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Prison Nurseries: A Controversial Measure to Protect a Mother’s Rights

Every year, thousands of incarcerated mothers enter the prison system already pregnant. Many are youthful offenders or are serving short terms for minor crimes. Nevertheless, they are forced to suffer what many would call the harshest punishment a mother can endure: having her child taken away moments after birth. Lawyers and their clients have struggled over this issue for years.

Recent attention has been drawn to the brutal practice of shackling incarcerated women during childbirth and labor. Possibly even more unsettling is the practice of removing children from their mothers moments after they are born. While prison officials often cite the need to maintain the efficacy of the justice system, one must wonder what sort of long-term effect this has on mother-child bonding and whether there is a safe and plausible alternative that would permit these mothers to maintain their parental relationship despite having to serve their sentence. However, some states are now doing just that by creating what are known as “prison nurseries.”

The Evolution of the Prison Nursery

In 1979, the United Nations enacted uniform policies known as the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This explicitly created a set of basic women’s rights, including the right to adequate maternal and fetal care, breastfeeding assistance, and proper accommodations. Interestingly, the U.N.’s policy also required that children have adequate contact with both parents, where possible and in the interests of the child. This is designed to avoid punishing a child for the misdeeds of the parent.

Over the years, prisons have struggled to find a healthy balance in honoring the rights of incarcerated mothers and enforcing the sentences that have been rendered. Likewise, fathers who are not incarcerated often have a strong interest in making sure their paternal rights are upheld.

By the 1990s, some states began offering an alternative living arrangement for incarcerated mothers. These so-called “prison nurseries” offer mothers a chance to continue raising their babies in prison. Critics claim this is completely inappropriate and may lead to children not having proper social adaptation or that they may have reduced opportunities that they could otherwise enjoy if not in prison. However, recent studies seem to show that the programs reduce recidivism by mothers and do not have negative impacts on the children.

Where are prison nurseries?

In the early 1990s, the Bedford Correctional Institution in New York was the first prison to create a prison nursery. As of a 2009 survey, the facility could hold up to 27 babies and was available for up to 12 months but could be extended to 18 months if the mother’s sentence would be over within that time.

As of that 2009 survey, only a small handful of states had created prison nurseries, including Ohio, California, Illinois Indiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Washington.

While these programs are great for new mothers, some fathers are finding the subject difficult to handle. After all, the mother’s incarceration amounts to more than a prison sentence for her and her child; it amounts to an effective loss of custody by the non-incarcerated father. He must wait upwards of 12-18 months to begin parenting. And although the programs permit liberal visitation by fathers and other family members, one must question how much parenting time a father can actually have while visiting a child behind bars.

To date, Florida does not yet have prison nurseries. In fact, research shows that Florida is one of the worst states for enforcing women’s rights behind bars; some sources indicate that there are currently no laws preventing shackling during labor and childbirth, no prison nurseries, and few measures to afford liberal visitation. Divorce lawyers are just beginning to examine the marital impacts and child custody issues from behind prison bars, and the many other domestic issues implicated by childbirth in prison.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to skilled Orlando family lawyer Amy E. Goodblatt if you have question about your rights as a mother or father. Our office can work on your behalf to ensure your interests and rights are protected no matter the circumstances of your case.

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