House gives initial approval to nurseries in Missouri prisons

      Fueled by emotional testimony from several lawmakers, a proposal to let women in prison have their babies with them has received initial approval in the Missouri House.

Representative Bruce DeGroot pauses to collect himself during emotional comments while presenting his HB 1897. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      House Bill 1897 would let incarcerated women in Missouri live with their infants for up to 18 months if they meet certain criteria. 

House members have heard that in other states such programs have been beneficial to mothers, children, and those states.  Recidivism among participants has been minimal and children have benefitted from bonding with their mothers and being less likely to enter foster care.  States, meanwhile, have saved money due to reduced recidivism and need for foster care, among other factors.

      The bill is sponsored by Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Ellisville)

      “When we [legislators] first got up here, I think to a person we all wanted to come up here for the same reason.  We all wanted to make Missouri a better place for our kids.  This bill makes Missouri a better place for our kids,” said DeGroot.  

      He became tearful as he said the bill makes him think of his own mother and her reaction to this and other bills he’s worked on. 

      “She’s not proud I’m a state rep.  You know what she’s proud of?  She gets proud of debtor prison bills.  She gets proud of bills that make it so women don’t have to pay for feminine hygiene products in prison.  She gets proud when babies can be with their mom in prison.”

      Several representatives thanked DeGroot and Representative Curtis Trent (R-Springfield), who filed the same bill, for bringing the proposal forward. 

      “Gentlemen, don’t sell yourself short.  This bill is remarkable and it’s going to change not just the lives for people who have unfortunately experienced going to jail but the lives of those children who are going to get to experience their mother,” said Representative Raychel Proudie (D-Ferguson).

      Trent marveled at the widespread support this proposal has garnered from within and outside the legislature.

      “When all these kinds of people can come together, when all these different perspectives can be taken into account, when that process can yield something like this bill, which has the tremendous bipartisan support … which has the tremendous support of the communities that are most effected all around this state, has the support of families, to me that is when this body and when this general assembly is at its proudest, is at its finest,” said Trent.  “These children that are being born that will benefit from this program are children who will be our friends and neighbors and family for the rest of their lives and we can’t measure the impact that this will have on them.”

      “What an amazing bill this is,” said Representative Rasheen Aldridge (D-St. Louis)“This is more than just a feel good bill.  This is one of these pieces of legislation that I know when I walk away I’m going to be happy to say, you know, Missouri did something really great.  We did something historic.  We did something that when other states look at criminal justice reform, when they look at legislation that is being passed, they’re going to look at Missouri and say we did something right.”

      Aldridge encouraged other members to add their names to the list of the bill’s co-sponsors to send a strong message of support to the Senate if and when the measure is sent there.  By Friday afternoon the list of co-sponsors had grown to 27 House members.

      If HB 1897 becomes law it would be up to the Department of Corrections to administer the nursery program and determine which women could participate.  Potential participants would be screened for mental health issues and could have no record of violent offenses or child abuse. 

      Another favorable vote would send the proposal to the Senate.

Prison nurseries proposal heard in House committee

      A proposal to put a nursery in Missouri’s prisons has gone in front of a House committee.

Representative Curtis Trent (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Bills filed by Representatives Bruce DeGroot (R-Ellisville) and Curtis Trent (R-Springfield) would let incarcerated women who meet certain conditions live with infants for up to 18 months. 

      The House Judiciary Committee heard that the program has been used in numerous other states, in some cases for decades.  In those cases it has led to better outcomes for mothers and children and reduced recidivism among mothers.  These and other factors have also saved money for those states. 

      Trent said in New York, more than 74-percent of women who left prison with their infants were still living at home with those children after 3 years, “which I think shows pretty readily that they haven’t [gone back to prison] at that point.  They have maintained those family ties, and you see an improved outcome with all that.”

      “We do want to take care of kids who are in a very precarious situation.  We do want to do everything that we can to seek justice in the correctional system, but also make sure that justice doesn’t work an injustice by breaking a family apart that doesn’t have to be,” said Trent.

He said under the proposal, potential participants in the program would first be screened. 

      “We make sure that the mother will be screened for any kind of mental health problems that might exist and that there is no record of violent conduct or child abuse conduct that has occurred in the past, because the goal is to have better outcomes for children in all cases.”

      The committee heard from Maggie Burke, who was a warden at a prison with a nursery, in Illinois.  She assured the committee that these programs do work, and that Missouri should adopt one.

      “You walk into any [prison], I’ve been in dozens of state facilities, and there is always a facility culture, and what you’ll see in every facility that has babies, you’ll see the culture is just different,” said Burke.  “When you have babies in a facility it kind of lowers everybody’s anxiety.”

