Prison nursery allows moms to bond with kids


By JOHN CANIGLIA

The Plain Dealer

MARYSVILLE, Ohio

One-month-old Javon Jackson fidgets with his mom’s jacket as he drinks from his bottle and holds her hand.

His mom coos. Her friends laugh, and a precocious, 2-year-old toddler stops by and waves hi. In all, it is a typical, upbeat moment for any mother and child – until prison officials tell Javon’s mom, Janisha Meredith of Cleveland, that a head count is scheduled in 5 minutes.

Javon and four other children, who were born while their mothers were incarcerated, are being raised by their moms in Ohio’s prison nursery, a facility that sits less than 30 feet from the razor wire that circles the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

Mothers and their children sleep in 8-foot by 14-foot rooms, complete with cribs, night lights and lots and lots of diapers. Their days are spent in a common nursery area, where inmates, assigned to be nannies, often care for the children when their mothers work elsewhere in the prison or take classes.

Since 2001, 298 infants and toddlers have lived with their mothers in the Marysville prison. The state is one of 11 in the country to offer a prison nursery. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons also has a program.

Proponents say the programs slash recidivism and allow mothers to bond deeply with their children. An annual federal grant, this year it is $61,000, funds Ohio’s project. Volunteers and officials with Ohio State University Extension provide parenting and family education classes.

The women in the program are appreciative.

“This program has helped me become a better parent and a more mature person,” says Meredith, 23, a convicted drug dealer who has been in the nursery for less than two months. She is to be released in April. “I am able to pay more attention to what is important: my child.”

Critics question the long-term impact of prison nursery programs.

They say children, especially infants, should never be placed in prisons. Opponents fear nurseries will hinder cognitive development and growth, as prisons are built to punish and rehabilitate, not to cater to the needs of a child.

They say residential programs offer a far better alternative. These programs are based in communities and, in most cases, are part of probation. They allow mothers to work, gain treatment and bond with their children.

“The very environment of a prison is stressful, and that stress is not good for a child,” says James Dwyer, a law professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “Prison officials are not in a place to do what’s best for the child. They are there to do what’s in the best interest of the inmate.”

Gail Smith, the director of the Women in Prison Project for the Correctional Association of New York, agrees.

“The culture of prisons focuses on security and is punitive,” Smith said. “Mother-infant programs must be family-focused and nurturing.”

Some officials in states that do not have prison nurseries cite the necessary renovation costs. Others simply fight the idea of it.

“There are a lot of people who don’t believe that children should be in prison,” says Kristina Toth of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, which does not have a nursery program.

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