Women in Missouri prisons might not have to be separated from their newborns under a bill being considered for the legislative session that begins in January.
The plan would allow some women who are pregnant when they are about to be incarcerated for short sentences to have their babies with them in prison so that they can bond with their newborns. The idea is being referred to as the establishment of “prison nurseries.”
Missouri Appleseed is an organization helping drive the effort. Director Liza Weiss said some other states already have such programs, and some of those have been in place for years.
“These programs last for a variety of times from three months to three years,” said Weiss. She said women who have release dates falling within the given length of time and meet regulations set by the Department of Corrections, “would be able to participate in this program and live with their child, with their baby, in a separate area of the prison and care for the baby and bond with the baby, and then leave prison together with the baby, and be able to be a parent to the child.”
Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Ellisville) will sponsor one version of the proposal. He thinks it’s simply good government.
“I think that once that bond forms, when these women get out they’re naturally going to want to take care of that baby and start doing the right things with their lives, and that’s why I’m so excited about this bill,” said DeGroot.
Representative Curtis Trent (R-Springfield) plans to sponsor similar legislation. He said the results seen in other states are encouraging.
“Women and children do better, both in terms of mental health, the bonding of the child to the mother. There’s also some indication that recidivism rates are lower in the long run, and of course there’s savings to the taxpayer as well. If you take the child from the mother and put it into the foster system that’s a very expensive process.”
“Research on the development of the child has been very positive as well,” said Weiss. “We realize this would be a change for the Department of Corrections, but we do think it would really be a win-win for the women and the babies.”
The Department told House Communications that right now when a woman in a Missouri state prison gives birth, that baby goes into foster care or with a family member.
Currently, pregnant women are housed at the prison in Vandalia. As of early October, 23 had delivered babies. In 2016, that number reached 73, but decreased to 49 in 2019 and 31 last year. The Department notes that in the last 4 years Missouri’s population of incarcerated women has dropped by 42 percent.
Representatives DeGroot and Trent are still developing draft language for their bills, and DeGroot said the Department of Corrections is involved. He expects to propose that the program be available to women whose sentences are for up to 18 months.
“The [woman has] to be a model prisoner. She has to either have a high school degree or equivalent, or [be] working on that while in prison. And, they have to remain a model prisoner, and they have to engage in pre- and post-natal classes so they learn how to take care of that baby.”
DeGroot said he also views this as a “pro-life bill.”
“I don’t know how many women who are scheduled to go to prison would actually consider aborting that baby before they got there, but I think this provides an incentive and peace of mind knowing that you’re going to be able to keep that baby and get that mother-baby bond while you’re still incarcerated … we’ve given some real hope, if this bill would get enacted,” said DeGroot.
Not only is it anticipated the idea would save the state money, Weiss said she thinks it could be entirely supported by outside donations and grants.
“Missouri Appleseed has already been approached by several charities and foundations who’ve said this is something they’d be very excited about to support,” said Weiss. “And part of the draft language from Representative DeGroot’s bill does create a fund in which grants from foundations and donations can be accepted by the state, too, to fund and sustain the nursery.”
Legislators can begin pre-filing legislation on December 1, for the session that begins in January.
DeGroot does not include the “oo” sound = [de-GROTE)
Weiss rhymes with mice = [wice]