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Missouri legislature passes bipartisan bill creating prison nursery for incarcerated moms

Man in a jacket and red tie stands at a microphone
Courtesy of Tim Bommell, Missouri House Communications
Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Ellisville, listens to his colleagues discuss the prison nursery proposal.

Infants born to women in prison may soon get to remain with their mothers for their first 18 months, under a bill on its way to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.

The bill would direct the Missouri Department of Corrections to establish a nursery within a women’s correctional facility by July 2025. It gained bipartisan support and was an issue that hits close to home for some lawmakers.

The legislation, which was included on a Senate bill dealing with child care, passed out of the House Friday, by a vote of 144 to 1. Since the Senate had already adjourned Thursday night leaving no possibility for a bill with House amendments to be adopted, House lawmakers moved to pass the Senate’s version of the bill.

Rep. Bruce DeGroot, a Chesterfield Republican who sponsored legislation to establish the “correctional center nursery program,” was emotional as he reflected on the bill finding a path toward passage on the legislative session’s final day.

“This is why I’m here,” DeGroot said, later adding: “We’re here doing good for families, for babies, for moms, for us — the whole state of Missouri.”

The concept, while rare, has begun to catch on with similar programs existing in less than a dozen states, including neighboring Illinois.

At a House hearing on DeGroot’s bill in January, Maggie Burke, a retired Illinois Department of Corrections warden who supervised the women and family services division, said it helped improve facility culture and reduce violations for women, “because they all knew it was a privilege to be at the facility where the babies were kept.”

Supporters of the program have pointed to its impact on reducing recidivism rates. A study that analyzed Nebraska’s nursery program from 1994 to 2014, found that women who participated saw a 28% reduction in recidivism, a 39% reduction in returning to prison and savings of more than $6 million.

Women who have been convicted of certain felonies and crimes would be ineligible to participate in the program, and a woman’s participation could be ended if a court grants custody of the child to another person.

Lawmakers included $495,000 in the Department of Corrections’ budget to fund the creation of a program, and the department can also accept donations and grants to help fund the nursery.

According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, in 2021, 25 women gave birth while in the department’s custody, with an average time served of 3.1 months after delivery.

To convert one wing to house a seven-bed nursery, the department estimates there would be $247,000 in one-time costs, like supplying toys and equipment, and nearly $900,000 in ongoing costs, like staff time, baby formula and diapers.

Last year, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led by DeGroot also worked to pass a new law and funding to require tampons and pads be provided within local jails free of charge. As a result, some facilities have begun to waive fees for feminine hygiene products.

Rep. Tracy McCreery, a St. Louis Democrat who was part of that effort last year, praised the bill’s passage Friday.

“These are the things,” McCreery said, “that are truly making a difference in the lives of people.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Tessa Weinberg