When Stephanie Petitt was arrested for violating probation for drug and robbery convictions, she learned she was 16 weeks pregnant and she would probably deliver her baby in an Oklahoma prison. In most places, an incarcerated woman who gives birth hands over her newborn to a social worker, who places the child with a relative or with foster parents. Petitt said she was told she would have an hour to hold her newborn. Just a few states offer alternatives that allow mother and child to stay together longer. At least eight states have prison nurseries where nonviolent female offenders live with their children for a few months to several years, Stateline reports.
In Oklahoma City, pregnant women facing imprisonment for nonviolent offenses can avoid doing time and stay with their children in the “ReMerge” progam, which also is open to mothers who have lost custody of their children. It includes two years of intensive therapy, parenting classes and job training. Women who graduate have their charges dropped. Similar pretrial diversion programs for expecting women and mothers are scattered across the U.S., many at the city or county level. The idea is clear: Diverting women from prison and keeping families together can save money and help break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration. Researchers say separating children from their mothers causes significant distress, and children are more likely to end up in prison if they have parents there. With the number of incarcerated women on the rise in some states, the programs are drawing new attention. Foundations pay for most of ReMerge, with the state covering the rest. It serves up to 50 women at a time and costs $17,000 per woman each year. Officials say ReMerge graduates have a 5 percent recidivism rate after three years, compared with 13 percent for women who leave the prison system.