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Cassidy and Hermione. Cassidy says she has to work hard not to obsess about the day her daughter will leave. "You can't get sad about it yet, because everything that you feel they feel." Photo: Natasha Haverty
Cassidy and Hermione. Cassidy says she has to work hard not to obsess about the day her daughter will leave. "You can't get sad about it yet, because everything that you feel they feel." Photo: Natasha Haverty

When should babies stay with their moms in NY prisons?

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The number of women in American prisons has gone up 800 percent over the last thirty years, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice. Most of these women are mothers. And about one in twenty of them are pregnant.

Here in New York State, a woman who gives birth while serving time has the chance to stay with her baby in a prison nursery, for up to one year, or eighteen months if the mother is eligible for parole by then.

A Department of Corrections study found that participating in prison nurseries lowers recidivism rates dramatically--cutting the chances of a woman coming back to prison in half.

Researchers say these programs also help the babies, giving them a chance to form secure attachments to their moms.

But in recent years, the numbers of mothers in the prison nurseries have gone down. In our latest installment of the Prison Time Media Project, reporter Natasha Haverty set out to learn why.

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Inside the nursery

Hermione is just waking up. She's four months old, with lots of curly brown hair. She dangles her feet off either side of her mom's leg.

Across the room, a prison guard leans forward in his chair. Hermione notices him, her eyes get bigger, and she smiles right at him. He smiles back, and for a second we're all laughing.

Hermione's mom Cassidy Green is serving a fifteen-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter.

This is Bedford Hills, New York's maximum-security prison for women. A huge campus of brick and concrete buildings, surrounded by coils of razor wire.

This is where the state sends women who are convicted murderers, and other violent felons.

The prison makes sure the babies are safe: I had to walk up a flight of stairs, down a long hallway and through several sets of heavy double doors to get to the nursery.

Each mom and baby here sleep together in individual rooms. The rec room is painted with big pictures of Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore. It's filled with couches and baby carriers, and toys. The babies are never out in the prison's general population.

Cassidy says, "not everybody can come up here. And it was quite a battle, a very well worth it battle, but very stressful."

"Not everybody can come up here."

These days, getting into the nursery may be more difficult than ever.

For a long time women's prisons all around the country had a nursery. It was the norm for an incarcerated mother to keep her newborn baby with her — at least for a few months. But in the '70s, when states began taking prisons in a more punitive direction, cutting rehab and education programs, every state in the nation, except New York, shut their nurseries down.

In the past five years, four states have reversed course and opened new prison nurseries. And they've been looking to New York, and this prison as a model.

Not everybody can come up here. And it was quite a battle, a very well worth it battle, but very stressful.
Once again, New York is the state doing things differently: This time, it's the one cutting its prison nursery program.

Tamar Kraft-Stolar of the Correctional Association says this isn't because of any lack of demand — she says it's about how New York prison officials are screening women. "The nursery is an incredible program and very impressive program. But the main problem is that Bedford's administration seems to be denying more and more women admission to the nursery."

The state's other nursery, at Taconic Prison, was closed down completely two years ago. The nursery here at Bedford Hills, the one remaining nursery here in New York, can hold twenty-nine moms with their babies, but on the day I visit there are only 11.

That means 18 empty beds, 18 empty cribs.

The Correctional Association actually has a mandate written into New York state law, to regularly go into prisons and keep the public informed on what they've found. Their research shows that the approval rate for women applying to the nursery at Bedford Hills has plummeted.

In 2010, it was 67 percent. It dropped to just 34 percent last year.

"We know that women who should have the opportunity to participate in the nursery program are being rejected. That's what we've been finding," Tamar says.

Kraft-Stolar points to a statute dating back to 1930, which says a mother can return to prison with her newborn baby, unless she's found to be physically unfit to care for the child, or if staying in the nursery would put the baby at risk.

And it's usually that second part, the question of what's in a child's best interest, that the prison uses as a reason to deny a mother and her baby.

What's in a baby's best interest?

Marlyn Kopp is Deputy Superintendent of Programs at Bedford Hills. She's the person that decides who gets in and who doesn't. "Legally we have to have a nursery. It is correction law. So we physically have to have a nursery," she says.

I asked her how she defines what's in the child's best interest.

"Honestly I wouldn't even feel comfortable even answering it because it's so subjective. I look at it for what the nursery criteria is for what the law states, and we try to follow it literally. It's not something I think I can truly answer."

But it is something she has to answer, every time she decides whether to let a mom and baby in. Kopp says she factors in each woman's involvement with her other children, if there are any.

Kopp also looks at the woman's drug involvement, and considers the type of crime that brought the mother here. And she says when there are violent offenses, that's been more clear cut than any other offense.

Whether a violent crime should disqualify a mother has been one of the most controversial questions with the nursery program. But the statute we've been talking about, doesn't draw a clear connection between a violent crime and a child's best interest. Again, Kraft-Stolar from the Correctional Association: "So this is a big problem because denying women admission to the nursery program solely because they've been convicted of a violent offense is not only unjust and unnecessary—the nursery in years past had admitted women who had been convicted of violent offenses, all without incident, but it's also contrary to the statute."

Deputy Superintendent Kopp says she's only been in the job for a year. She acknowledges making these decisions in tough, and she doesn't always get it right. "It's a challenge for me, but that's why we have an appeal process. Because it's that second appeal process that's really going to be final."

Preparing for what's ahead 

Another mother, Tanya, and her son Payton. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Another mother, Tanya, and her son Payton. Photo: Natasha Haverty
One of the women going through the appeal process when I visit is Britteny Woodside. She's not here for a violent crime, she's in on an aggravated DWI charge. Britteny wears the standard green inmate uniform. Her baby Adeline wears a onesie with orange and green flowers on it.

"I got very lucky," Britteny says, "She's a very easy baby, you never hear her crying. She sleeps all the time. And she better stay a good baby because I was a good baby and then all hell broke loose, so."

They were rejected from the nursery program at first. But a judge ordered the prison to review Britteny's case one more time, so she and Adeline are living together in the nursery while they wait for a final decision from the Department of Corrections. "They had reasons to deny me so I can't be upset about their choices," she says. "But it's sort of an opportunity to show them that just because I made a mistake doesn't mean that I'm a bad mom."

There's a manual that every mom who enters Bedford Hills prison gets. One section's called "What is the nursery all about?" and it tells women that "one of the most important goals […] is to prepare you to be a successful mother to your child." Kraft-Stolar says every mother should get this chance. "Many who go into the nursery program are moms who have made mistakes in parenting the past," says Kraft-Stolar. "And it really provides a second chance or even sometimes the first chance in the lives of the women participating to parent in a healthy way, to build a solid foundation that will continue when they leave prison."

Like Britteny, Cassidy and her baby Hermione were also rejected at first. But Cassidy fought the decision and, so Hermione will live here at Bedford Hills until she turns one year old when she'll go to live with her dad.

Cassidy says, "I know that in one year, all those smiles, you're not going to see them anymore. I get to spend a year doing all the firsts with her. But when conversation with her starts, that's going to be with her dad. Going to the park for the first time, that's going to be with her dad. I'm going to miss a lot of it."

Cassidy's earliest release date is two years after Hermione leaves. And if Britteny gets accepted, she'll serve her full 18-month sentence here in the nursery, and then she and her daughter will be able to walk out together.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by ACT, the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

 

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