      Representatives of the Department of Corrections told the committee that in anticipation of this proposal, they traveled recently to Indiana and viewed a prison nursery program there.  They said they came away with ideas that could be utilized in Missouri, and suggestions for tweaks to the legislation filed by DeGroot and Trent.

Maggie Burke, who was the warden at a prison in Illinois which had a nursery, testifies to the Missouri Judiciary Committee about that program.

      Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold) thanked the Department for working on this and said she sees it as a continuation of previous legislative efforts. 

      “Briefly I wanted to thank you both very much for your openness to this program and for leading the charge on the anti-shackling [of pregnant women] legislation four years ago,” said Coleman.  “Thank you so much for your willingness to look at this, and thank you for your other work that you’ve been doing on human dignity.”

      Liberty Democrat Mark Ellebracht said, “This is more of a comprehensive approach to taking a pro-life philosophy to folks in Missouri.  It’s pro-mother, it’s pro-infant, it’s pro keeping families together.”

      Lawmakers heard that in other states, prison nurseries are supported largely by donations from private groups, and the same is considered likely to happen in Missouri.  Burke said Illinois’ program was funded without any state dollars.

      The bills propose that the nursery would be regulated by the Department of Corrections, though it could hand some responsibility to the Department of Health and Senior Services. 

      DeGroot wasn’t able to be at the hearing, which focused on his bill.

      The committee has not voted on the legislation.

Sponsors of prison nurseries proposal point to successes in other states

      Women entering Missouri prisons could have a chance to bond with their infant children while incarcerated, under a proposal that House members will be asked to consider in the session starting in a few days, but that concept is not new.  Prison nursery programs have existed in other states for years, and in some cases for decades.

      Ellisville Republican Bruce DeGroot is sponsoring one of the bills that would create a prison nursery program in Missouri, House Bill 1897.  He said as a state representative he doesn’t always have the resources to provide extensive data that can help to make a case for one of his proposals, but with this bill there is ample data on what a difference it’s made in other states.

      “Everything I’ve heard about this bill has been extremely positive, as it turned out in other states.”

      DeGroot said while he remains passionate about tort reform, which he believes protects and supports employment opportunities, this is a bill that can have an immediate impact on individual Missourians.

      “There are some bills that are just so directly related to people and their situations in life and this is one of those.”

      Springfield Republican Curtis Trent will also propose prison nursery legislation.  He says as the opening of the new session draws near he’s excited about pursuing this legislation.

      “Of course the legislative process is there to vet these ideas and make sure there are no unintended consequences, but so far the response that I’ve gotten has been very positive, very encouraging, and the data that we have from other states and the input that we have from other people in this state so far has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Trent.

      Illinois began its Moms and Babies program in 2007 at its Decatur Correctional Center.  Non-violent offenders are allowed to keep their babies with them until the age of two.  The Illinois Department of Public Health provides health education classes as well as lactation support and guidance.  Up to eight mothers and babies are able to live in the facility in safety and with staff support and counseling, and prison staff are trained on the needs of pregnant women and mothers.  Other incarcerated mothers are also able to help care for the children in the nursery.

      As of 2017, more than 90 women had gone through the program.  Only two had returned to prison within three years of release and only two were discharged from the program.      

      Maggie Burke was the warden at Decatur and managed the state’s women’s facilities until 2017.  She said the program has been tremendous in her state and she thinks Missouri should absolutely begin its own.

      “It’s a program that works.  It’s a program that works for moms.  Moms don’t come back to prison.”

      “There is not a ton of research on prison nurseries, but what we do know is that it does reduce the recidivism for the women who go through the program.  They are more bonded with their child and have more of a reason to stay on track when they get out.”

      Debbie Denning, who was part of the exploratory team that created Illinois’ program and was Deputy Director for the department’s Women and Family Services Division, agrees with Burke.

      “I absolutely would recommend that [Missouri] allow this program to happen, and I think that any concerns that legislators have can be addressed and really can help form the program,” said Denning.  “It’s really important not only for the culture of the facility – it makes the administration happy, it makes the employees happy, but overall it’s the best thing for the baby and the mother, and the recidivism shows that. 

      Once the bond occurs the mother is much more motivated to be successful and the administration sees a shift in that facility, and facilities are extremely dark and hard to run and a lightness comes in that you just cannot believe.”

      Burke said the programs in Illinois also take into account the unique needs of incarcerated women, who often are dealing with and need to recover from trauma.

