One of the best accomplishments of the Wyoming Legislature’s budget session had a very modest price tag of $1.01 million, which isn’t much of the $3.2 billion allocated in state government spending. But it could have a profound impact on generations of families, and be positive for society.
State lawmakers approved construction of a prison nursery at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk, after the Wyoming Association of Churches and other lobbying groups informed them about how similar programs are now successfully operating in 11 other states.
An unused building at the WWC is scheduled to be renovated for the program, which will allow inmates to keep their infants for up to 18 months. Eligible inmates with children up to 6 years old would be able to have them stay for overnight visits.
For proponents of the traditional “tough on crime” philosophy, the concept of allowing mothers to spend time with their children even though they are incarcerated runs counter to decades of corrections policies in most states.
But the old system has resulted in both a high recidivism rate for inmates plus continuing a pattern of family members who are incarcerated.
Wyoming advocates of a prison nursery didn’t have to look far for an example of how such a program could help break these negative cycles. The Nebraska Correctional Center for Women at York has been operating a nursery program since 1994.
In the three years prior to its beginning, half of the inmates forced to give up their newborn babies returned to the prison within the next decade, either for violating parole or after being convicted of a new crime. But in the first 10 years of the nursery program, the recidivism rate dropped to only 16.8 percent.
Research shows that the children of parents in prison have myriad problems as they grow up. Many suffer separation anxiety, have more problems at school, may need expensive foster care and also come into contact with the juvenile justice system early in life.
WWC Warden Phil Myer, who worked in the Nebraska Department of Corrections for 28 years, including time at the York facility, has seen the nursery program’s benefits firsthand.
“The reality is that the women here (in Lusk) will get out of prison, and they will be back in the communities,” Myer told Star-Tribune Features Editor Kristy Gray, who previewed the program last Sunday. “And we want them to be successful at raising those children so those children don’t repeat the sins of the parents.”
Initially there likely will be a small number of women in the program. Three babies were born to WWC inmates in 2010 and two last year. Forty-seven of the 238 inmates at Lusk are mothers to a total of 55 children younger than 6 years old, but only minimum-security inmates would be eligible to have their children stay overnight as part of the program.
Perhaps over time, if the program shows positive results, more inmates could become eligible. It would certainly be an incentive for mothers to maintain their best behavior and work on their parenting skills in a supervised setting.
Mothers of infants will be required to work during the day while their children are cared for in the nursery. Myer said the program will be “child-sensitive” so “we can mitigate the things that they suffer from when parents are incarcerated.”
“This will not look like a prison,” the warden stressed.
Nor should it. The days when women in prison gave birth while their legs were shackled to beds, and were then given a brief time with their baby before it was taken away to be raised by someone else, will finally be over in Wyoming.
In its place will be a 21st century, humane program that will give families in the criminal justice system a chance to break the familiar cycle of incarceration, so new generations will have a better chance to live free, productive lives.