Missouri separates moms in prison from their babies. A new bill would help keep them together
The Correctional Center Nursery Program would allow women who give birth while incarcerated the chance to stay with their newborns in prison for up to 18 months. Nurseries for incarcerated mothers are shown to reduce recidivism and have long-term benefits for babies.
In late June 1976, Barbara Baker gave birth to her son.
“We were able to stay together five days, you know, bonding with him. I got to feed him and have him in my room and stuff,” Baker said. “But at the end of those five days, he went out one door and I went out another door.”
Baker was incarcerated at the time and serving a sentence for shoplifting. She was addicted to heroin and shoplifted to sustain her dependence. The next time she saw her son, he was nine months old.
“(He) didn’t know who I was and didn’t even want me to touch him,” Baker said. “That was heartbreaking.”
Baker’s mother took care of her son while she was incarcerated. She experienced postpartum depression from a prison cell.
“I felt empty. I was weak. It was just devastating to me — traumatized, I’ll say. I cried all the time.”
Baker’s story echoes what incarcerated pregnant women in Missouri have been experiencing for decades. A bill making its way through the Missouri legislature attempts to change these circumstances by creating a prison nursery.
Baker now works at the Center for Women in Transition, a St. Louis organization that provides wraparound services for women reentering the community from jail or prison. They are one of the many groups supporting the Missouri prison nursery bill.
The Correctional Center Nursery Program would allow women who give birth while incarcerated the chance to stay with their newborns in prison for up to 18 months.
Currently, women who give birth while imprisoned in Missouri continue to serve their sentences after delivery, and their infants are sent to live with family or are put into foster care.
“The bill is designed to ensure that a mother and a child develop a strong bond and that child avoids the foster care system, and it dramatically reduces recidivism among the women participants,” said Luetkemeyer.
If the legislation is signed into law, a wing in a female Department of Corrections facility would be converted into a nursery.
“Prison nurseries are dedicated units within a women’s prison that allow women to give birth while incarcerated, to care for their infant children and to participate in programming such as evidence-based parenting classes and substance abuse treatment,” Luetkemeyer said.
The bill stipulates that women convicted of violent crimes or crimes against children would not be eligible.
Prison nurseries have been established in nine states, including Illinois, South Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana.
A program worth a million
“The goal of our criminal justice system ought to be once people have paid their debt to society, get them back out on the streets and being productive citizens so that they can care for themselves, they can care for their families, they can get on the tax rolls,” DeGroot said.
A fiscal analysis of the bill estimates implementing a prison nursery program would cost the state of Missouri more than a million dollars.
House Sponsor Rep. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, said the long-term impacts of the program are worth the cost.
“These children are going to be our friends and neighbors and family members far into the future, and the positive impact on them is worth whatever minimal costs that might accrue to the state,” Trent said.
Studies show prison nursery programs in other states have dramatically reduced the likelihood that the incarcerated mother reoffends.
Jeff Smith is a former Missouri state senator and a lobbyist for Missouri Appleseed, an organization that “works on issues at the intersection of criminal justice reform and public health.”
He said any investment will be recouped over time due to the high cost of incarceration.
“The minimal expense that it takes to build a prison nursery, that expense will be offset within just a few years due to the sharp declines in recidivism,” Smith said.
Maggie Burke spent 29 years working in the Illinois Department of Corrections. She worked in the state’s prison nursery for four years and says incarcerated women often come from backgrounds of trauma.
“Some people have never had experiences that have shown them that change is possible or that they should want something different,” Burke said.
Burke said the Illinois prison nursery housed around eight babies and their moms per year. In 10 years of operation, only one of the women returned to prison. Burke says the bond that forms between a mother and her baby is one of the main reasons the program reduces recidivism.
“Those connections, those bonds are what keep you away from making bad choices for yourself. Those connections are what keeps you away from substances, those connections are what keep you away from people that can lead you down that path again,” Burke said. “Those connections give you a reason to do things differently.”
Burke said in Illinois women who participated in the prison nursery program were also getting instruction to set them up well upon release.
“They were either working on education, substance use or parenting classes. They would be also probably employed somewhere in the facility,” Burke said.
The Illinois nursery was constructed in a former mental health facility. Participants had their own room that was set up and decorated like a typical nursery, Burke said. They also had access to a large dayroom similar to what you’d find in a childcare center.
Burke’s advocacy did a lot to convince DeGroot of the program’s benefits.
“At first I was very skeptical. It was a little bit hard for me to picture babies in prison,” DeGroot said.
Burke’s decades of experience as a correctional officer and a warden impressed DeGroot.
“Maggie’s tough. I like to say she’s a ‘No B-S’ kind of gal,” said DeGroot.
Hearing about how successful the Illinois program was from Burke helped confirm for DeGroot how good this could be for Missouri. He’s been passionately advocating for the program since.
DeGroot called the current situation for pregnant women incarcerated in Missouri tragic.
