What Life Is Like For Children Who Are Raised In Prison

Serving time in prison can be challenging on its own, but imagine what it’s like for women who raise their kids there. Countries around the world allow women to keep their kids by their sides while they serve time. The United States has just a handful of prisons with programs that permit inmates to raise their babies and toddlers on the inside. However, a study revealed 33 percent of mothers separated from their babies return to prison, while those who keep their kids had only a 10 percent return rate. Looking at both the positives and the negatives, here’s what it’s like raising a child behind bars.

Little Nicole Spent Her First Two Years In Jail While Her Mom Served Time For Selling Drugs

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A photographer named Carolina Camps captured the lives of women and their children in prison. One inmate named Sandra Valdez lived with her eight-month-old daughter Nicole in Unidad prison in Los Hornos, Argentina. Valdez was sentenced to two years in prison for selling drugs. She raised Nicole there until she was released. Camps first visited Valdez in 2007 and then returned over a decade later to check up on her and Nicole. Valdez currently resides in Buenos Aires with her boyfriend and has nine children from three different relationships. She receives welfare to take care of her three youngest kids.

In South America, The Kids Are Called “Forgotten Children”

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The babies who are raised in South American prisons are known as the “forgotten children.” Many times they are the only “possessions” that their mothers are allowed to have behind bars. Many of these women rely on the companionship of their children in order to get through the day and to forget about their situations. The bond they have with their children allows them to look to the future. Unfortunately, these kids don’t have a great start at life and often end up in similar situations as their parents. They have a difficult time shedding their past and the lifestyle associated with imprisonment.

Incarcerated Until Age 4

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In South America, about one-third of all female prisoners arrive at their facilities either pregnant or caring for very small children. The women in countries such as Argentina are allowed to raise their kids in their cells until they reach the age of four. Most of these women are incarcerated for crimes such as drug trafficking, robbery, or murder; however, their offspring are innocent. They are stuck behind bars even though they never committed a crime. These babies are born in prison, and their history is a constant reminder, listed on their birth certificate. Whether they like it or not, they must do time, just like their mothers.

Anahi Was Three When She Went To Prison With Her Mother

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Camps photographed Silvia Rodas living in a cell with her daughter Anahi, who was four at the time. Rodas’ daughter was three years old when her mother was convicted and received special permission to keep Anahi with her until the age of five. Rodas was sent to prison at the age of 19 for robbery and attempted murder. She spent time in every single prison in the Buenos Aires province. She moved around a lot due to bad behavior. She wound up in Bahia Blanca, the final place that would accept her. These days Anahi visits her mom behind bars, who is serving a 15-year sentence.

A Handful Of US Prisons Allow Female Inmates To Stay With Their Newborns

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In the United States, most of the 2,000 or so inmates who give birth in prisons must give up their infants soon after delivery. However, there are some exceptions. Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Bedford Hills, New York, is one of the few women’s prisons in the country that allows some prisoners to keep their newborn babies with them. Some of these mothers can keep their children until they are 18 months old. The Bedford program is for nonviolent offenders only. Women who are convicted of violent crimes, arson, or illegal activities involving children do not qualify.

See why a pediatrician says it’s a good thing for incarcerated women to have their children with them next.

The Infants Bond With Their Mothers Behind Bars

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Dr. Janet Stockheim is a pediatrician who visits Bedford Hills Correctional Facility twice a month to check up on the babies who are living behind bars with their mothers. She believes the environment is actually beneficial to the infants and doesn’t cause them irreparable harm. They receive love and nurturing. “The babies aren’t aware. They get excellent care,” Stockheim commented. “They are very well bonded to the mothers… Bonding gives a baby trust in the world that they will be taken care of. The babies do better here than they would on the outside with some of these mothers.”

Their Formative Years Are Extremely Important

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In Queensland, Australia, several children live with their mothers in prison. They are allowed to stay with their moms until they reach the age of five when they are ready to go to school. Authorities encourage this type of setting for both parents and children. “Those first five years, they’re very formative,” Jon Francis-Jones, head of Townsville Correctional Complex in north Queensland, told ABC News Australia in 2016. “The whole thrust of this is about maintaining family contact, that important mother-child bond. As for the negative impact on children, I think that’s completely outweighed by being separated from their mother.”

These Children Inspire Their Mothers To Be Law-Abiding Citizens

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Jacqueline McDougall stole silverware in order to buy drugs such as prescription pills and cocaine. When she went to prison, she had gotten clean but was pregnant. She has a young son Max, who grew up behind bars with her at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. After serving nine months in prison for theft, the 26-year-old mom knew that eventually her son would age out of the prison and be taken from her. She told Nightline in 2014: “I think seeing his little face every day and know that… I have to take care of him is going to be a big incentive for me. Definitely.”

Prisoners With Babies Aren’t Given Special Treatment

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Photo: Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images

At Bedford, women with children live in a separate wing apart from the general inmate population. But they are not allowed to have luxuries such as cell phones, jewelry or makeup. And they are only allowed to have three photos each month of their babies. “We don’t have a lot of space,” McDougall revealed. “It’s hard.” While challenging, she believes having Max in prison was a good thing. “I’ve had time to clean up my act and really see where I was headed,” McDougall said. “It wasn’t in a good direction. I think at the end of it all now. I kind of think this saved my life.”

Although the rules are tough, prisons also offer moms opportunities they may not have outside.

Moms At Bedford Take Parenting Classes

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At Bedford, mothers spend every single day with their children. In fact, McDougall and her son Max never spent a day apart from one another. When she completed the chores she was required to do each day, McDougall acted as a full-time single mom. She bathed, diapered, and nursed her son. These activities helped the pair bond and form a strong relationship. The mothers at the facility are also able to participate in classes to help them be good parents. “As much as I hate being here, this has really helped me, being a mother. The motivation to get up every day,” McDougall explained.

