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SERIES: Mothers Maintain Families While Serving Time

More than two-thirds of women in U.S. prisons are also mothers, and prison time can have devastating impacts on their families.

baby bottles and mother feeding baby

Photo: Bonnie Layton

A mother feeds her baby at the Wee Ones Nursery, a program run by the Indiana Women's Prison for inmates who are also mothers.

This is the second in a three-part series on women in Indiana’s prisons.

You may not expect to hear babies crying in a prison, but in the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, just steps away from the courtyard where prisoners take recreation breaks, the echo of babies crying is the sound of everyday life.

“You’ve got big blue eyes! Yeah? You’ve got big blues eyes, don’t you?” inmate Ruth Craig, 36, says as she plays with her two-month-old son son, Keegan. “Just about every morning between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m., that’s when he’s hungry again. But he just takes a bottle and goes right back to sleep. I can’t complain.”

Craig and Keegan are at the Wee Ones Nursey, a program offered for women who are pregnant when they arrive to serve their sentences. Craig has been in and out of prison multiple times since 2005, on felony charges for theft and forgery, and she is still recovering from prescription drug addictions. When Craig was sentenced to time in the Indiana Women’s Prison earlier this year, she was pregnant, and she was worried she would have to give up her baby as soon as he was born.

“My parents are elderly, and they could not keep him,” she says. “And his dad has other priorities in his life to where he couldn’t keep him. And if I had not been accepted into this program, I would have had to have put him up for adoption or sent him home.”

Retaining A Mother-Child Bond

Craig’s story is not uncommon. More than two-thirds of women in prison in the U.S. are also mothers. Incarcerated women who give birth normally have to leave their babies at the hospital and must either place them with family or put them up for adoption.

Criminal justice researcher Crystal Garcia studies the impact of prison programs on inmates. She says even though some disagree with keeping little ones in a prison setting, the practice of keeping them with mom ultimately benefits the kids and the prison system.

“I think most of the work talks about the motivational fact of being able to build a bond with that child so that you can be a successful parent when you get out,” Garcia says. “I think that it’s successful all the way around, not only successful for the mother but successful for the child. Then if that remains a motivating factor when she gets out, it’s a success for society.”

In spite of that data, prison nurseries are rare. Wee Ones is the only prison nursery in Indiana, and there is only one other program in the state that lets moms keep their kids with them while serving prison sentences.

Alternative Sentencing

At the Theodora House, an alternative sentencing facility in downtown Indianapolis, a comfortable but clinical feel of a doctor’s office waiting room is where many women are reunited with their children for the first time.

“I’m going to stop at this first room, our kids corner. This is our therapeutic visitation center,” Mary Leffler, director of the Theodora House, says.

Leffler says having mom in prison may be even harder on older kids. She says today many women are given prison sentences that are just long enough to disrupt their kids’ lives but not enough time to turn their lives around.

“In Indiana some stats show that about 70 percent of all offenders serve less than about two years in a prison,” Leffler says. “So therefore, this constant kind of in and out of my life cycle is really more traumatizing for a child than a child whose parent is going to be gone for 10 or 12 years. I get used to that. I get stabilized. But this mom’s in mom’s out is very hard for the kids to adjust to.”

Indiana Department of Corrections director of re-entry Randy Koester says that is exactly why he would like to see more alternative prison programs. However, he says the DOC probably will not be creating any new ones in the near future. He says communities and non-profits should be doing that work, not prisons.

“We can’t do it all, and I could easily just say it’s funding,” Koester says. “Like you said, ideally if we had plenty of money then we’d go out and just purchase these kinds of programs and we would hire people to run them. But you really want people that are part of the community to be involved in that.”

Koester says it is also a numbers game. Because programs like the Wee Ones Nursery were only created recently in response to the female prison population jump of the early 2000s, there is not solid proof the programs are working. The Wee Ones Nursery started four years ago, but program administrators say it is too hard to keep track of women once they leave the program.

Read more about the growth in the female population at Indiana prisons in the first part of this series.

Julie Rawe

Julie is Assistant Producer of Noon Edition. In addition to reporting for WFIU, she also works as an intern for NPR's State of the Re:Union. She is a graduate of Indiana University where she studied French, anthropology, and African studies.

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