Over half of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80% of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail.
It is estimated that up to 2,000 infants are born to incarcerated mothers each year, only to be taken from them 24 hours after birth and placed either with a family member or more often, in the foster care system.
Right now, there's a push to put nurseries in prisons. Nine states have done so. Missouri plans to next year.
“At the end of the five days, he went out one door with my family and I went out another door with three guards to go back to prison,” Barbara Baker said.
Forty years ago, Baker was separated from her son when he was only 5 days old.
“You know, even talking and thinking about it brings tears to my eyes, to see it, too emotional for me to think about that day and time,” she described.
Maggie Burke works with women like Baker, who are transitioning out of the system. For years, she personally had to look into the eyes of women who had to say goodbye to their newborns. But in 2007, she saw something else—a chance to break the cycle.
“Giving them this opportunity to bond with another human, to bond with the human that they've created that's already there,” Burke said. “And they want to have this kid and they want to be a good mother. Giving them the opportunity isn't just going to save money.”
Burke is referring to prison nurseries like the Decatur Correctional Center in Illinois. Eight other states have prison nurseries; the first opened its door in New York at Bedford Hills in 1901. Just last month, the state of Missouri approved a nursery to be opened at the Chillicothe Correctional Center.
A recent study shows only 4% of the women participating in the New York nursery program returned to prison for a new crime. Three years after release, 86% of the women remained in their communities.
Most prisons have room for only 10 women and their children. The women are selected by a committee and have to have no history of violence and typically be serving terms under 18 months. The moms spend the bulk of their day with their children in the nursery.
For 10 years, Burke witnessed only two women return to prison of the 100 women that went through the Decatur program. And it’s not just the moms that are benefitting.
“There's research right now that's showing that these babies are off the charts because the moms are engaging with them so much,” Burke said.
Forty years ago, it was a very different story for Baker.
“So, when I saw him again, he didn’t know who I was,” Baker said. “I was a stranger. He didn't want me to pick him up.”
Without that bond, both Baker and her son became a statistic. A report by the National Institute of Justice shows that children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be incarcerated themselves.
But it’s a cycle that experts like Dr. Jennifer Lefever say can be broken.
“So, the more that we can do that for our children, they're going to have better health outcomes. They'll likely have better educational outcomes like that, better mental health, and behavioral outcomes,” she said.
Baker is now helping women transition out of prison, but she’s found her true calling as a grandma.