The Cost To Raise A Child In Jail

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Liz Hamilton ran the nursery program at Bedford and explained: “It is punishment. Of course you see the warm, fuzzy, the baby care, but you don’t see the waking up early, getting all the chores done. They don’t have their freedom, and they don’t get to make all the choices they would make outside.” Each baby costs about $24,000 a year to take care of in jail. However, that’s less than the $30,000 it would cost if the mom returned to prison due to lack of support. “If that woman stays out of jail for five years, think of [those] savings,” Hamilton said. “It’s keeping that child from the foster care system. That’s another expensive program.”

Children Get Regular Care From Pediatricians On The Inside

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At Washington Corrections Center for Women in Washington state, female prisoners in the Residential Parenting Program must be eligible for release by the time their child turns 30 months old. This rule allows both the mother and child to transition back into society together. At this facility, the mother and child live in a dorm-like setting with a twin bed and crib. They have small kitchens to prepare food and a small window so guards can see in but they still have privacy. Babies get regular check-ups with pediatricians who visit the prison, and in emergency situations, mothers are allowed to take their children out of the prison to seek medical care.

Mothers Are Warned To Avoid Bad Behavior

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Mom Joyce Browning gave birth to twins at Bedford and wanted to raise them in prison. However, when they were about four months old, Browning got into an argument with one of the guards, and they sent her babies away. “Everything happened fast. They just came to my room… told me I had to pack up,” Browning recalled. “It was very, very upsetting, very stressful. I would cry in my room.” Fortunately, the twins’ father was able to take care of them. But Browning spent every day worrying about them: “Even though they were with family, it’s just still that thought that runs through your mind. Are they safe?”

Incarcerated Moms Weigh Their Decision

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Jennifer Dumas, 24, was three weeks pregnant when she was arrested for attempting to steal a safe full of $32,000 worth of cash and jewels. She was sentenced to two years in prison for burglary. Her daughter Codylynn was born inside a maximum-security facility. Dumas had some reservations about raising a child behind bars. She told the Associated Press: “Before I came here, I thought it was a terrible idea. A baby in prison? No, thank you. But it’s actually wonderful to be able to spend this much time with my little girl. … I’m blessed to be able to go through this.”

Only 8 U.S. Prisons Have Nurseries

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As of 2016, there were about 112,00 women in U.S. state and federal prisons. Their crimes were largely related to drugs and stolen property. Of these women, about 1 in 25 is pregnant when they are imprisoned, but there are no statistics on how many babies are born on the inside. Of the 100 women’s prisons in the United States, only eight have nurseries. In comparison, many countries such as France and South Sudan have laws that allow incarcerated mothers to stay with their babies. One study revealed 33 percent of mothers separated from their babies return to prison. Those who keep their kids had only a 10 percent return rate.

Some Moms Use The Time To Get Clean & Get Their Lives Back On Track

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The Decatur Correctional Center in Illinois opened its first nursery in 2007. By 2016, 73 mothers and 69 babies were part of the program. Kalee Ford was convicted on drug charges as a pregnant mom with two children. She was accepted into the program and enrolled in prenatal classes. Ford had a problem with methamphetamine and was hopeful that caring for her child in prison would put her life back on track: “I believe that everybody deserves at least one chance to fix mistakes that they’ve made,” she said. “My children didn’t do this, and they deserve to have me back.”

Are These Moms Adequate Parents? Viewpoints Are Split

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Some think these women should give their kids up for adoption. James Dwyer, a law professor at the College of William & Mary wrote a paper on the topic. He explained: “The focus should be on what’s best for the baby. There is skepticism about these women being adequate parents.” Still others, such as Columbia University researcher Mary Byrne, says kids form crucial attachments to their mothers and kids raised in jail are like other babies: “Many people would assume any exposure to prison would cause problems … they’ll be exposed to violence and horrible people, it will scar them. But that’s not what we found.”

The Thinking Used To Be That Serving Time With One’s Baby Wasn’t Punishment

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There used to be more nurseries within prisons in the past, but things changed in the 1980s as the numbers of prisoners increased dramatically, according to Bedford Hills former superintendent Elaine Lord. Many believed living with one’s baby wasn’t punishment. Then things started to change around the year 2000. But each prison has different rules. The Indiana Women’s Prison has a nursery that allows 10 mother-infant pairs to stay together for up to 18 months. In Washington state, moms are allowed to keep their children for three years. In South Dakota, babies can only stay with their moms for 30 days.

Should These Mothers Even Be Sent To Prison At All?

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At most of these prisons, women are chosen to participate in the programs based on their crimes and whether they’ve had a history of child abuse. Most are nonviolent offenders who serve rather short sentences. Some experts believe they’d be better off living in a cheaper, halfway house-like program that keep mothers with their kids. At Bedford, nearly all of the mothers who are released move to a halfway house in New York City where they get help with jobs and daycare. Dumas said: “It’s a way to get on my feet, try being a parent again on the outside but with a safety net. I don’t know anyone who gets that.”

What Happens When They Leave?

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McDougall was able to stay with her son Max up until the day of her release. But she was nervous about life on the outside: “Because here we don’t have the choice really to do wrong. And out there, I have all the choices in the world. What do I want to eat today? Do I want to get high?” McDougall ended up moving in with her parents and landed a job. She said: “I just hope one day he can learn from my mistakes and not go down the road that I chose. I really just want him to be able to make better decisions than I did.”