On January 29th 2013, Diana was on her way to get a sonogram.

“And the minute I turned on my car,” she remembers, “they pulled up on the side and told me to get out the car. They put the handcuffs on me and took me in.”

Diana asked us not to use her last name for reasons related to her arrest. She’s a 23 year old from Queens, New York. That day in January, she found herself in a jail cell at Rikers Island, seven months pregnant.

“They had told me that I was under arrest because of what my boyfriend did,” she says.

Her boyfriend, the baby’s father, had gone to jail ten days earlier. He’d sold drugs to an undercover cop. The cop had come to their home and caught the sale on video.

“I was in my room minding my business,” she says of that day, “when the officer came in, and my boyfriend had called me and told him to pass him a bag that was in the room. And that’s where the drugs came out of. And that’s what I’m in the video doing, just giving the black bag.”

Diana faced a felony charge as an accomplice to a drug deal. She says nobody at Rikers would really tell her what was going on.

“At first it was like I couldn’t sleep,” she recalls. “I was scared of, maybe if I’m sleeping somebody decides to come behind me and hurt me or something. Because I’m pregnant and they feel like I can’t defend myself. It was really hard.”

She says she did get medical care. “They would give me my prenatal pills. If I were to get sick or whatever they would take care of me, they had their nurses who would help us.

“They fed us, “ she continues. “I mean, the schedule wasn’t all that great and the food wasn’t all that great but at least they fed us. I would sometimes not even eat because the food was so nasty. But I was pregnant: I had to feed my son so I had to force myself to eat.”

Diana later found out that pregnant women at Rikers get taken to a hospital to give birth. But she didn’t know that while she was at the jail.

“I was just thinking the crazy things that would go on if I was to give birth in there,” she says. “I just thought, honestly, that they would take the baby away, and either a family member had to pick him up and take care of him, or the system took him.”

Diana’s story is more common than you might expect. Four percent of women prisoners enter prison pregnant – that results in thousands of babies born in the correctional system each year. But as far as what to do with these babies, or their mothers, the US lacks any national policy.

In most European countries, incarcerated mothers keep their newborns in prison with them through preschool age. The US followed the same protocol until the 1950s, but by the seventies, most states had ended these programs.

New York is one of the only states that still has a small prison nursery program, and Bedford Hills Correctional facility has the oldest prison nursery in the country. In 1998, Mary Byrne, a professor at Columbia University School of Nursing, visited Bedford Hills with some students.

“As I discovered the prison nursery,” she says, “my question was…‘Is this good idea?’”

Byrne wondered if kids could develop normally after starting life in prison. Advocates believed that keeping a baby together with his or her imprisoned mom could help the mother-child bond, but few had researched the topic. Byrne decided to study prison nursery moms and their kids.

Women who are pregnant when they come to Bedford Hills can apply for the prison nursery. Only a few dozen are accepted – the rest have to give up child custody while they serve out their sentences. The prison superintendent at Bedford Hills makes that decision, and those who are chosen are allowed to keep their babies in prison for a year, sometimes longer if they’re getting out soon.

“To me,” Byrne says, “what I would liken it to, as I watched the mothers raise these infants in this setting, is that it was very much like working mothers on the outside.”

While Byrne was at Bedford, two or three mom and baby pairs shared a room, housed in a separate wing from the other prisoners. These days, there are fewer women in the nursery, so each pair has a room to itself. In the mornings, moms go off to their prison jobs and their babies go to the nursery, like kids outside of prison go to daycare. The moms also receive parenting classes.

A Department of Corrections study found having a baby in a prison nursery makes a woman twice as likely to stay out of prison later. Byrne decided to conduct her own research, following sixty of the babies from the Bedford prison nursery until the age of eight She compared their development to kids in the general population.

“The children overall did very well,” Byrne concludes. “The children are for the most part in their grade for their age level and doing well in school. And their parents send us pictures and report cards, unbidden, and letters, and are really so very proud of their children’s achievements.”

