Prison nurseries give incarcerated mothers a chance to raise their babies — behind bars
Lindsay Landon beamed as her 10-month-old son, Gabriel, scooted across a playroom. He crawled over to a baby walker, proudly pulled himself up to stand — then promptly fell over.
She scooped him into a hug and carried him to a window cracked just enough to let in the sound of chirping. Gabriel, unfazed by bars on the window, pointed to a bird. Soon he was all smiles again and played with his mother until a loud voice interrupted them.
Landon handed Gabriel off to a caregiver as it was time for the midday prisoner count at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The facility is an all-women's maximum security prison in New York's Westchester County where Landon is a prisoner.
It's also where Gabriel has spent his whole life.
According to affiliate WOWT, Bedford Hills has the nation's longest-running prison nursery. It was opened in 1901 and has allowed hundreds of women who have started their sentences while pregnant to bond with their babies behind bars.
Advocates for these types of prisons say they are best for babies and it lowers the mothers' recidivism rate. However, some critics argue it violates the children's constitutional rights and places a burden on prison staff by requiring them to double as daycare workers.
Bedford Hills is one of eight prison nurseries in the United States. The number of such programs has fluctuated as funding and sentiment toward them has risen and fallen, but now, more than ever, their effectiveness is under scrutiny as the number of women behind bars has skyrocketed.
There are nearly 214,000 women incarcerated in the U.S. — an increase of more than 700 percent since 1980, according to nonprofit The Sentencing Project. There is no official count of how many of these women give birth while imprisoned.
In most prisons, when a woman gives birth, her baby is taken away within 48 to 72 hours and sent to either a relative or foster care. Prison nursery supporters say that keeping newborns with their moms, even behind bars — while not a perfect solution — is better than any alternative.
“Separating a mother from her child at birth is a traumatic experience for both the child and mother,” said Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice, a consulting group that advises on the treatment of women and girls in criminal justice settings. "A baby doesn’t know it’s in prison. A baby knows it’s with its mother."
The women receive support services such as lactation consultation to help from a social worker. However, they must obey all prison rules and more, such as not falling asleep with their babies in bed with them, something they learn during a prenatal class taught inside the nursery wing.
“It’s a hard program,” said Jane Silfen, the director of programming at Hour Children, the nonprofit that the state corrections department has placed in charge of running the Bedford Hills nursery. “It is very positive for the baby, but it’s hard work, and it’s still very much prison.”
WOWT reported that, before her arrest, Landon was milking cows in Middlebury, Vermont, working overtime and making $500 a week. It was not enough to cover the expenses for her two oldest children, 3 and 5, who are now with their grandmother.
Desperate for income, Landon said she contacted dealers she had sold drugs with when she was younger.
“My criminal life took over and dominated my family life. I wasn’t quite the mother that I was — that I would have liked to have been,” Landon said
She was arrested in March 2016 after police found 50 grams of cocaine on her during a traffic stop. She pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a controlled substance, and, while out on bail, she discovered she was pregnant.
Landon was two months pregnant when she went to prison in January 2017 to begin a three-year sentence that could be shortened to eight months for good behavior.
“To be in prison with my baby every day for the past 10 months has been a beautiful gift,” she said. “To have an intimate bond with him. To be able to breastfeed. To be able to watch him grow and nourish him.”
However, Landon's time with her son is limited. When Gabriel turns one, he will be put in care of Hour Children in Queens, New York, while his mother finishes her sentence. Hour Children will take Gabriel to visit his mother every two weeks.
Though Landon, and others, may see the benefits. Those on the opposite side have harsh criticism.
Many say it is not only unfair, but unconstitutional for children to be behind bars.
“These placements of them by the states is done with no due process whatsoever,” James Dwyer, law professor at the College of William and Mary and one of the most outspoken critics of prison nurseries, said. “If someone challenged the way these babies were put in prison, any judge would have to grant the programs are unconstitutional.”
Dwyer also fears that whatever a woman did to be convicted in the first place will haunt her — and the baby — after she is released.
“These women have so many difficulties and damage, that they are just not good long-term prospects as parents,” he said. “So if the children ever formed an attachment to the mother, it gets severed, which is traumatic, and it’s difficult for them to ever have healthy-attachment relationships with anyone else after that.”
Others object to how the nurseries will be paid for; Bedford Hills uses about $176,000 annually in state funds and receives private grants and donations.
Besides the money, others wonder how the nurseries will be staffed and how prisons can keep the babies safe.
Still, there’s a growing push to create more nurseries. Those in favor point to research on how the women and babies fare long term — which is limited, but encouraging. One five-year study found that babies raised in prison nurseries had comparable rates of secure attachments — the secure sense of self that children develop thanks to support and stability from loving caregivers early in life — to healthy children raised in families on the outside.
Another study, conducted on Bedford Hills, found that the 3-year recidivism rate for all women released from prison was 26 percent, compared with 13 percent for nursery program participants.
But prison nurseries are not for everyone. Some mothers have trouble following the safety rules, which include not leaving your baby unattended. Others drop out voluntarily, either because they are overwhelmed by the program or because a relative or the baby’s father doesn’t like the idea of a baby raised behind bars.
Still, the program can be a safer alternative to life on the outside, said Silfen, of Hour Children, noting that many of the participants come from families coping with poverty or addiction.
“They get three square meals a day, all the stresses of what they had to deal with on the outside are not here. But obviously, they still need to work on what they’re dealing with that brought them here,” she said.
When Landon is released from prison, as soon as April 2019, she plans to finish her education. She had been studying to be a nutritionist before her arrest, although now she is considering osteopathic medicine — anything stable, so she doesn’t fall into old habits.
For now, she is enjoying watching Gabriel grow up, grateful for the chance to paint, dance and listen to music with him, even if it is behind bars, and even though she knows they will soon be separated.
“Originally, when I was pregnant, being in this environment, I was thinking not that babies don’t belong here — but I was kind of a critic myself, because this is a maximum-security prison,” Landon said.
She has since changed her mind.
“It’s more important for the babies to be with the mom,” she said, “than to be sent home to be raised with other people.”