Monday, December 31, 2007

Babies and toddlers with their moms in prison: A good thing or a bad thing?

When I saw this story in the New York Times this morning, it struck me as provocative, and therefore appropriate for the inaugural post of our course blog. The story reports that a Mexico City law mandates that children born to mothers in prison stay there with their mothers until they are six years old. Amongst 1,680 female inmates live 53 babes, toddlers, and kindergartners. The warden is reported to say that the "children had a calming effect on the rest of the inmates. The presence of children also inspires the mothers to learn skills or, in many cases, to kick drug habits that landed them in trouble in the first place." The mothers interviewed express mixed feelings about the situation.

My challenge in posting this has been in figuring out what I wanted to say about it -- am I "for it" or "against it"? Is this a "good thing" or a "bad thing"? Like many of the prison moms, I am not sure. On the one hand, the children are with their mothers, which is presumptively positive. Perhaps their lives are more stable and less disrupted than if they were being cared for by various relatives outside the prison. Yet leaving their mothers in prison when they turn age 6 will surely prove a traumatic separation as the children adjust to different caregivers and different routines. In addition, my visceral response is that various aspects of such a setting cannot be good for the children. One mother notes, for example, the lack of available healthy food.

The story reports that many of the women are in prison for drug offenses. Surely a better solution would be to incarcerate fewer such women. Among other benefits, a more humane sentencing policy for non-violent offenders would eliminate the quandary regarding what to do with their children.