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February 16, 2011

Should more (and male) inmates be permitted (and even encouraged) to raise babies behind bars?

The provocative question(s) in the title of this post is prompted by this local storyout of Washington, which is headlined "8 babies behind bars at Washington womens prison."  Here are the basics that prompt my query:

Right now, at Washington's largest corrections center for women, 871 inmates are serving their sentences.  Among them are 8 babies being raised right in the middle of it all.  It's a trailblazing program pioneered by Washington and now being adopted in other states. But, is prison a safe place to raise a child?

Little Deegan's hands tell so much about the eight-month old boy.  He's playful, curious and always reaching out to his mother Sunny. "We're all in this and it's hard," Sunny Van Cleave explained.  "Deegan makes people happy."

Deegan is surrounded every day by everything he needs; he has his books and toys, his mom and the caregivers who love him.  But, outside his home at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, razor wire separates Deegan from the reality of where he's been raised since he was born....

"We're promoting a healthy bond between incarcerated women and their children," explained Sonja Alley, who supervises the [Residential Parenting Program].  On the day we visited last week, the RPP housed 10 women and 10 kids, with the youngest child just two weeks old.

Sheri Pam's son Quincey is 20-months old, the oldest in the unit right now. Pam is serving time for Second Degree Robbery; she was six months pregnant when she was sentenced. Like every room in the unit, Pam's room has a bed for her, a bed for Quincey and the toys and books you'd see in any toddler's room.  Women here have to meet strict criteria to qualify: they have to be minimum-security offenders, CPS history is considered and mental health is evaluated.

While there are exceptions, the women typically have to be serving a sentence of 30 months or less.  It's a short time in prison terms, but a lifetime for these infants and toddlers.  The program is designed to keep moms and babies from ever coming back. "Children of incarcerated parents are five to seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves," Alley explained. "So, we're really trying to break that chain."...

Most women allowed in the program never set foot in prison again.  But, what about the kids?  It may help the moms to have their babies with them in prison, but is it fair to the kids who have to live here?  How do they tell their child years later that they spent their first birthday and had their first steps just yards away from convicted killers?...

The per-inmate cost of the program is the same as other minimum security offenders here -- about $123 a day.  DSHS money pays for toys, books and food.  It's money the families would qualify for outside of prison, so there's no additional cost to taxpayers. Doctors come in once a month for well-baby checks and vaccinations.

Many of the women say they're receiving care for themselves and their babies they had no idea how to access when their other children were born outside of prison.  Like their moms who work or go to school in prison, these babies are busy, too.  Every day, they head across the prison yard to a sanctuary.  It's the Early Head Start Program, staffed with educational professionals.

As my parentheses are meant to explore, I wonder if this kind of "Residential Parenting Program" might have unique and uniquely important rehabilitative potential for new fathers as well as new mothers. If so, perhaps Washington and other states should consider having this sort of program available in more settings than just their women's prisons.

February 16, 2011 at 04:41 PM | Permalink


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If an inmate is a registered sex offender, and gets access to these children, say by giving the mother drugs, it could be a legal problem.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 17, 2011 4:48:40 AM

Yes. Let's have inmates give their daughters baths in medium security prisons.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 17, 2011 8:28:02 PM

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