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Bill would create nursery for incarcerated mothers

Incarcerated pregnant women would have the chance to stay with their newborns under a bill considered by Missouri senators Wednesday.

The legislation would establish a “Correctional Center Nursery Program” in one or more of the Department of Corrections facilities that confines women.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville. At a hearing Wednesday, Luetkemeyer told the Seniors, Families, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee that the program would be beneficial to both mother and child.

“The bill is designed to ensure that a mother and a child develop a strong bond and that child avoids the foster care system, and it dramatically reduces recidivism among the women participants,” Luetkemeyer said.

New mothers would be allowed to live with their babies in the correctional institution for up to 18 months. Currently, women who give birth while imprisoned in Missouri continue to serve their sentences after delivery, and their infants are sent to live with family or legal guardians.

Under the Senate proposal, the imprisoned mother would retain custody of the child while participating in the Correctional Center Nursery Program.

David Jackson, a lobbyist with the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, said this bill would save money by keeping the newborn out of the foster care system.

Prison nurseries have been established in nine states. Studies have shown these programs have both long- and short-term benefits for the child and mother and reduce recidivism.

According to the bill, a woman would be eligible for the program if she was pregnant at the time she was put into custody, if she gave birth after the program was implemented, if she was a nonviolent offender and met “any other criteria established by the department.”

A woman convicted of a violent crime or a crime against a child would be ineligible. The chairperson of the committee, Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, said that part of the bill was well-thought-out.

Any monetary public assistance or child support paid to the mother during that time would be used for the nursery program, except for 10% that would go to the mother’s account.

Many witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing thanked the corrections department for taking initiative to explore this program. Luetkemeyer said department staff visited another state’s prison nursery to learn more.

Sarah Schlemeier, a registered lobbyist and the executive director for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said nurseries like this can decrease dire outcomes for mothers.

“Suicide is one of the main leading causes of death for women (who) suffer from postpartum depression, anxiety,” Schlemeier said. “One of the things that is really a contributor to postpartum depression and anxiety is separation from your child.”

A cost analysis of the bill anticipates $247,719 in one-time costs and $899,642 ongoing costs of the prison nursery.

Jeff Smith from Missouri Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates for issues that fall at the “intersection of criminal justice reform and public health,” spoke in support of the proposal.

He pointed to positive statistics from similar nursery programs in other states and said along with better outcomes for the mother and child, this program could save taxpayer money by decreasing the likelihood for mothers to reoffend and curb long-term issues for the child.

Schlemeier noted that although the program allows for 18 months, many incarcerated pregnant women serve much less time after delivery.

In 2020, 26 women gave birth while in DOC’s custody. In 2021, 25 women gave birth while incarcerated. In most of these cases, the women were imprisoned for two to three months post delivery.

Legislative analysis of the bill anticipates that a seven-bed nursery wing will likely meet the needs of the program.

Samuel Lee, the director of Campaign Life Missouri and a long-time anti-abortion activist, said since women have the constitutional right to an abortion while incarcerated, they should have a constitutional right to have their baby with them in prison.

Representatives from Pro-Choice Missouri and Planned Parenthood also testified in support of the nursery legislation.

Maggie Olivia of Pro-Choice Missouri urged the committee to consider additional solutions for incarcerated mothers, such as early release.

This program would be the first of its kind in Missouri, and the legislative analysis highlights a number of unknown factors.

“The potential legal exposure to the state of housing a baby in an adult correctional center represents an unknown potential cost to the state,” the report said.

It goes on to describe the conditions of Department of Corrections facilities and states “prisons are not built for babies.” They are dwellings “built of concrete and steel” that house violent offenders.

The legislative analysis also points out the paradox of the corrections department having authority over the mother’s care, while the mother has authority over the infant’s well-being.

“The department is unclear of the legal implications of having legal custody over the mother but not of the child that the mother has legal custody of and is the primary caregiver of. These issues represent a potential unknown cost to the state.”

A Missouri House committee recently passed a similar bill.

Empower Missouri, Missouri’s chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and the Justice Action Network all testified in support of the idea at Wednesday’s hearing.

No one spoke in opposition.