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.

1 comment:

Julia Perkovich said...

As part of the study abroad program I did this past summer in Spain, we visited a maximum security prison just outside Granada. Similar to the Mexico City prison in this article, the women are permitted to have their children live with them at the prison from birth until 6 years old. It was absolutely shocking to walk into a prison and see children running around. There was a daycare center, play room, and playground. The inmates cells were filled with cribs, mobiles, and pictures of animals, just like any mother would decorate her baby's nursery. Something seemed so innately wrong about the mixing of prison bars and stuffed bunnies, but once I allowed myself to think outside the American box the whole idea became more palatable. While I still cannot say that I agree or disagree with this type of policy, I can definitely see its benefits. The bond between mother and child is so crucial in a child's upbringing that perhaps this method is the best way to allow that bond to develop while still upholding criminal justice. I hate to see a child punished for the wrong of his/her mother and it seems that it might be less damaging to allow the child to live in the prison and at least develop a relationship with his/her mom.

Another interesting point was shared by our guide who told us that being able to have children in prison sometimes encourages women to have children while already in prison. Spanish prison inmates are allowed to have regular conjugal visits, so it is possible for them to become pregnant while in prison. The women will have children because they are afforded some benefits if they have a child living with them in the prison. I can see how having a child with you in prison would make the sentence easier to bear, however, I cannot see why a mother would want to bring a child into this world when she is already incarcerated.