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Why some American states are locking up toddlers

LIKE MANY people in prison, Ada Lynn listens more than she speaks, spends most of her time with people she knows best, and is deeply wary of strangers: in fact, when she sees one she tends to burst into uncontrollable sobs, because, unlike most people in prison, she is ten months old. Natalie Myers, Ada Lynn’s 23-year-old mother, was pregnant when she was imprisoned for vehicular homicide. Washington is one of just a few states that offer residential nurseries for women who give birth while imprisoned. Ms Myers loves the programme. “This is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” she says. “I always thought I’d never be a functional person because I dug myself into such a hole. But here I’m figuring out who I am with my daughter.”

Not everyone shares her optimism. Carolyn Sufrin, a professor at Johns Hopkins who researches pregnancy in prisons, says that “as much as [nurseries] decorate the walls with colourful decorations, it’s still prison…What are the unspoken and unmeasurable consequences of that early environment?” Others worry that they are unconstitutional, and would not survive a court challenge brought on behalf of a baby who was imprisoned without due process. Boosters argue that they cut recidivism rates, and are the best of an array of bad options for incarcerated pregnant women.

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, in 2017, 225,000 women were behind bars in America, with 99,000 of them in state prisons (in American parlance, jails house people awaiting trial or serving short sentences; prisons house people convicted of more serious crimes). That is around one-tenth the total number of people incarcerated, but it is nearly ten times as many women as were locked up in 1978—a rate of increase nearly twice as great as took place in the male incarceration population over the same time. And as America’s total prison population has fallen since 2008, in most states the female prison population has either continued to grow or declined more slowly than the male population.

According to Dr Sufrin’s study, as of December 2016, 3.8% of newly admitted women prisoners were pregnant. A 1976 Supreme Court ruling found that the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments require states to provide health care to prisoners, but what that means in practice varies wildly, particularly for pregnant women. They are sometimes shackled while giving birth—a practice that often continues, according to Amy Fettig, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, even after states outlaw it. In most states, babies born to imprisoned mothers end up with relatives or in foster care.

New York opened the first prison nursery in 1901; today 11 states have them. Criteria for eligibility vary, but generally women convicted of child-related or violent crimes are ineligible, as are women with behavioural or mental-health problems, or with a record of disciplinary problems in prison. In Washington, women accepted into the programme must be pregnant at the time of their imprisonment, and have less than 30 months to serve from the time of delivery; mothers and children are released together.

Studies have found that prison nurseries are associated with lower recidivism rates, compared with women forced to give up their children, and with fewer behavioural and disciplinary problems than women in the general population. But whether that is because of the programmes themselves, or because non-violent inmates without serious behavioural, disciplinary or mental-health problems able to meet the strictures that prison-nursery programmes impose were headed down the right path anyway is unclear.

Conclusions about their effects on children are harder to come by. But, wonders Dr Sufrin, “if women meet these conditions, what are they doing in prison?…I think it’s essential to find ways to maintain family bonds. I just think we need to do it in ways that don’t involve barbed wire.”