, because officials fear that forming friendships with other women with drug or criminal histories will negatively influence an inmate’s rehabilitation. But Marie-Celeste Condon, who is studying the women and babies in the RPP for her doctoral dissertation says, “Our data is showing the opposite. What we’re finding is that people do change and are capable of persevering in incredible odds, and they need the support of other people.”    

Statistics show that the majority of women who go through the RPP successfully remake their lives. The program’s recidivism rate—released inmates who end up back in prison—is 12 percent, compared to 40 percent for the general WCCW population. Rehabilitating inmates and reducing recidivism are important goals of the corrections system, but the RPP’s main focus is on the babies.

The prison system divides and breaks down families. When a parent goes to prison, families often suffer financial hardship, become socially isolated, and break up. Sometimes family members can’t visit inmates, because they are in prisons in remote areas inaccessible by public transportation.

More than two million American children have a parent in prison. These kids frequently grapple with depression, hyperactivity, aggression, withdrawal, regression, clinginess, sleep problems, eating disorders, truancy, poor grades, and drug abuse. Older female children are more likely to be teen mothers, and boys have a higher incidence of juvenile delinquency. A report by the Department of Human Services says children of prisoners are “seven times more likely to go to jail than children whose moms or dads have not served time behind bars.”

“We’re really trying to stop that cycle,” explains Alley.

Infants may face even worse odds than most children of inmates if they don’t get the opportunity to bond with their mothers. A body of research, commonly referred to as attachment theory, shows that a secure attachment between mother and baby in the first years of life lays the groundwork for a child’s further development.

 “Everything babies learn about themselves, relationships, and the world is learned from the perspective of their early attachment relationships,” explains Condon, a specialist in infant mental health and development.

This is what prompted the Washington Department of Corrections to start the RPP in 1999. The hope was that supporting the bonds between inmates and their newborns would give some of the most vulnerable children of inmates a better start in life. The prison’s Early Head Start center is where the babies stay while their moms are in class or working. The center’s developmental assessments show that babies thrive in the program.

Condon has plans for a longitudinal study of the mothers and babies in the program, to measure how babies like Riley fare as they get older.

Freeman doesn’t need the research to convince her of the RPP’s merits. “This program has been such a blessing,” she says. “Riley is absolutely thriving, ever since the beginning. She’s very interested, very observant and outgoing.”

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Bonding with Riley has given Freeman hope for her own future. “Sometimes I just come to tears thinking, ‘How could I love someone so much?’ It’s made all the difference for me.” She’s on the council of a group called The Village, which creates supportive relationships between inmates, and plans to use what she’s learned after release.

“I want to start an organization to help girls not end up where I did,” says Freeman. She hopes to visit juvenile detention facilities, treatment centers, and schools to talk to young girls and provide support and mentors.

“Someone told me one time not to waste good pain. I think I’ve had enough, and I think I have enough to benefit other people.” Most importantly, Freeman says, “I just want to be the best mom I can be.”


Abby Quillen Abby Quillen wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.  Abby is a freelance writer in Eugene, Oregon. She blogs at newurbanhabitat.com.

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