Chairwoman Candaras, and members of the Committee, I urge you to support legislation, H. 149, An Act Relative to the Protection and Care of Certain Children Born to Incarcerated Mothers. This legislation would allow mothers with children under the age of 12 months to keep the children with them while they are in prison.
On any given day there are approximately 500 women at MCI Framingham, and 12 to 18 of them are pregnant. Of the approximately four thousand women sentenced to MCI Framingham each year, nearly 200 are pregnant. Maintaining family connections during incarceration and providing stable family environments for children are critical to breaking familial cycles of crime and reducing recidivism. Presently, women who give birth while incarcerated are separated from their newborns within 48 hours of the birth. While Massachusetts General Laws permit a correction authority to grant a pregnant inmate liberty or discharge for an indefinite period of time (M.G.L. ch. 127 § 142), this waiver is seldom used. More than likely, the infant is placed with a relative or the Department of Social Services. In either case, if the mother has any contact with her child, it is likely limited and/or sporadic.
Routinely separating incarcerated mothers from their infants postpartum causes harm. Child development experts argue that infants develop strong attachments to their mothers in the first 12 months of their lives. The bond formed by the mother to the child is equally important. Infants unable to form this bond have difficulty later in childhood, and throughout their adulthood, relating to other people, and socializing. Such difficulty may isolate and ostracize children from their peers. Moreover, studies reveal that children separated from their mothers often suffer from depression and withdrawal. They may also experience regression and detachment. These children are at a greater risk of having emotional, psychological and behavioral problems perhaps resulting in disruptive, aggressive or even violent, and criminal behavior. They are five to six times more likely to become incarcerated than their peers. Providing both mother and child a year to bond produces positive results for both.
While the idea of allowing incarcerated women to keep their children with them in prison may sound radical, many states commonly practice it for a variety of reasons. In addition to the positive bonding experiences that result from enabling women to care for their infants while in prison, the responsibility women learn while being a parent in a supportive environment continues once they leave prison. They are able to apply those same skills outside the prison walls. Women at the maximum security prison in Bedford Hills, New York report feeling empowered and learning a new sense of responsibility which encourages them to stay clean and maintain a law abiding life style.
In the 1950s, when Miriam VanWaters was the superintendent of MCI-Framingham, mothers who gave birth during incarceration kept their babies with them in prison. The prison contained a nursery and mothers were taught parental responsibility in a positive supportive environment. Massachusetts General Law does not prohibit inmate mothers from having their children with them in prison. In fact, one program currently exists today for incarcerated pregnant and postpartum women, where they live with their children while in prison. The women participate in intensive parenting classes, receive pre-natal care and counseling, learn nutrition, and participate in work-release programs. Spectrum Health Systems, Inc. operates this program on their Worcester campus and caters to women with substance abuse problems. It was previously called the Neil J. Houston House and located at the Dimick Health Center in Roxbury. This program reports very high rates of success. However, it currently only has the capacity for 15 women with their children and receives referrals from the Department of Correction, Probation and Parole.
In New York, 13 percent of the participants in the nursery program at Bedford Hills returned to prison, compared to 26 percent of all women inmates. At Bedford Hills, inmate mothers share bedrooms with their infants rather than cells. The prison has a nursery on its premises at which all inmates may work and share in the care of children. Mothers at Bedford Hills report positive attachment regardless of whether the child in prison with them is their first or fifth.
Operating a similar program in Massachusetts, as my legislation would enable us to do, would dramatically decrease recidivism rates among women offenders in Massachusetts. Such a program would also provide an important stable environment for these children. We must do everything in our power to improve the outcomes for these children. They should not be forced to suffer because of the mistakes of their parents.
Thank you for your consideration of this important legislation. I strong encourage the Committee to adopt a favorable report for H. 149 as expeditiously as possible.