Should Female Inmates Raise Their Babies in Prison?

The special wing of the Indiana Women's Prison is at once cheerful and depressing. To get there, you walk through a metal detector and a locked steel door to a courtyard surrounded by razor wire and two 20-foot fences. Then you pass through two more steel doors, and eventually enter a cinder-block hallway. The bright yellow hallway is adorned with stenciled images of stars and crescent moons. The sound of a TV blares from a common room, decorated with a mural of the night sky and the lyrics to "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." There are cells on both sides of the hallway. Each has a varnished crib that was made in woodworking class. Protective collars are fitted to the cell doors—there to prevent the steel from slamming on little fingers.

A prison may not seem like the best place to raise infants. But researchers are finding that it's better than the alternative. Joseph Carlson, a criminal-justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney who recently completed a 10-year study, says he thought such programs were "strange" when he began his research. Now he thinks they're "a win-win situation" for mothers and babies—and reduce crime by helping inmates to reform. Carlson also believes such programs can help "stop the generational cycle" in which children of inmates become criminals themselves. "Our goal is that the child will feel loved, the mother will stay out of prison herself and thus will hopefully strive to keep the child out of prison," says Carlson, whose study will be published this spring by the journal Corrections Compendium.

The nursery at the Indiana prison was opened a year ago. Since then, about 20 infants have joined an inmate population of more than 400. There is already a waiting list of four women who qualified for the program but can't get in. If there's no an opening by the time they give birth, they'll have to give up their kids.

Sometimes the mothers in the program attend a class with Angela Tomlin, a clinical psychologist who teaches child-care skills. At a recent session, the women talked about bonding, breast-feeding and singing songs to their infants. They spoke about their own routines and laughed as they shared child-rearing stories. Tomlin explained how to hold a child during feeding so "babies can see you, and you can work on your eye contact."

Jessica Utter, 33, wishes she could have any kind of contact at all with her baby. She is one of four women working in the nursery, helping the mothers and cleaning the rooms for $1.30 a day. Like many of the inmates at Indiana Women's Prison, Utter has been in and out of jail for years. She gave birth to her eighth child on the day after Christmas in 2007, shortly after arriving at the prison on charges of peddling cocaine. But facing a long sentence as a repeat offender, Utter couldn't keep her baby. The nursery program is offered only to inmates with 18 months or less remaining on their sentences when they give birth. "You just leave your baby in the hospital within 24 hours," says Utter, a fast-talking Midwesterner who won't be free again until 2014 (at the earliest). She began to cry as she explained that she'll soon see her youngest child for the first time since she was born. Utter's parents, who take care of the infant and two of her other children, live in Wisconsin and couldn't afford to travel to Indiana for visiting day; a church donated the few hundred dollars required for their bus fare.

Prison nurseries didn't spread in earnest until recently. New York state opened the country's first in 1902, but it was the exception until 1994, when Nebraska followed suit. Since the late '90s, seven new prison nurseries have opened, including four that have opened (or been approved to open) in the past two years. Now Texas and Kansas are reportedly mulling similar programs. Part of the reason: the rate of female incarceration has exploded nationwide—growing more than eightfold since the mid-'70s—and prison administrators are looking for effective ways to reduce recidivism. The Nebraska study compared the records of 65 mothers who participated in a prison nursery with a control group of 30 pregnant inmates who had their babies taken away within 72 hours of birth. Only 17 percent of the prison nursery moms returned to jail, while 50 percent of the control group did. It costs as little as $13 a day per baby to run a prison nursery. By comparison, the per-inmate cost of running a prison is closer to $75 a day.

Many prison moms didn't have much of an upbringing themselves. Devan Toomer, who is serving three and a half years for shoplifting, has been living in the Indiana prison nursery since it opened. Sentenced as a habitual offender, Toomer said she used to support her family by stealing and reselling clothes at half price. Her son, Devion, is now 1. But Toomer also has a 4-year-old daughter who is living with Toomer's mother. That may seem like a good alternative, but Toomer says her relationship with her mother has sometimes been strained, and she was raised largely by a family friend. (Toomer's mother could not be located for comment.)

Some prison guards aren't sympathetic toward the women. They make snide remarks that children don't belong in jail. That attitude angers Toomer, who admits to loving "fast money" but wants to get a college degree when she gets out. "I don't look at it as the babies doing time," she says, "because all the baby knows is they're with their mother and that's where children prefer to be."