Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
The U.S. incarcerates women at a higher rate than any other country and a majority of these women are mothers. Most women who are incarcerated are separated from their children, but a unique prison program at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, funded by private donations and grants, allows some low-level offenders to keep their newborns in a prison nursery. Megan Thompson reports.
Brenda Singer is serving two years at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis for opioid possession and failing to show up at a work release program. When she arrived here in January, she was almost 9 months pregnant. It meant she'd give birth behind bars and possibly be separated from her baby just hours later.
I was scared. I was really worried, I mean, I would have had a– little under 24 hours with her. But that's– that would have been just, like, havin' her and pushin' her away.
But that's not what happened. Two weeks after getting here, Singer gave birth to her daughter Doris. Little Doris now lives here, in the prison, with her mother in a special unit called the "Wee Ones Nursery."
She's amazing. She's startin' to smile and coo back at me. First smile breaks your heart. Just melt, you know?
And you got to see it.
Yeah. Yeah. Thanks to Wee Ones.
Leah Hession is the nursery's director.
Wee Ones was started in April of 2008 as a way for pregnant low level offenders, to be able to keep their children after delivery, while the mother is still incarcerated.
The United States puts more females in prison than any other country in the world. And the majority of incarcerated women are mothers. But prison nurseries are rare. There are only eight in the country.
For some people watching this, it might be a little bit surprising to see babies in a prison. Is it good for a baby to be living in a prison?
I think so. These are infants. These are babies who are months old, who just wanna be held, and nursed, and loved by their mothers. And that's what we're able to provide in a safe environment.
The nursery is housed in its own dormitory, where mothers live separated from the nearly 600 other prisoners.
So this is one of our mother's rooms. You'll notice it only has one bed. A typical offender room is going to have a bunk bed so it'll be two offenders to a room. With our mother's room, we only have one bed and room for the crib. So it gives the mother and child time to bond.
When we visited, there were four babies in the nursery. There is room for up to 10. Pregnant prisoners can live here too.
Over here, this is also a nursery. This nursery does have a television in it. It's got two of the electric swings so it's a little more – little more popular.
This here is our supply closet. So once a week, the mothers will bring – they have like a reusable bag.
Officials say the Wee Ones program is funded entirely by private donations and grants including all the diapers and wipes.
We have two closets, we have a boys' closet and a girls' closet.
Same goes for the baby clothes. Most of them are donated, and then re-used.
The mothers are able to come and exchange clothes every other week just as their child grows so much in the first year.
To live here, women must be low-level offenders with zero history of violence. And their sentences must be relatively short, so they'll be released by the time their child turns two. The stakes are high. If they break the rules, they could get kicked out.
We have expectations from room inspections to classes and things like that that she must complete. She's going to have a positive attitude and a willingness to change her life.
I hate bein' on drugs. I hate that life. But I can't let it hold on to me cause I'm ready to move forward. I'm ready to be a better person. I'm ready to be a better mom- more than anything.
28-year old Jamie Beam has battled addiction since she was 14 years old. She says her drug of choice is methamphetamine. She was convicted last year of burglary and of illegal possession of a firearm. When she was locked up last summer she was about five months pregnant.
I didn't know where we would be. I didn't know what would happen, who– who she'd be with. I didn't have any answers, and I was very scared.
Khloe was born in December.
She is such a happy baby. She's full of smiles. Just very happy. And I'm so glad that I didn't have to miss out on that.
Beam has raised two other young daughters who are now living with their dad in Michigan. In here, sober, Beam feels she's able to focus more on Khloe than she was with her other children.
I notice a lot more parenting, you know, things than I did with my other girls just because being on the outside there's distractions. There's comin' and goin', you know, versus me and Khloe where it's just, like, one on one, all the time, every day.
You know, to be able to show her she's got a mom who loves her and is gonna take care of her and be there for her. I don't know if later in the future if, you know, if we didn't have this bond where our relationship would be. Because I feel like that bond is gonna be how her whole life might turn out. Sounds crazy, but yeah.
Angela Tomlin says that's not crazy at all. She's a psychologist and expert in early childhood development at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
It's really important for kids to have that early attachment to their parents.
Tomlin notes that the brains of infants are still developing. And babies need certain social experiences to help their brains form.
And that social experience that is most important is that relationship with the parent. So we need, over and over again, day to day, moment-by-moment experiences of having the parent see the baby, understand the baby's need, and fulfill it over time. And what we understand that happens through that process is that the child comes to know in, like, a real way that they are psychologically and physically safe. And that sense of safety, or trust, is what we think of when we think of as a secure attachment. That secure attachment has so many benefits down the road. Doing well in school, getting along with other people. And really growing up to be a sensitive parent themselves.
