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Babies Behind Bars: Ohio Prison Program for Mothers

baby-prison-sm250According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were 115,779 women in prison as of 2008.  Of those women, most are single mothers.  So what becomes of a child whose only parent is serving time?  At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, OH, babies are serving time with their mothers.

The idea for the program came from former Ohio state Rep. Cheryl Winkler and Barbara Turner, a former nurse convicted of prescription drug offenses. Pregnant at the time she was sentenced to prison in Marysville, Turner fought to have her baby’s father present at the birth.  She won that battle, but her baby was not allowed to live with her in prison.  But by 2001, the nursery program was established and there are currently 11 women living with their children at Marysville.

To qualify for the program, the convicted mothers must be scheduled for release by the time the child is 18-months-old.  The thinking is that a child that young will not remember living behind bars.

There has been little research into the effectiveness of these types of programs,  but initial studies show that it might well serve as a deterrent to future crimes.  One study found that of 118 women who had participated in the program, only 3 percent committed another crime within three years of release.  This compares to a rate of 30% for the general female prison population.

In addition to lowering the recidivism rate for these mothers, there can be no doubt that a baby benefits from the opportunity to bond with his mother.  It would also stand to reason that a child given the opportunity to be cared for by his own mother — even in prison — is going to be better off in the long run than a child given up to foster care.

Of course, the program has its critics.  Ohio Rep. Joe Uecker  not only objects to the fact that the program is funded with federal dollars, he also believes that these children would be better off in foster care than with their mothers in prison.  Taking a harsh stance, he says that these women made a mistake and must be held accountable.

I disagree with Uecker.  These women are being held accountable for their actions.  They are in prison, aren’t they?  While he sees losing a child to foster care as “being held accountable,” I see it as punishing the child for the sins of the mother.

What do you think?  Should babies be allowed in prison with their incarcerated mothers?

Image: Photocapy/Flickr

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