© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
News Partners

Prison Nurseries Allow Moms, Serving Time, To Bond With Their Babies


Women are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population, and the majority are mothers with children under the age of 18. In an effort to keep mothers connected to their kids, a handful of prisons allow pregnant women who give birth to keep their newborns with them for a limited time. Washington Corrections Center for Women, about an hour's drive from Seattle, is one of them. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It's early in the morning. Daidre Kimp pulls out a fresh diaper and a tiny T-shirt for her daughter who was born the day after Christmas last year.

DAIDRE KIMP: This is Stella (ph).

(Laughter) Say hi.

CORLEY: They're getting ready for the day.

KIMP: Yep, she's brushing her little three teeth she's got, and we do that every morning. She's like, what's going on?

What's going on - huh, little girl?

CORLEY: Kimp is 41. She's married and has three other children from a previous marriage, a son in college and two younger children who live with their father. She's an accountant serving time for theft.

Down the hall, Crystal Lansdale is helping her 2-year-old son Kershawn (ph) get dressed.

CRYSTAL LANSDALE: Are you going to do it yourself?


LANSDALE: Here, come put your pants on. Good job.


CORLEY: Lansdale is 35 with three other children as well, two teenagers and an 8-year-old. She's serving time for possession of methamphetamines, stolen property and identity theft. Lansdale and Kimp are part of a big upswing. There are more than 200,000 incarcerated females nationwide. The majority are mothers. Their children typically end up in foster care or with relatives. A few prisons around the country are trying to change that.

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONS OFFICER: (Over loudspeaker) Attention, unit - it is formal standing count. Please be visible. Please be dressed.

CORLEY: Here at Washington Corrections Center, officials work to keep mothers and children together with a Residential Parenting Program, called RPP. Only a tiny number of women, up to 20 at a time, can participate. Kimp says she was lucky but conflicted about keeping her child with her, especially since her husband, in the Navy, was stationed hundreds of miles away.

KIMP: If she were to go home with him, I wouldn't be able to see her. Just thinking about that made my stomach turn, you know, 'cause he didn't want her to really be here. And I struggled with, like, am I being selfish?

CORLEY: Ultimately, she decided she couldn't be separated from her daughter. Like others, Kimp gave birth at an area hospital. Mom and baby come back to the prison to rooms just for them. Lansdale has family pictures on a bulletin board.

LANSDALE: We get a lot of stuff being in the baby program that regular general population doesn't have, like bedding. Our walls are painted. My room's blue and green. And we have a little more freedom to make it look a little more like home and just more kid-friendly.


CORLEY: Still, there's no mistake this is prison.


CORLEY: Outside, razor wire tops the chain-link fences, but there are soft touches. Bursts of colorful flowers and green, cottage-like buildings house minimum security. Unit supervisor Sonja Alley says RPP gives women here a tangible way to turn their lives around.

SONJA ALLEY: Get them out of their addictive pasts and co-dependency on drugs or alcohol or relationships - and instead forming a healthy, loving bond with their child.

CORLEY: Washington opened its prison nursery in 1999. The mothers, all minimum security, are heavily screened - no record of sex offenses or crimes against children. Babies can stay for 30 months. That's also the limit for the mother's sentence since they leave prison together. While the goal is to create a tight bond between a mother and child, the children get a chance to visit the outside world with approved relatives or caregivers a week at a time.

KERSHAWN: (Unintelligible).


LANSDALE: Good morning.


LANSDALE: Good. How are you?

CORLEY: This is a licensed day care center and Early Head Start where Kimp and Lansdale drop their kids off before heading to jobs or programs. There are cribs, comfy couches books and toys. The center takes children as early as 6 weeks old. And Kimp says it was a big change for 8-month-old Stella.

KIMP: 'Cause she's used to breastfeeding - so the first couple of weeks, they'd call me over. She won't take a bottle; you have to come feed her. And we decided that I would only come once a day so she could really try and transition into taking a bottle. Yeah (laughter).



CORLEY: Kimp says goodbye and heads out to do cleanup chores in the unit, and Lansdale goes to a pre-apprentice training program.

This is TRAC, Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching. It's designed to help women get construction-related jobs when they leave. On this day, the focus is carpentry. The women practice hammering nails and using a screw gun. Lansdale says TRAC will give her a real opportunity while RPP has given her a chance to really connect with Kershawn.

LANSDALE: I have a really good bond with my older kids, and I was a very active part in their life. I've raised them until this last relapse, which led me into all of this. But the bond with him is just different, and it's so strong. And without the program, he would be probably in the system.

CORLEY: Kershawn's father is in prison, too. About 800 women have gone through the Residential Parenting Program. James Dwyer, a law professor and child policy expert at the College of William & Mary, is one of the most vocal critics of prison nurseries. He says he has not visited one but believes they are a gamble with little evidence to show they provide long-term benefits for children or keep their mothers from returning to prison.

JAMES DWYER: It might be that babies distract them from rehabilitation they should be doing instead. They're so focused on child care and have this euphoria, they think they'll be just fine when they get out of prison. And they're not. We just don't know.

CORLEY: There's been little long-term research on women, despite their growing numbers in prison. And men are the focus of many prison reform efforts. The Washington prison officials say they are still trying to figure out what success looks like for women offenders. And while they don't have tangible numbers about recidivism rates, they believe it's much lower than for the general prison population.

LANSDALE: It's time to sleep, my love.

CORLEY: In her room, Crystal Lansdale is reading to 2-year-old Kershawn. She says having him has kept her from trouble when things escalate at the prison - trouble, she says, that could mean losing her child.

LANSDALE: So having that in the back of your mind, it kind of gives you a constant reminder. OK, step up. Be accountable for your actions. Think about what you're doing before you do them. And it's building these good habits that are going to help me be successful when I leave.

CORLEY: Crystal Lansdale's release date is Christmas Day. Daidre Kimp is scheduled to get out of prison late next year but will transition to a work release program in the spring. Both say, when they leave, they and their children will thrive.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Gig Harbor, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "NEANDERTHAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 5, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous byline misspelled Cheryl Corley's first name as Cherly.