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Do Babies Belong in Prison?

At 17 months and about two feet tall, with soft wavy hair and big brown eyes, Carlos may not look like a typical ex-con – but he has spent time in prison. When Carlos’s mother, Janet, who was pregnant with him at the time of her arrest for criminal possession of a
Do Babies Belong in Prison?
Mary Bryne observes a child at play during a one-year follow-up, post-prison.
controlled substance in 2004, gave birth to him at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Carlos lived with her inside the prison nursery for the first five months of his life. Now, in a much-anticipated study, a School of Nursing professor, Mary Byrne, Ph.D., is trying to assess how – or whether – living in prison affects the development of children like Carlos.

Carlos’s experience is highly unusual. Bedford Hills is one of only a few women’s prisons in the United States that allow pregnant prisoners to keep a newborn with them for the first 12 to 18 months of the baby’s life. Carlos is one of 86 babies taking part in the NIH-funded project of Dr. Byrne, professor of clinical nursing, to assess the success of the Bedford Hills nursery program.

The Bedford Hills nursery, which has existed in some form since 1901, was created to help foster a stronger attachment between mother and infant, improve parenting skills, and reduce a mother’s chances of recidivism.

"The babies in the prison nursery program are developmentally
the same as others."

Mary Bryne

Until now, though, no outsider has evaluated the success of the programs. Dr. Byrne’s research, expected to be completed next year, will answer the most pressing question – is the experience good for the child’s cognitive, emotional and physical health? The project will have a big impact on the future of these nurseries; four other states in the United States are considering opening prison nurseries but are waiting until Dr. Byrne’s findings are in.

The research began almost by accident. Dr. Byrne initially went to Bedford Hills as a liaison for the School of Nursing’s master’s degree students who provided clinical care at the prison. “I took a look around and noticed the nursery,” Dr. Byrne says. “As a pediatric nurse practitioner interested in mother-infant attachment, I knew I wanted to research this.”

By late 2000, she had started a small study with support from the Columbia University Institute for Child and Family Policy and the New York State Department of Health. In 2003, she began her current study, a much larger and ambitious project that will track about 100 prison nursery babies from birth, throughout their stay in the nursery, and through their first year outside of prison.

In her suite at the School of Nursing, and at Bedford Hills, Dr. Byrne and her colleagues assess the children’s cognitive, motor, and behavioral development using Bayley Scales, well-validated measures of infant development that have been used for more than 35 years.
During the assessment Carlos climbs a set of wooden stairs, plays with an assortment of toys and books, and responds to questions from a child neuropsychologist. He’s particularly fascinated with the yellow pegboard – deftly inserting the pegs into the board – and keeps returning to it even when he’s asked to point to pictures of dogs and cars. “He’s pretty clear about what he wants to do and what he doesn’t want to do,” Dr. Byrne says.

The observation of play lasts about 45 minutes; the finding – Carlos is a sweet and curious child, developing at about the same pace as any other 17-month-old toddler. This observation is followed by a laboratory assessment of mother-child attachment, several questionnaires, and an interview with the mother. Though Dr. Byrne has so far completed her one-year post release follow-up of about a quarter of the 100 babies in the study – Carlos is fairly typical of what she has witnessed so far.

“The babies in the prison nursery program are developmentally the same as other babies,” Dr. Byrne says. “To answer the real question ‘do the babies belong in the prison with their mothers?’ – the answer, so far, seems to be yes.”

The alternative to keeping babies in prison with their mothers, may, in fact, be much more detrimental to the child’s health. “If a baby isn’t cared for by its mother, who else can function as the primary caregiver?” Dr. Byrne asks. “Sometimes the baby is passed around and nobody develops a strong attachment to the child.”

In general, children who are suddenly or repeatedly separated from their primary caregivers are more likely to have difficulty learning and become cold and aggressive adults who, in turn, make poor parents. The few studies of children with incarcerated parents show that these children are at higher risk than children in the general population for emotional and behavioral disorders, school failure, and coming to the attention of the criminal justice system as juveniles and adults.

The prison nurseries appear not only to benefit the children but also the mothers. None of the mothers in Dr. Byrne’s study have committed any new crimes and only 5 percent have violated parole and returned to prison. Though Dr. Byrne was reluctant to include recidivism in her study because it seemed too onerous to pin the future of a valuable parenting program on just one parameter, she says, “recidivism is obviously an important factor in the child’s well-being because if the mother returns to prison, her baby is separated from her again.”

When Dr. Byrne’s study ends next year, other prison systems will have enough information on child development to make decisions about opening their own nurseries. But as Dr. Byrne watches more of her research subjects leave prison, she realizes that a child’s well-being may be at risk by transitioning from prison to home.

Carlos and his mother, Janet, have a stable home but many women find themselves in the position of constantly looking for places to live. “Most mothers and babies do well while they are in prison, but the transfer out is a vulnerable time,” Dr. Byrne says. “Once they leave, it’s up to them to find their own housing, pay for food, apply for health insurance. After the prison nursery research is done, we’ll start looking into nursing interventions for this period that continue to promote the health and welfare of the child and mother.”

—Susan Conova