Holdgruen: Motherhood behind bars

The United States’ prison system creates as many victims as it tries to protect. People who never have—and may never—commit crimes and will never be imprisoned are shielded from the brutal realities that some inmates face. There should clearly be punishment for people who commit violent crimes such as murder or arson.

Those who commit nonviolent crimes such as theft or fraud, however, are immersed in a system that stigmatizes mentally ill or underprivileged people who made mistakes in their difficult lives. The system is especially hard on those inmates who are mothers.

Women who are pregnant in prison typically give birth while heavily shackled—despite shackling during birth being an illegal practice—and their newborns are taken away to be cared for by a family member or a foster family. This can be psychologically and emotionally draining for both the mother and the child.

Women make up about 7 percent of people in America’s prison system, and the majority of women are charged with nonviolent crimes. Most women experience addiction, poverty and various forms of abuse that lead them to commit crimes out of desperation.

Having their newborn children taken away may worsen the experience for these women who are already suffering without significant help.

More prisons should be like the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Bedford Hills, New York. The facility has a special program for pregnant inmates where women can live with and raise their newborn children while in prison. The facility has a separate wing—which slightly resembles a day care center—where new mothers have access to a pediatrician twice a month and can live in their own rooms that are equipped with a baby crib.

Reasonably, the program is not available to women who were convicted of violent crimes or crimes involving children. But for women who were involved with drugs, for example, the program is an important step toward leading their lives on a better path.

Programs like these should be implemented in as many facilities as possible. A study reported by ABC News discovered that 33 percent of mothers who were separated from their children ended up back in prison after initial release, whereas mothers who were able to keep and take care of their children went back to prison only 10 percent of the time.

Being able to bond with and take care of your child is not only an incentive to improve your behavior in the future; it also gives you a responsibility—other than regular prison work hours—that is enriching and fulfilling. Even if we believe they are criminals that need to be punished, inmates are still human and deserve this kind of motivation.

It is important, however, to remember that inmates who were charged with violent crimes are human too—even though it is controversial to defend them. A recent National Public Radio Weekend Edition story interviewed musicians who worked with imprisoned mothers at Rikers Island in New York City to compose lullabies for their estranged children. These therapeutic and emotional music-writing sessions can help improve inmates’ personal lives and relationships, even though they can’t physically be there themselves.

There will always be limitations on improving inmates’ rights, as it is a very unpopular and controversial issue. But imprisonment is severely mentally and emotionally debilitating for women whose difficult lives often brought them there in the first place.

Childcare programs in prisons improve the often-dehumanizing system, and may even decrease the rate of women’s incarceration over time.