Researchers at Columbia University compared babies who lived in prison nurseries to those raised by mothers outside with similar risk factors, like drug addiction. They found that a larger number of the prison-nursery babies developed secure attachments.
Another Columbia study found these children were less anxious and less depressed once they got to preschool, compared to babies who'd been separated from their incarcerated moms.
And, most children of prisoners are separated. All the moms in the Wee Ones Nursery and of most the other inmates have older kids they had to leave behind.
Any time a child is separated from their parent that has the potential to be experienced as a trauma.
Tomlin says it can be especially traumatic for children when a mother goes to prison, because she's usually the primary caregiver.
So if Dad goes to prison, Mom often is still there for the child. When Mom goes to prison, a lot of times it's not the dad who's available to take care of the child. It may be another family member. The child may be in a foster care situation.
While kids can develop secure attachments to other caregivers, like grandparents, and regular visits to their mothers in prison can help, too.
Every time he comes down here that's what he wants, dinosaurs.
The Indiana Women's Prison "Family Preservation Program" has a huge play area where visiting kids can run free.
I personally pretty much just pretend like it's home.
Jessica Inholt didn't qualify for the Wee Ones Nursery because her sentence for dealing heroin was too long. But her mom faithfully brings her two-year-old son, Tripp, to visit every weekend.
You know, I set snacks out for him. And make sure he's not gonna hurt himself playing around. Being a first-time mom, and being in prison- I just try and do the best that I can to learn how to be a mom while I'm here.
Play rooms like this one go a long way towards helping moms develop and maintain relationships with their children, says Angela Tomlin. Especially compared to typical prison visiting rooms where prisoners often can't hold their children, or even might be sitting behind glass.
The child needs to see the parent as a caregiver. So we need an environment where the child can behave in a typical way, and the parent can have opportunity to respond to the child in a typical way.
Back in the Wee Ones Nursery Brenda Singer stays in touch with her five other children with phone calls. Most of them live in Ohio, too far away for regular visits.
Aw, you got a belly ache?
Singer, who's been incarcerated at least 4 times before, tries to call every day.
I hope you feel better. I love you.
I do worry about them having trust with me. My oldest daughters I had– quite a bit of confrontation with them because they just felt like, you know, "We're tired, Mom. So either get it right this time, or, you know, like, you know, I– you're not gonna be my mom," pretty much is how I got it. So it hurts them. You know, not only do we do the time, but they do. So we let them down. I let them down, I should say.
Doing time in the nursery is supposed to give moms the chance to turn things around. And proponents of the nursery say this program can help make that happen. A 2013 study by the University of Indianapolis followed women who spent time in the Wee Ones Nursery. Compared to women separated from their babies, they were about half as likely to return to prison within their first year of release.
To make sure the new moms can go to therapy and classes, there's childcare provided by other, low-level offenders who live on the unit, too.
While her baby's looked after, Jamie Beam attends a cocaine anonymous group, a 12-step program and culinary arts classes. The prison also offers prenatal, postnatal and parenting classes.
I feel like if I weren't to be with her, I'd probably not be able to work on myself as quick as I have been- just 'cause I feel like that– I would be missing a very important time of Khloe's life.
Brenda Singer is going through a rehabilitation program here, too.
You've been incarcerated before. Is there something about this time, this place, this stay that means you're gonna turn it around?
Oh yeah. I missed a lot. I'm gonna miss my grandson's birth. And that tears me up. But I made those choices. So if this wasn't a smack in the face, I don't know what would be.
When Doris is older, when she's grown up, what are you gonna tell her about this chapter of her life?
That Mom- Mom learned a lot just by having her with me. She's my coach. As I call her, she's my boss right now. And it's great. Because I need that. I need that mentally, to be fixated on what's important. And it's not about the drugs. It's not about pills or, you know, rollin' the next blunt or drinkin' my next drink. It's about Doris, at the end of the day. And all day, it's about her. So I think that's mentally making me fit, you know, for the outside.
Watch the Full Episode
Megan Thompson shoots, produces and reports on-camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her report "Costly Generics" earned an Emmy nomination and won Gracie and National Headliner Awards. She was also recently awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship to report on the issue of mental health. Previously, Thompson worked for the PBS shows and series Need to Know, Treasures of New York, WorldFocus and NOW on PBS. Prior to her career in journalism she worked in research and communications on Capitol Hill. She originally hails from the great state of Minnesota and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a MA in Journalism from New York University.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: