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Monday, July 15, 2013

Prison Babies

This past Saturday, it took only a few hours for Benevolent donors to step up and help Brianna keep her baby. It's not often that a small amount of money can help a mom and baby stay together, but this was a special circumstance. Brianna needed $210 to pay off a traffic fine so she could keep her baby and raise him from the moment he’s born. The baby’s due next month, and Brianna’s in prison. There’s a special program that will allow her to stay with and keep her baby, but not if she has any outstanding fines.

There was something about the simplicity and raw humanity of Brianna’s need. She’s a mom who wants to nurture her infant when he’s born. We can envision what it will look and feel like when Brianna holds her son. We can also imagine what it would feel like if he were taken from her. We’ve been parents; we’ve been parented; we’ve held newborns close and we’ve suffered hurts. We can feel the urgency of this even if we can’t imagine what it’s like to be in prison and to face the reality of a child being taken away from us.

Over 64% of the women in prison in this country have been convicted of nonviolent crimes, mostly property or drug offenses, and over 2,000 women in prison will give birth this year. Most of us know that babies are born to women serving time in prison and that the vast majority of women who give birth while incarcerated in the U.S. don't get to stay with their babies for even a week after they're born. We don’t often get the opportunity to change that for a mom and her baby. This week, we did.

I knew it. I knew that women in prison in the U.S. have their babies taken from them when they’re born. But I’ve got to tell you, I've never signed a petition, called my legislator or lobbied to urge policymakers to change prison policies and programs to allow women to remain with their babies, if they choose to, after birth.

When Brianna's need came to us, though, I felt an immediate surge of adrenaline. I knew we had to help this young woman get into the program that would allow her and her son to remain together, and I knew that donors would feel as I did. I was right. Seven donors from five different states took only seven hours to completely fund Brianna’s need.

If the donors felt anything like I did, it didn't matter to me how many times Brianna might have been arrested (only once, as it turns out), what the traffic tickets she had left unpaid were for, how many children she had (this will be her first) or whether she had made poor choices rather than paying her fines. All I could think about was the hours and days after my own children’s births, about the sweetness of their new skin, about the way they smelled, cried, and felt in my arms, about all the protectiveness and responsibility I felt for the fragile life in my arms.

In the U.S., we seem to cherish parenting for ourselves, but not always for others. Paid parental leave is not a protected right; all parents are expected to work starting as soon as six weeks after birth; and babies are taken from prisoners at birth. This makes us very different from many other countries and cultures.

In Germany, for example, mothers serving jail sentences can have their children remain with them until age four or six and some are allowed work-release privileges to go and parent their children. That's right; moms leave prison in the morning like anyone else headed off to a work-release job and their work is getting their children ready for school, taking care of their children's needs, and doing everything associated with being moms to their kids. At the end of the workday, they head back to prison like any other work-release prisoner. In Germany, being a parent is considered a vocation; a child’s need to have his or her mom present is valued; and systems are put into place to make the situation work.  

We helped Brianna and her baby to stay together.  What could we do to help the other 2,000+ moms who will give birth in prison this year to have the same option? I checked into it, because it seems to me that when a need we encounter on the Benevolent site strikes us as powerfully as this one struck me, we should find out how to get involved and become a part of the solution for people beyond the one we’re helping through the Benevolent site.

Here’s what I found...
  • The Women’s Prison Association appears to be one of the strongest organizations engaging in research and advocacy work around the issues of women in prison. Their program work seems to be only in New York state, but their policy and advocacy work extends nation-wide. Interestingly, the president of the Board of Directors for this organization, Piper Kerman is the author of the book and new Netflix series about women in prison - Orange is the New Black.
  • The National Institute of Corrections maintains a list of programs for women in prison state by state. You could use this website to find out how to get involved as an advocate or volunteer in your area.

So these are places for us to start. I hope that Brianna’s story touched you the way it touched me. I hit “send” on the payment to Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers earlier today so that Brianna’s fine can be paid and she can qualify for the program that will keep her together with her son when he’s born. I’m so glad we were there to help.

- megan kashner
  founder & ceo

1 comment:

  1. Heartfelt thanks to Megan Kashner for your beautiful, moving and thoughtful blog "Prison Babies" on the occasion of "Brianna's" funded need to pay her traffic fine. I greatly appreciate the fact that you’re getting parents nationwide to think about the needs of babies born to incarcerated mothers, and to imagine the experience of mothers who are separated from their infants, usually after just 24 hours.
    It was great to see the link to Women's Prison Association. Their well-researched report Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternatives provides great insight into the need to keep women and babies together in community programs, not prisons, whenever possible. Their first recommendation is:
    “Increase use of community corrections and reduce reliance on incarceration. Whenever possible, custodial parents and pregnant women under criminal justice supervision should be housed in community-based, non-incarcerative settings. Community corrections programs have been shown to protect public safety and reduce recidivism at a fraction of the human and economic costs of prison. … Community-based residential parenting programs can prevent mother-child separation while allowing mothers to address the issues that contributed to their criminal justice involvement in a real-world setting. These programs allow mother s to practice positive responses to the challenges of parenting and the challenges of everyday life. These programs also keep children out of foster care and provide children the stability of a consistent primary caregiver.”
    Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM)’s long-standing policy is to promote community-based options keeping moms and babies together, rather than prison nurseries. Mother-infant bonding is critical to babies’ healthy development. However, prison nurseries in general are not the best practice to achieve it. Every mother who is eligible for the Decatur nursery also qualifies for the Women’s Treatment Center (TWTC) and similar programs. Community-based programs provide far better services, have much stronger parole success rates and better outcomes for the babies. CLAIM did a study of community-based sentencing programs several years ago and found recidivism rates ranging from zero to 17%, compared with 50% recidivism from Illinois prisons. As a matter of policy, we need to promote those opportunities whenever possible.
    There has been so much positive media about prison nurseries, and especially Bedford Hills, which is unusually good but still has serious problems, that it’s easy to be taken in by that model. My own experiences, and those of clients and colleagues around the country, make me firmly committed to promoting reduced incarceration and the implementation of mother-child programs in the community.
    Let’s all work toward a day when all mothers and babies have the opportunity to begin a healthy family life together in a nurturing, positive setting.
    Gail T. Smith
    Founder & Senior Policy Consultant