Byrne’s most surprising finding has to do with attachment.

“There’s a process,” she explains, “that goes on through the first two years of a child’s life, related to being able to identify a primary caregiver, investing trust in that caregiver, and knowing that that caregiver will be there in times of fear, or illness, or loneliness. So the child can wander away and try out new things, but has a secure base to return to, and feel protected.”

Byrne interviewed moms in the nursery, and found most of them lacked this kind of secure attachment with their own parents. Most researchers agree that if a mother lacked attachment growing up, she will find it difficult to ensure that her own children attach. But Byrne found that 70 percent of the babies she studied managed to form secure attachment with their moms – more than in the outside world.

Despite these findings, prison nurseries are extremely rare. Byrne once counted all the available spots in prison nurseries across the United States and found only 135. Which means, for all intents and purposes, a baby born to a mom in a US prison is a baby that will not know his or her mom, maybe for a long while.

Georgia Lerner leads the Women’s Prison Association in New York. She says support for moms shouldn’t have to be found in prison.

“They are not really places that are supposed to be schools, psychiatric hospitals, medical hospitals, childcare facilities. They were not designed to provide all of these services. And it’s one of the reasons I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to send so many people to prison when there are so many issues that could be better addressed in the community where we already have schools, we already have healthcare facilities, we already have mental health providers.”

The Women’s Prison Association started in the early 1800s. Back then, they had to make sure woman got their own prisons, apart from men. These days, they focus on keeping women out of prison when possible – including Diana.

After seven weeks at Rikers, Diana got out on bail just before she gave birth. Her grandmother took her in, to her apartment in Queens. Diana was still going back and forth to court. If she didn’t plead guilty, the judge told her she’d face three to five years in prison.

If Diana did plead guilty, she could get into a drug recovery program instead of doing time – a common occurrence for drug offenders, even non-addicts like Diana. But the drug program was residential, so she’d have to leave her son.

Fortunately, the district attorney put Diana’s public defender in touch with the Women’s Prison Association. They’ve convinced courts to try community-based alternatives, programs that let women stay at home with their kids. They interviewed Diana to make sure she was a good fit for an alternative to incarceration program, and eventually accepted her. For six to eight months, Diana will meet with a counselor and go to group sessions, all while she’s on probation.

Even though alternative to incarceration programs are expanding, more and more women are still going to prison. The US now incarcerates six times as many women as it did thirty years ago. Many of those women are mothers.

Tamar Kraft-Stolar is the director of the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association of New York, an organization that monitors women’s prisons in the state.

“If you had to pick probably a defining legacy of the incarceration of women,” Kraft-Stolar says, “it would really be the destruction of families.”

Two months into her alternative to incarceration program, Diana says, “I honestly wish it wouldn’t ever be over.

“I thought [the program] was just going to be about jail and drugs, but it’s not,” she continues. “It’s more so learning about yourself and listening to others stories. I really like group.”

Diana’s support group meets every Friday, and her counselor comes to the house three times a week. She has another four to six months to go, depending on the judge’s determination of her progress.

The boyfriend is serving a nine-year sentence in an upstate New York prison. Diana and the baby visit him every couple of weeks, but Diana’s counselor’s helping her move on as a single mom. She’s still living at her grandma’s place, but she’s working on financial stability, applying for jobs in retail.

She’s also thinking about going back to school, getting a degree. But for now, Diana says she just feels lucky to be with her son.

“He makes my day just got by faster,” she says with a smile. “He doesn’t really cry much; he’s just a happy baby. I’m blessed.”

This report was funded in part by The Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Also see these stories:

The New York Times, Mothers Convicted of Felonies May Get Chance to Stay Out of Prison

Southern California Public Radio, Pregnant in Prison

North Country Public Radio, When Should Babies Stay with Their Moms in NY Prisons?

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