Report Examines Childcare Programs for Incarcerated Mothers

June 2, 2009

In May 2009, the Women's Prison Association (WPA) released a report entitled "Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternatives" (PDF). The document looks at the two types of programs offered to women who give birth while incarcerated. Prison nurseries allow mothers to parent for a given period of time in special prison housing units. Community-based residential programs allow mothers to parent while completing their sentences in community programs outside the prison. Community-based programs are partnered with drug or substance abuse treatment alongside parenting support and the children in the programs are not necessarily born in custody. Both options are typically reserved for women serving shorter sentences for non-violent offenses who will be the primary caregivers for their children upon release. The programs are designed to provide a positive future for mother and child, allowing time for bonding and a support system that reduces recidivism among incarcerated women. The little research that has been conducted to evaluate the success of both options shows that community-based programs are the best alternatives for incarcerated mothers and their infants.

In 2007, over 65,000 women in state and federal custody reported being mothers to minor children. The majority of these women reported being the primary caregiver for their children prior to incarceration (PDF, 24). Women of color are disproportionately represented in the prison system: 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the United States are black women and 16 percent of incarcerated women are Latina, although they make up only 13 percent and 11 percent of the female population, respectively. Incarcerated women of color are at an increased risk for HIV, they face physical and sexual trauma, and are often targeted for imprisonment based on drug use during pregnancy. Many pregnant women face corrupt judges, who use their power of sentencing to manipulate and influence pregnancy-related decisions, usually to prevent women from having abortions. It is a devastating reminder that a reproductive rights movement that is truly rooted in social justice needs to consider the rights of incarcerated women.

There is plenty of work that needs to be done to improve the well-being of incarcerated women and mothers. Currently there are only nine states in the country that utilize prison nurseries and community-based programs. The WPA report concludes that more research should be done in order to fully assess and implement alternatives to incarceration. It recommends enhancing community-based program and nursery prison features so that the needs of the family can be fully met, such as providing vocational and educational services for mothers. While providing community-based alternatives for mothers can provide positive results, the prison industrial complex that plagues low-income women and women of color can only be dismantled through affordable healthcare, reproductive rights, and comprehensive drug policies. Addressing these changes through policy and activism will be imperative in the fight for racial justice.


Nina Jacinto is a freelance blogger living in the Bay Area whose writing focuses on issues of race, gender, and media representation. She's a graduate of Pomona College and loves South Asian diaspora narratives, bargain shopping, and the Internet.


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