“These women, babies are literally ripped from their arms within 24 hours after birth. They stay up the entire 24 hours just to be with that baby,” DeGroot said.
Smith said these programs have long-term benefits for the newborns. He points to how important the first months of life are to a child’s development.
“When kids are able to attach to their mothers, they’re much less likely to develop emotional problems such as depression, severe anxiety or other things that can constrain their psychosocial and educational development,” Smith said.
Sarah Schlemeier, a lobbyist and the executive director for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, testified in support of the bill and says nurseries like this are also important for the health of incarcerated mothers.
“The No. 1 underlying cause of maternal mortality in Missouri is mental health issues,” Schlemeier said.
Her organization lobbied to get the Pregnancy-Associated Mortality Review implemented within the Department of Health and Senior Services. The initiative collects and analyzes data related to maternal mortality in Missouri.
“Suicide is one of the main leading causes of death for women who are postpartum, suffer from postpartum depression, anxiety,” Schlemeier said. “One of the things that is really a contributor to postpartum depression and anxiety is separation from your child.”
'Checks all those boxes'
The proposed Missouri prison nursery has gained a broad coalition of support. Smith said the breadth and depth of the bill’s support enhance its chances of becoming law.
“They don’t see a lot of bills that have support from the pro-choice community and also from the pro-life community. They don’t see a lot of bills that have liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans all saying, ‘Wow, this is an innovative, wonderful idea,’ ” Smith said.
Samuel Lee, the director of Campaign Life Missouri and a longtime anti-abortion activist, said he believes that because women have the right to an abortion while incarcerated, they should also have the opportunity to be with their child. He hopes this bill will help new mothers in need.
“As I read the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, it would be cruel and unusual for a woman soon or right after birth to have her baby taken away from her,” Lee said.
Trent said being pro-life means advocating for ideas outside the traditional boundaries of that debate.
“We look at what happens to children after they’re born. We look at their early childhood development. This is a bill that kind of checks all those boxes,” Trent said.
Representatives from Pro-Choice Missouri and Planned Parenthood have also testified in support of the nursery legislation.
Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-St. Louis, is a freshman lawmaker who has made criminal justice reform her focus. She was the first to co-sponsor the prison nursery bill.
“Anything dealing with prison reform, any kind of program that’s going to help aid and make individuals better people inside of the DOC facilities, I’m all for it,” Collins said. “It gets a thumbs-up for me.”
Collins knows this bill can change lives. When she saw that the cost of the program might deter support, she decided to speak up.
“I support the bill because it totally relates to my life,” she said. “I was born in St. Charles County Jail.”
In emotional testimony on the House floor, Collins revealed that personal fact for the first time publicly.
She spent time in the foster care system as an infant after she was separated from her birth mother, who was incarcerated at the time.
“I didn’t have that 18 months to spend with my biological mother,” Collins said. “And so that was that.”
The House bill currently has 28 bipartisan sponsors. The Senate’s bill was briefly debated and given first-round approval Monday.
Reminding his colleagues they all have term limits, Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, said this was something they could accomplish together during their time in the state Capitol.
“I know when I walk away, I’m going to be happy to say, ‘Missouri did something really great. We did something historic,’ ” Aldridge said.
Reform as the way forward
Since being elected, Collins has been conducting what she calls “prison pop-ups.” She visits one of Missouri’s correctional facilities every week. She stops by to see the facility’s conditions and observe treatment of the inmates. She also goes to learn.
“I go in to learn about personal stories of what landed individuals here in this correctional facility,” Collins said. “I also go and I learn about the programs that are in place that help people rehabilitate and help people get on the right direction, the right path to life.”
Her experiences visiting Missouri’s correctional facilities have inspired her to introduce a bevy of criminal justice reform bills, including one that would establish a Department of Corrections oversight board and another that would allow inmates who have been sentenced to life without parole the opportunity to make their case before the parole board.
Collins does think there is hope for future criminal justice reforms bills to earn bipartisan support in the Missouri legislature. Due to their work on the prison nursery bill, Collins called representatives DeGroot and Trent her allies.
Trent said the depth of support the bill has speaks to the desire to pursue criminal justice reform that does what Missourians want: “To make sure that we’re truly locking up people that we are afraid of and not just the people that we’re angry at and who may need help.”
DeGroot also sees criminal justice reform as an avenue for bipartisanship in Jefferson City. He says that denying an incarcerated mother her child adds to the difficulties of serving a prison sentence.
“We shouldn’t be punishing these people more than what they’re already being punished,” DeGroot said.
Burke has seen from decades of corrections experience that the work can be hard and unforgiving. She says prison nursery programs have positive effects on the incarceration environment and can lead to more reform.
“Having babies in a prison kind of humanizes prison work, humanizes the staff doing the work, humanizes the person in prison,” Burke said. “In my opinion, that’s the piece that actually creates change.”
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