Prison Nurseries, Children with a Parent in Jail, and Supporting Families in the Prison System

            Since this concept was first introduced to me, I have been intrigued by the many factors and complex strategies that make up today’s prison system. More recently, President Obama became the first president to visit a federal correctional facility when he toured Cell 123 in El Reno, Okla. and then spoke with prisoners in Cell Block B. Obama’s visit highlights an on-going discussion in today’s society in regard to race, discrimination in the legal system, and the mass incarceration of non-violent offenders in part because of recent laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences. “The most defining characteristic of the modern American prison system is its sheer enormity. The United States is officially the leader in prison population in the world, with a rate of 716 per 100,000. More than half of other countries and territories around the world have rates below 150 per 100,000 (Elmalak, 2015).” To learn more on how this affects our children and families I set out to see what research I could find in regards to pregnant women who are imprisoned to the spillover effects of having a parent in jail and what can be done to support those families.

            To explore the complexities that ultimately begin a significant cycle of events we must ask how a family finds themselves in this situation. “Women are the fastest growing population in jail; their numbers have increased more than 832% since 1977, largely as a result of a dramatic increase in the number of women incarcerated for nonviolent drug or drug-related offenses. Although the direct expenses of operating and constructing jails are staggering, they do not begin to reflect the costs to children, families, and communities of locking up an ever-increasing number of nonviolent drug offenders- particularly women who are often the sole caregivers for their children. In fact, mothers in jail typically leave two or more children... One in five children will witness their mother’s arrest (Katz, 1998).” Substance abuse, long histories of victimization, and recurring criminal justice involvement are common characteristics of jailed women and combined, put children in higher risk of abuse or neglect. The majority of women in jail are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, many self-medicate as a result of suffering tremendous physical and sexual abuse, and in many cases sobriety is a considerable factor in a mother’s ability to provide consistent nurturing care to her children (Katz, 1998).

            Some women find themselves facing pregnancy or childbirth in jail, with pregnant inmates having increased mortality and morbidity rates related to delayed prenatal care and perinatal risks (Byrne, Goshin, & Joestl, 2010), but even fewer have the option of “co-residing” with their baby once the infant is born. “Although the first nursery program was established more than a century ago, this is still a new and rare concept, with only nine states currently operating such programs (Elmalak, 2015).”

There are currently no nurseries in the Federal prison system, not much is known about nurseries in local jails, and historically US prison programs have provided minimal additional parenting support. “Especially for infants with no other alternatives, the opportunity to receive maternal care in an environment that supports parenting may be critical to future development. Neurochemical systems that regulate social behavior have been shown to be strongly affected by parental nurturing in infancy and in the absence of quality maternal care can be abnormally developed and stimulate reward pathways associated later in life with violence and addiction” (Byrne, Goshin, & Joestl, 2010).  The last published multinational survey related to prison nurseries reported the US as one of only four countries (based on queries of 70 nations) to routinely separate imprisoned mothers from their infants. In fact, in some parts of Europe, Central America, and the non-Western world, children can co-reside in prisons through preschool years. A five-year intervention study of maternal and child outcomes for incarcerated women co-residing with their infants in a prison nursery program researched several aspects related to attachment, maternal qualities, mother-child interaction, child development over time, and maternal crime recidivism. “Using intergenerational data collected with rigorous methods, this study provides the first evidence that mothers in a prison nursery setting can raise infants who are securely attached to them at rates comparable to healthy community children, even when the mother’s own internal attachment representation has been categorized as insecure” (Byrne, Goshin, & Joestl, 2010).

            A more general segment of the population faces challenges dealing with the incarceration of a parent. “Children of incarcerated mothers often display low self-esteem, anxiety, low achievement motivation, poor conscience development, poor social adjustment, and peer relations, depression, juvenile delinquency, aggression, drug abuse, and other problems… Both criminal justice and child welfare staff express reservations about whether children should visit their parents in jail, despite overwhelming evidence that visiting benefits both parent and child. Visiting is particularly important for the children of women in jail because it allows them to see that their mothers are safe” (Katz, 1998). I spoke to someone who experienced a parent being incarcerated her entire elementary and middle school years. She said one of the most difficult aspects, along with the stigma, was not being able to see her mother often. Some research suggests that up to 58% of confined women do not see their children during their entire sentence.  (Byrne, Goshin, & Joestl, 2010). Children who fail to maintain contact or a close relationship with their mother or primary caregiver are more likely to suffer from developmental delays, an inability to connect with others in the future, and are at greater risk of abusing drugs and/or alcohol, committing crimes and underachieving in school (Elmalak, 2015). “In contrast, a prison with adequate resources can offer a protective environment during high-risk pregnancy and early motherhood, increasing the likelihood of secure housing, suitable health care, nutrition, and sobriety”  (Byrne, Goshin, & Joestl, 2010).

            There are many complex layers as to how to improve our current system and also offer support to the many families dealing with an incarcerated parent. It will ultimately require providing effective drug and alcohol treatment for women in jail, helping children deal with trauma, and creating continuous support for when prisoners (especially parents) return to their communities. Ideally, community-based alternatives to incarceration should also be available (Katz, 1998). A majority of studies suggest that the attachment theory supports the rationale for prison nurseries and programs which support safe contact visits in a jail setting. Supporting mothers and families who end up in this system will take an incredible amount of resources, as well as a collaborative strategy involving the coordination of case workers, care givers, treatment counselors, early education and counseling professionals.





Byrne, M., Goshin, L., & Joestl, S. (2010). Intergenerational transmission of attachment for infants raised in a prison nursery. Attachment & Human Development, 375-393.


Elmalak, S. (2015). Babies Behind Bars, An Evaluation of Prison Nurseries in American Female Prisons and Their Potential Constitutional Challenges. Pace Law Review, 1080-1106.


Katz, P. C. (1998). Supporting Families and Children of Mothers in Jail: An Integrated Child Welfare and Criminal Justice Strategy. Child Welfare League of America, 495-511.


Crystal Segovia Gomez