Photo Essay: A Mother's Love Behind Bars

A unique program in Washington state allows mothers incarcerated for nonviolence crimes to care for their newborns.

In the mid-1990s, I first heard about a new program at Washington Corrections Center for Women that would allow pregnant women incarcerated for nonviolent crimes to maintain custody of their infants while serving short prison sentences.

I was intrigued, never having given much thought to women convicts, let alone pregnant ones. Healthy maternal-infant attachment could be promoted during this critical time in a protective, supportive, and safe environment.

The program began in 1999, and in 2003 I asked if I could do a portrait photography project about the prison nursery. Even with my professional background as a nurse-midwife and expertise in child sexual abuse evaluations, I was surprised that administrators and mothers welcomed me. Prison is a closed, off-limits, censored, and locked-up environment. Prisoners are unseen, disenfranchised, and voiceless.

When I began this work, I expected to find the unit crawling with researchers interested in promoting maternal-infant health in such a vulnerable population and was aghast at the paucity of available information.

There is a great need to focus more attention and resources to maternal-infant health issues among this growing population. We midwives like to say that we change the world one baby at a time.  There is a powerful ripple effect when sending formerly incarcerated mothers back into the world after participating in a prison nursery program: healthier moms raising securely attached babies, who have the foundation to grow into healthy adults.

Note: Quotations are not attributed in order to protect the identities of incarcerated mothers.

"Being in the Residential Parenting Program has just given me a second chance, you know? I didn’t really have a place to send my baby to."

"I was blessed to be able to keep my baby here and it just shows me that I have a second chance."

"Nobody I knew was with me when I gave birth. Nobody. But, gosh, the one [prison corrections] officer was so great. I was leaning over the officer. I was slobbering, crying, and she didn’t care about her uniform. I wish I could think of her name so I could thank her. But the officer, she was awesome. She’d say, 'You can do it!' and she was breathing with me through my contractions."


"I've learned a lot at Early Head Start. I meet with the Early Head Start people every other week right now. They help me with anything I want to know … SIDS, giving birth … I just got three certificates yesterday doing hands-on with eyes, hearing, smells, how babies work and how they are different. It is amazing because I would have never thought that when a newborn comes out, that they have all that going on already. I’m excited to try all these new things with my baby."

"My mom gave me meth when I was 11.  We were camping and I caught her sniffing it. I’m like, 'What is that?!'  She says, 'It’s crank.  Want some?' And she gave me some."

"Everybody is like, 'You’re such a different person than when you came in.' I'm more mature. I have to be. I'm a mom now. It's not about me anymore."

"My mother had a crush on the guy that raped me so she was angry at me. She called me a slut. You're only the second person that I’ve told."

"We are all broken.  A part of us is broken, no matter how good or bad our lives have been, we all have some point where we all can meet."

"I'm still in that whole learning about myself process. I'm willing to grow now. I've changed a lot since I’ve been here. I've grown."