Prison nursery programs remain rare nationwide, but eight facilities in as many states have opened them amid dramatic growth in the number of incarcerated women. The bold experiment in punishment and parenting has touched off a fierce debate, the Washington Post reports. Advocates say the programs allow mothers to forge a crucial early bond with children, creating healthier kids and an incentive for mothers to improve their lives. Detractors say prison is no environment for children and that the programs may simply put off an inevitable split between many children and their mothers, making it that much more painful. There are no data on how many women give birth while incarcerated, but the growth in prison nurseries is playing out against the backdrop of a massive increase in incarcerated women in recent decades, including mothers.
The number of women behind bars increased 700 percent between 1980 and 2016, from about 26,000 to 214,000, according to the Sentencing Project. The latest statistics on parents in prison are from 2007, but the Justice Department reported a 122 percent increase in mothers in state and federal prison between 1991 and that year. Nearly 1.7 million children had a parent behind bars. Some experts attribute the increase in women’s incarceration, in both jail and prison, to spiking drug arrests and an emphasis in some areas on aggressive enforcement of minor offenses such as theft and public drunkenness. Some advocates for female prisoners argue mothers with low-level offenses should be allowed to raise their children in less restrictive settings. On the other side, James Dwyer, a William & Mary law professor who focuses on family issues, said many of the mothers are not good long-term prospects as parents, that prisons are dangerous and unstimulating for children, and that it may even be unconstitutional to place a child in prison when no crime has been committed.