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Babies Behind Bars


Given that 7% of incarcerated women in the United States were pregnant at the time of their sentencing, it’s surprising that the conditions of confinement for pregnant and birthing women and the subsequent treatment of their children doesn’t get more play in the media, or at least in alternative media outlets (ahem). So it was interesting (encouraging?) to see an article in the Times today about a women’s prison in Mexico in which children born to inmates stay with their mothers until they turn 6 years old:

While a prison may seem an unhealthy place for a child, in the early 1990s the Mexico City government decided it was better for children born in prison to stay with their mothers until they were 6 rather than to be turned over to relatives or foster parents. The children are allowed to leave on weekends and holidays to visit relatives.

A debate continues among Mexican academics over whether spending one’s early years in a jail causes mental problems later in life, but for the moment the law says babies must stay with their mothers. So the prison has a school with three teachers.

The warden, Margarita Malo, said the children had a calming effect on the rest of the inmates. The presence of children also inspires the mothers to learn skills or, in many cases, to kick drug habits that landed them in trouble in the first place.

And even though the prison is full of women capable of violence, the children usually walk safely among them, as if protected by an invisible shield. It is as though they tap the collective maternal instinct of the 1,680 women locked up here.

Leaving aside for a moment the “maternal instinct” remark, this is an intriguing idea. In the U.S., only four states even have prison nurseries, nevermind provisions for the rearing of children. Bedford Hills, New York’s maximum security women’s prison, allows children to stay with their mothers until the children are 1 year old, unless the mother will be released within six months. To me, programs and facilities allowing babies to remain with their incarcerated mothers for the first months or years of life seem like no-brainers. Necessities, even.

It’s when the children are older that the question gets trickier, as is clear in the Times article.

Elsa Romero Martínez, a psychologist who runs the school, said the children showed no signs of overly aggressive behavior. There have been few reports of abuse, though one child, suffering bruises, was taken away from a cocaine-addicted mother two years ago.

The thorniest problem she and the teachers face is preparing the children and mothers for separations once the children reach 6. “We have to teach them to say goodbye to the mothers,” she said.

To show them that a wider world exists, the teachers try to take the children on field trips as often as possible. Their budget is limited and they rely on charity for the outings. They have managed only three this year — to a museum, an amusement park and a children’s theater.

How does one explain to a school-age child that they are living in a prison and that they will have to leave their mother soon, and will no longer be able to live with her, despite the fact that this is all the child has known? The Mexico City prison allows children to stay with their mothers regardless of the length or indeterminate nature of the mother’s sentence (many of the mothers in the prison have yet to face trial though they have been incarcerated for years – a problem that would be obviated because of speedy trial requirements in the U.S.). One possible fix to the problem of separating a mother from his or her child at an age when the child is sentient would be to only allow women with short enough sentences to keep their children past age 1 (or some other young age). But should a woman’s right to keep her child with her be so dependent on the length of her conviction? Given the range of sentences for similar crimes and the amount of sentencing discretion afforded to judges, the results would be discomfortingly arbitrary.

So what are we to do? Ultimately, a workable and humane solution remains unclear. But at this point, to even acknowledge that such a problem exists in the U.S. would be a step in the right direction.

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