Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Gummy Bears and Jail Babies

At any point in time about ten percent of all jail and prison inmates are women. The number of incarcerated women has risen in proportion to the total number of prisoners in the United States. What this means is that in a relatively large jail, in other words a jail holding over a thousand inmates, chances are good that there will be ten or fifteen pregnant prisoners. Some jails actually have maternity wards. All female correctional facilities now have provisions for pre- and post-natal care, as well as security procedures for delivery.

In Riker's Island:
"When a 5-day-old child
stopped breathing
and turned blue
in the jail's nursery,
doctors rushing
to resuscitate the child were
left banging at
the various security gates."
Some facilities have programs that allow newborns to stay with their mothers for some duration of time after birth. Both the Cook County jail and the Washington Division of Correction do this. These kinds of programs include parenting skills classes and education about birth control and the effects of drug abuse on neonates. In New York, Article 22 Section 611 of the state code allows infants born to incarcernated mothers to stay with them in the correctional facility up until eighteen months of age. If the woman has a nursing child under the age of one at the time of arrest, that child can be allowed to stay with her at the discretion of the warden. So yes, breastfeeding is allowed in jail (sorry, Dinah). This program is not an absolute right, however. If the mother is deemed to be physically or otherwise unfit, or if the father requests custody, the child can be removed from the facility under New York's statute.

I don't think anyone would disagree that it's a good idea to give inmates information about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, the effects of substance abuse on fetuses, or parenting skills. I think men in prison need this information too. Male inmates want to be good fathers to their children---particularly when they had no fathers themselves. Unfortunately, if men a get therapeutic program it's usually an anger management class (although I suppose half of being a good parent is to keep your cool when the little buggers drive you crazy). Male jail inmates aren't typically given the chance to bond with their newborn, even when they are held in the same facility as the mother.

None of these educational objectives actually requires

What's bad for the goose
is bad for the gosling.
the presence of a child. In theory, having the child onsite gives the health care provider time to directly observe parental interactions and give immediate feedback when the situation arises. I suspect though that given the usual staff-to-inmate ratio there is probably little direct observation that takes place outside of actual class time. The more disturbing thought is that there is an implicit suggestion that the child is an integral part of the offender's reformation. While having a child certainly can be a reality check for any adult, I don't think an institution should be suggesting this is the purpose of the program. The purpose of the program is to decrease the risk to the child, not to reform the offender. An infant is not a rehabilitation tool.

The other thing I am curious about, and which typically doesn't get addressed in the average newspaper story, is what provision the facility makes for the medical care of the child. I'm not talking about the routine post-natal followup and well-baby checks. I'm talking about the emergencies. I ask this question because I know the confusion and problems that can surround adult medical emergencies in correctional facilities. Do the crash carts in these places carry infant endotracheal tubes? What about pediatrically dosed resuscitation meds? In one example of a worst case scenario, at Riker's Island in 1994 when a 5-day-old child stopped breathing and turned blue in the jail's nursery, doctors rushing to resuscitate the child were left banging at the various security gates.

I guess the bottom line I wonder about is whether the conditions of confinement at these facilities are truly fit for children. My opinion is that in situations where an institutional environment, either whole or in part, has been found to be unconstitutional then these programs should not take place. What's bad for the goose is bad for the gosling.


I have to explain the title of the post. I was just going to call it "Jail Babies" but my first instinctive thought was: "Wow, that sounds like the name of a candy." Thus, gummy bears. I've provided an explanatory link for our foreign readers.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are my own, expressed while off-duty, and do not represent those of my employer or the state government. Please don't pour honey on me and tie me to a fire ant hill.