      “A lot of the women have experienced significant trauma throughout their lives which have led them down various paths of substance use, and so a lot of them have never been a parent without some sort of substance use … what we found was that women were able to raise a baby for the first time and bond with a child for the first time without that substance use,” said Burke.

      “Part of our programming is parenting classes on learning how to be a better parent, but also part of our programming was kind of day care classes so that they would learn how you would take care of a child in day care.  You would log when you changed a diaper, what kind of diaper it was that you changed, how much you fed them, how much they ate, what kind of food, what kind of drink, and how much naptime they took.  You become better in tune with your child so when they come home they are better prepared to have more children if they do, just to be a better parent, a more attentive parent.”

      Denning said in Illinois there were those who were skeptical about creating a nursery program, and she was proud to watch their attitudes change once it was in place.

      “I had one sergeant … who was just awful about, ‘Why would we bring babies in prison,’ and ‘These women don’t deserve their children,’ and I put him on the committee.  We had him, within six months on our committee, he was the first one that I had to say, ‘You can’t bring things in for the babies,’ because he was bringing in clothing and different things.  It was just a complete turnaround.” 

Denning continued, “I think that with anybody, when you see that nurturing environment and you see that these women bond with their children … when they started to begin to understand that our job wasn’t to punish, but really to rehabilitate and set this person up to be a parent, to feel that bond with their child, and then to go out and be able to be self-sufficient and not relying on the system.  Once we were able to connect those dots, they were all over being positive about the program.”

      Burke said the program benefits not only the women and children who participate, but the rest of the prison.

      “The culture of the facility kind of changes.  I don’t know if you’ve been into very many prisons but there’s just kind of a feeling when you go into the prison and most facilities don’t feel like a facility that has a bunch of babies in it.”

Among other states that have a prison nursery program is Nebraska, where, as of 2018, there had been a 28-percent reduction in recidivism within 3 years of a participant’s initial offense and a 39-percent reduction in participants returning to prison custody.  From 1994 to 2012, Nebraska’s program saved that state more than $6-million.

      Both Trent and DeGroot say they have talked to the Missouri Department of Corrections and the office of Governor Mike Parson (R) and received positive responses to this idea. 

      The 2022 legislative session begins January 5.

Feminine hygiene products now free to all women incarcerated in Missouri

      Women incarcerated in Missouri prisons and jails will now have access to feminine hygiene products free of charge, under legislation that became law in July.

Representative Bruce Degroot (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Senate Bill 53, signed into law by Governor Mike Parson (R) on July 14, included language that requires city and county jails to join the state’s prisons in providing those products to female inmates at no cost.  Many facilities had already been doing this.  The new law codifies that practice and extends it to those facilities that weren’t. 

      Research in 2018 showed that in Missouri’s two female prisons, more than 80 percent of women were making their own hygiene products, and those they were given for free were ineffectual.  These homemade products were often resulting in infections or other complications.

      The same language found in SB 53 was also sponsored by Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Ellisville) in his House Bill 318.  DeGroot said the measure was a way to provide dignity to incarcerated women, while saving the state money.

      “These women were receiving additional medical treatment at the cost of the Missouri taxpayer when they did fashion their own products in order to save money,” said DeGroot.

      The proposal had broad bipartisan support.  One of its most vocal advocates was Representative Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis)

      “What the research has shown is that if you don’t provide people with adequate products, they end up with poorer mental health outcomes and also with infections that can be really quite costly for the government since we’re responsible for healthcare when people are incarcerated,” said McCreery.

      Representatives McCreery and DeGroot both worked with an organization called Missouri Appleseed regarding the issue.  Appleseed is a nonprofit based in St. Louis.  Founding Director Liza Weiss said women in Missouri prisons were having to choose between things like buying adequate hygiene products, or talking to their children on the phone.

Representative Tracy McCreery (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “Women in Missouri prisons who have a GED, they make approximately $8.50 a month, and before this bill passed tampons were being sold in the canteen; a pack of 20 was like $5.36,” said Weiss.  “We’ve heard so many stories … that often times women would be turning down visits with an attorney or even with their family members because they were so ashamed that they weren’t able to take care of their menstrual cycle … they were worried about being embarrassed.”

      McCreery said part of what was so encouraging about this legislation was its bipartisan nature.

      “A lot of Missourians and even a lot of elected officials are really tired of the hyper-partisanship, and this was one of those issues where people from both sides of the aisle and also males and females came together to make this change happen, and I think that we need to do more of that,” said McCreery.

      The fiscal year 2022 budget also includes $240,000 to pay for providing those products to women in county and city jails and detention centers.

Pronunciations:

DeGroot does not include the “oo” sound = [de-GROTE)

Weiss rhymes with mice = [wice]