Stateline Story

Nursery Program Aids Jailed Moms in Four States

A small but growing number of states are using a new tool to keep women prison inmates from committing more crimes motherhood. In Ohio, Nebraska, New York and Washington, some women who give birth behind bars are allowed to keep their babies instead of giving up the child to a foster agency or a relative, as other states require. The programs appear to be helping women clean up their lives, although officials havent conducted major recidivism studies yet.

Like many other inmates at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, Amanda Burns didn't learn her lesson the first time she was sentenced to the sprawling prison northeast of Columbus. After being released in 2000, she was arrested again about a year later for trying to cash stolen checks and was sentenced to 11 more months in the prison.

But her latest stint in Marysville has been different. For the past four months, she's shared a room in the prison's 16-month old nursery with her infant daughter Rhianna, who was born earlier this year while Burns was serving her sentence.

Burns said becoming a mother and spending time with her daughter has changed her. "Honestly, if I didn't have Rhianna, I probably would still be going," said Burns, 22, during an interview at the nursery earlier this month.

Ohio is one of a small but growing number of states that are using a new tool to keep women prisoners from committing more crimes -- motherhood. In Ohio, Nebraska, New York and Washington, some women who give birth behind bars are allowed to keep their babies with them instead of giving up the child to a foster agency or a relative, as other states require.

Reginald Wilkinson, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, says prison nurseries benefit the mother, the child and society as a whole. "These are kids that are not on welfare," he said. "These are kids that are being taken care of by their birth mothers, and not by a grandmother, a sister or a cousin."

Prison nurseries aren't a new idea. Researchers and prison officials said that many states had nurseries in the early part of the century. And they are common outside of the U.S. A 1987 United Nations survey of 70 nations found that only four -- the United States, Liberia, Suriname and the Bahamas -- routinely separate incarcerated mothers from their babies

But in the 1970s and 80s, many states got "federal court shock," Wilkinson said. "We didn't want the liability of doing things that we may have done a number of years ago," he said.

New York was the only state with a nursery program until 1994, when the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York opened one. Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Wash., established its nursery in 1999.

The programs appear to be helping women clean up their lives, although officials haven't conducted major recidivism studies yet. Of the 50 or so who have graduated from the Washington nursery, only five have returned to the prison on new charges, said Washington nursery supervisor Beth Rietema. The same goes for New York, which operates nurseries at the Bedford Hills and Taconic correctional facilities in Westchester County. "They say at Bedford and Taconic that they don't see many of these people coming back," says New York prisons spokesman Mike Houston.

The Ohio program is the brainchild of Wilkinson, who was impressed by the Nebraska and New York programs. To qualify for the Ohio nursery, inmates must give birth while in the custody of the state and can't have a violent criminal record. They also must attend family training courses, adhere to strict rules and be in good mental and physical condition. Wilkinson said Ohio has already had to remove one mother from the program because prison officials felt she wasn't stable enough to take care of her child. Only women who are serving sentences of 18 months or less are eligible.

So far, 12 women have gone through the Ohio program, and none have returned to the prison, says Deborah Timmerman-Cooper, warden of the Ohio Reformatory for Women. Six women are in the nursery now and five more waiting to join once they give birth. The nursery includes a day-care center, a visiting room, a kitchenette, an infant bathing station and 11 bedrooms decorated in pastel colors and with motivational sayings. A boot camp and an assisted living center for older inmates are in the same building, but the infants and mothers are in a separate wing.

Representatives from the federal prison system and Texas have visited the Ohio nursery and are considering establishing their own programs. June Groom, an assistant director of program services for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said her state -- which has 10,850 women in prison who give birth to about 200 babies a year -- hasn't decided whether to build its own nursery, but she was impressed with the Ohio program. She praised it for solving some liability concerns. Ohio makes inmates sign waivers saying the babies are their responsibility, not the state's.

Burns, the Ohio inmate, says she's learned "everything about a child you could possibly learn" since she's been at the nursery. When she leaves Marysville in November, she and Rhianna plan to live with her baby's father. She plans on being a full-time mom at first. "I don't like to be separated from her at all," she said.