An eight-year-old child is celebrating their mother’s birthday when they hear a knock at the door. They are confronted with a tall figure. His face is stern and his badge announces his presence. He holds a picture up.
“Do you know this person?”
Before the child can answer, the mother approaches the officer and, with a tone of solemn resignation, confirms the picture is of her. The child doesn’t process this event until after their mother is put in handcuffs and taken away from them for what they can only assume is forever. With the mother being the only caretaker, the child has no other choice but to move to a foreign place with strangers who she has never met and live an unfamiliar life where her mother cannot be present.
This story is not uncommon. 1.25 million children in the U.S. have caregivers in prison.
In Minnesota, where one in six children have an incarcerated parent, the non-profit organization Children of Incarcerated Caregivers (CIC) advocates for these children and their families. They use a two-pronged approach: pushing research-informed policy change surrounding sentencing practices and delivering direct services to address the needs of children with currently or formerly incarcerated parents.
Their most recent project — a soon-to-be-released podcast in collaboration with the University of Minnesota Human Rights Program — will examine one possible avenue for addressing family separation due to incarceration: prison nurseries.
Olivia Hudson and McKenna Haas, who both work on the Prison Nursery Podcast for CIC, spoke with us about this forthcoming podcast project that explores the nuances of prison nurseries both nationally and globally.
What exactly is a prison nursery?
Olivia: In bare terms, a prison nursery is a program that takes place in or alongside a prison in the US — mostly in women’s prisons, but that’s not universal. It’s grounded in the rights of the child and attachment theory, trying to ensure that, in those first couple of months of a baby’s life, they are appropriately and adequately bonding to their caregiver. These programs are in place to promote that sense of attachment. The guidelines and what each prison nursery looks like varies between places in the US. There are a lot of eligibility requirements having to do with the child’s age and when the mother is going to age out and what she’s there for.
McKenna: And just to add to that, in very broad terms, it’s where a woman is either pregnant while being incarcerated or has a young child that meets those eligibility requirements, and the child can come with her to prison for a certain period of time, which depends on the child’s age and her sentence. It really differs from country to country, or even within the United States.
Can you tell us a little bit about the role that both of you play in producing this podcast and why you chose to focus on prison nurseries?
McKenna: I started with the project because CIC put out a notification to the class that I was taking that they were seeking an intern to help them create a podcast on prison nurseries. Initially, I started out as a researcher because we hadn’t had any guests on the podcast. But then, as soon as Olivia joined, we got rolling on some things.
Olivia: I started working at CIC with an internship through Macalester. And then after I graduated in the spring, I’ve taken on more of a project director type role. I also just wanted to say that we’re not approaching it from a “prison nurseries are good, prison nurseries are bad,” or with any type of judgment. This is more just because prison nurseries are very under-researched. There’s not many units in the world, it’s probably in the hundreds, but that’s not that many. This is a very exploratory project. We’re just really trying to see what these units look like in different countries, what the ideal practices are that uphold the best interests of children, and what are the damaging practices. And in the scenario that these units don’t exist or the eligibility is really hard to figure out, what happens to these children? Where do they go?
How has working on this podcast changed your understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of prison nurseries as well as any possible alternatives?
McKenna: I think overall it’s very circumstantial. It depends on where you are, what the conditions are in that space, and if there are the appropriate resources for both the mothers and the children to succeed. If it’s best for the child to stay with the mother, I want that to happen, especially if that can happen in an environment that is not a prison — whatever that means — where she gets all the resources that she needs for her and her child to survive and thrive and to rebuild after being released from either a community alternative where she and her child can stay together in the community or prison itself.
Olivia: Yeah. I agree with everything that McKenna said. When I started this, I had no idea what a prison nursery was. And I still think it’s such a nuanced thing that it’s really a case-by-case basis. And overall, you can have a child, you can have the best prison nursery with all the things but in the end, this child is still a child and the mother is still confined to one space, and there are a lot of experiences that a child needs to have. And that can be hard in a prison setting. So I think it’s worth looking more into community alternatives that keep women and children and people in general out of prisons with the resources they need to thrive.
What sorts of topics do your episodes explore as well as what sorts of guest speakers appear on the podcast?
Olivia: We’ve tried to include a wide variety of guests. We’ve had a child-adolescent psychoanalyst in Mexico, we’ve had a researcher who’s a nurse who’s done attachment theory work about prison nurseries, and we’ve had a director of a prison nursery. We’ve also talked to an organization in Kenya that helps facilitate the nursery with another nonprofit and supports their programming. We also spoke to a woman in New Zealand, who talked about how she did her doctoral dissertation on New Zealand’s version of prison nurseries. She found a lot of contradictions, one of them being that the officers play this dual role in these units where they’re the correctional officers, but then they’re also the ones who are taking care of the children.
Is there anything specific that you want people to take away from the podcasts?
McKenna: Above all, think about what’s in the best interest of the child, no matter what the situation is. That’s our overarching goal, to act and share information and do research on what is best for children. And that in this case, is very situational and very nuanced with prison nurseries.
Olivia: I also think it might be easy to listen to a podcast about something like this and just be like “that exists away from me.” But in reality, these are people’s loved ones. These are community members. And it’s a very important issue. I just hope people enjoy the podcast and can learn something about prison nurseries. You can’t hope that everyone will join our network or advocate, but I think just even spreading this information is really valuable.
When will the episodes be released and where can people listen?
Olivia: They will be released April 2023. And you can listen on our website, which is cicmn.org, And I think that they’ll also be available wherever you listen to podcasts.
McKenna: Yeah, exactly. And the reason that we’re laughing is because this project has taken a lot of time, energy, love, blood, sweat, and tears and we’re really excited to finally be releasing some episodes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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