16x9, a Canadian investigative news program, published a story in October 2014 that took a critical and thorough look at prison programs that allow mothers to raise their babies behind bars. If you've never heard of programs such as these, the notion of a baby in prison might be downright terrifying, but don't be too quick to judge. The term 'prison' may conjure up images of cold, dark cells, but the babies being raised inside prison walls are growing up in very different circumstances than the actual prisoners. The video below examines both the pros and cons of programs that allow new mothers to keep their newborns with them at low security prisons.
The first prison we get to see is Decatur Correctional Facility in Illinois, which has been home to 64 babies since 2007. As one of the officials from Decatur states in the video, prison is not the best place for a baby to be raised; however, when a woman is pregnant while incarcerated, the best place for the baby to be is with its mother. The point of programs that allow mothers to keep their babies with them is to rehabilitate the mothers first and foremost. These women receive training and support that will help them be positive, compassionate, and prepared parents once they are out of jail. Further, these women are kept under very close observation and are held to a very strict set of rules. At Decatur, mothers have a camera in their room at all times, they are not allowed to sleep in the same bed as their baby, there is a zero tolerance policy for spanking, and security guards are stationed all throughout the ward. Programs like the one at Decatur are doing everything possible to give mothers and infants the ability to bond in their earliest years together despite the mother's incarceration.
Because these programs have plenty of merits alongside their drawbacks, the issue has sparked a huge debate about the ethics of raising a child in prison. Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator for Canada, supports programs like the one at Decatur because he believes they are in the absolute best interest of the child. He explains that children of incarcerated mothers who suffer long separations from their mothers tend to be the most at risk of developing a criminal lifestyle later on. Grant Wilson, president of the Canadian Children's Rights Council, has a different opinion on the matter, arguing that the child's father or other family members would be a better option for raising the child while the mother is incarcerated. He says that the women who are incarcerated are severely disadvantaged when it comes to being a good parent simply because they are criminals (though many of them committed very minor and non-violent crimes). Both Sapers and Wilson acknowledge that the best place for a baby to be is with its mother, so why is Wilson's take on this issue so much harsher than Sapers'?
The problem with Wilson's argument is that he is exceptionally unforgiving in the way he places judgement on the women involved in these programs. He believes he has the right to say that a woman is unfit as a parent/guardian because she is behind bars, regardless of the nature of her crime or her level of interest in rehabilitation. This is an incredibly limiting view of both criminals and human nature; not everyone who makes a mistake that lands them behind bars is necessarily a bad person or a bad parent. In a way, his argument seems to say that criminals are too far gone and not worth saving, which highlights a problem of perspective that has plagued humanity since the very beginning of time: there is a tendency to further marginalize the already-marginalized. We see this attitude towards the mentally ill, the homeless, and the criminal; it is an attitude that essentially says "you're already broken, and it's too expensive and too difficult to fix you, so I won't bother." Instead of focusing the argument around why we shouldn't help these young "broken" mothers, the discussion should be about why we should help them so that they have the opportunity to give their children and themselves the best lives possible.
What do you think about prison programs that let mothers keep their babies with them in low-security facilities? Do you feel that it is crucial for a child's well-being to be present with its mother during the first few years of life? Imagine for a moment that you were arrested for a minor crime while pregnant, could you fathom willingly parting with your baby after birth if you knew you could otherwise keep that child with you in a safe, comfortable environment? Where do you draw the line and say that a mother should no longer be able to raise her own child? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.