By COLLEEN MASTONY
Decatur Correctional Center’s E-wing is a place of stark juxtapositions, where the crackle of guards’ radios mix with the happy cries of a toddler learning to take his first steps. Colourful murals of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street decorate the otherwise drab walls. Outside, swing sets and a plastic playhouse nestle into a corner of the prison yard, which is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence and razor wire.
For the past eight years, non-violent offenders who give birth while in custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) have been able to keep their newborns with them as they serve time in the state’s only prison nursery.
“I’m very grateful to be here,” said Cayesha Shivers, 25, who held her three-month-old baby boy, Kori, as she sat in her cell. “Every mum here can agree with me. There’s nothing like being able to be there, hands on, and not just watching your child grow up through pictures, letters and phone calls.”
She is among the lucky few who qualify to live on this unit, where eight private cells — each furnished with a bunk, a changing table and a crib — offer women the space to diaper, swaddle and soothe their babies. Parenting classes, required by the prison, cover everything from tummy time to nursery rhymes.
Strict eligibility requirements mean that only a handful of the roughly 50 women who go into labor every year while in prison qualify for placement in the nursery. Others are transported to a local hospital under guard and, after giving birth, have just 24 to 48 hours before they must relinquish their newborn to relatives or state child welfare officials. The forced separation of a mother from her infant is a heartwrenching scenario that, prison officials say, tears at families and fuels the cycle of incarceration. At Decatur Correctional, officials have seen multiple generations serve time at the prison, and even mothers and their grown daughters housed in the same unit.
At the nursery, officials say they are attempting to break that cycle. So far, 63 women have completed the programme, and only one has returned to prison. By comparison, other women offenders have a 37% rate of recidivism, according to IDOC. That is evidence enough, officials say, to show the programme is working.
“I know Decatur does the best they can,” said Gail T. Smith, an attorney and senior policy adviser for Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers. “But the prison nursery is not a good environment for a baby or a new mother.”
Prison officials acknowledge that more inmates could benefit from the programme, and say it can be heartbreaking to turn people away. But they say they must maintain rigorous requirements to ensure the safety of the infants. Still, officials acknowledge that there are limits. They say they don’t allow a child to remain in the nursery for more than two years; they would never want a child to remember their time at Decatur Correctional.
The history of prison nurseries in the United States dates to the early 1900s, when the prison reform movement — aghast at abuses that occurred where men and women were held together — led to the creation of female-only reformatories. There, women lived in dorms, managed domestic responsibilities and kept their children with them. By 1950, reformatories in a dozen states allowed children to remain with their mothers until they turned two. Those programmes closed over the years, until only one was left, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York.
Stricter drug-trafficking laws and a national tough-on-crime agenda in the 1980s led to a dramatic increase in the number of women in prison and eventually to the reintroduction of nurseries. Today, there are about eight prison nurseries in the United States. Officials in Illinois became interested in the idea in 2001 and sent three IDOC staff members to tour Bedford Hills.
“We were blown away by what we saw,” said Debbie Denning, who was then the deputy director of Women and Family Services at IDOC. “There were children in prison with their mothers who were absolutely the happiest children. You walked into a room and they just glowed. The whole tone of the facility was different. I would have never have imagined babies being in a maximum security prison — and Bedford Hills was maximum security — but you would see strollers with children and their mothers, and inmates would step off the sidewalks to make way because they had that much respect.”
Denning returned to Illinois, determined to establish a nursery at Decatur Correctional. After several years of research and planning, she pitched the idea as something that could be run without extra cost, except for the two existing staffers who would shift their responsibilities to oversee it, she said. In 2007, the programme called Moms and Babies opened.
At first, officials worried how women in other parts of the prison would react. The facility holds low-level, nonviolent or otherwise well-behaved offenders. Roughly 85% were mothers, and officials wondered if the presence of the babies would trigger jealousy or depression. Those concerns, Denning said, eventually proved unfounded. She recalled how, in the early weeks of the programme, when new mothers brought their infants to the prison’s gym for Sunday church services, other inmates fell silent.
“The women would be in awe and the whole environment would change. I think it had a calming effect,” said Denning, who is now retired. “Who can’t look at a baby and smile?”
In a large day room filled with sunlight from narrow, ceiling-height windows, photos of each of the chubby-cheeked infant graduates hang on the wall. A guard sat behind a desk as a toddler played on the floor. The women — all dressed in prison scrubs, two of them holding babies — talked about the atmosphere of the nursery and their thoughts of the future.
“I wonder how he’s going to adjust to home. I wonder if he’ll know the difference,” said Shivers, as she held Kori.
Amid the children’s books and toys that stock the nursery’s day rooms, a sense of regret lingers. Many mothers have other kids and, as they bond with their infants, they worry that their older children, in the homes of family members or in foster care, are drifting away.
Shivers was a single mother of a then-four-year-old son, Kyle and a few weeks pregnant when she was arrested for theft. Family members agreed to take Kyle, but Shivers didn’t know what would become of her baby. Two days before the birth, when she learned she had been accepted into the nursery programme, she wept.
“It’s a second chance,” she said.
Prison administrators say they have tried to ensure that the nursery doesn’t look like a prison. In the outdoor play yard, a high hedge blocks the view of the chain-link fence and razor wire, so children can play without seeing the signs of confinement.
But this is still a prison, where life is highly regimented. Security cameras, positioned above every crib, keep watch over the babies. Life revolves around a strict schedule, in which breakfast is served at 4:45am, chores are done by 8am, and babies are bathed by noon. Every 15 minutes, a guard takes count of every mother and baby.
Back in her cell, Shivers bounced Kori on her knee. A bright-eyed baby with a sweet smile and a halo of dark, curly hair, he babbled happily and reveled in his mother’s attention. “I think a lot of us didn’t realize we weren’t really good mothers when we was out there,” she said. “We thought, ‘I provide a roof, I feed you and I clothe you.’ We thought that was enough, when it wasn’t. So we’re really learning the importance of mothering.”
The baby kicked his legs excitedly, flashed a gummy grin and stared up at his mother as if she were the most important person in the world. — Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service