Illustration by Jed Helmers

Prisoners and pacifiers

Some women care for their babies in prison—should they?

By Sarah Sidlow

Nobody puts baby in the…correctional facility. Except when it happens in Marysville, Ohio, where the nursery in the Ohio Reformatory for Women has served 289 female inmates and their children since 2001. It’s part of the Achieving Baby Care Success (ABC’S) program, and it’s the only one of its kind in the Ohio prison system. So, what’s the deal?

Here are the basics: the program is open to a limited number of women—those who were pregnant when they entered prison and who agree to the rules of conduct. The maximum time in the nursery is 36 months, and women in prison for violent crimes or crimes against children are ineligible.

For many who have seen the program in action, it’s an invaluable opportunity to maintain a family and restart a life. Of the 289 female inmates who have been involved in Marysville’s ABC program, 222 have completed it successfully. Supporters attribute this to the sobering effect raising a child can have on, like, anyone—not the least of which is lost on those who have to do it behind bars. In this way, inmates become a little less selfish and a little more big picture.

Plus, according to a study on similar programs across the country conducted by researchers in Alaska, mothers that were allowed to care for their infants in prison were shown to be both less likely to commit another crime and more likely to have a good relationship with their child.

For some, that’s a pretty good reason to expand the program.

Yet, there are a number of people who just aren’t that impressed. For one thing, some people are a little uneasy about the idea of raising an infant in prison. Fair point.

Plus, they argue, we’d all like to be able to tend to our children without having to foot the bill or juggle a full-time job—why should prisoners get a better perk than the rest of us? In fact, it’s the taxpayers who end up paying for the supplies, space, and manpower required to keep a prison nursery open; and that price tag is just too high for some.

Still, others may see value in the concept of mothers caring for their children while in prison, but oppose the program’s restrictions. For example, if a woman is arrested with a 1-month-old at home, she’s left saying goodbye—if only she had committed that felony a little earlier!

While only limited research exists on programs like Marysville’s ABC’S program, increasing numbers of women behind bars (thanks, in part, to Ohio’s opioid crisis) are making the state think fast. In Butler County, the Sherriff’s Office reports an average of six to 12 pregnant women among the nearly 200 female prisoners. Many of those babies are born in prison.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at


Commentary Forum Question of the Week:

Should babies be allowed behind bars?


Prison blues and pinks

Mother and child bond critical, even behind bars

By David H. Landon

There is a controversial prison program in some states that allows non-violent women inmates who come into prison pregnant to deliver and keep their baby with them in prison. The number of women incarcerated who are allowed to participate in such a program is small compared to the overall number of women who give birth in prison. The vast majority of the 2,000 or so inmates who give birth in American prisons are separated from their babies shortly after birth. In Ohio, the Ohio Reformatory for Women at Marysville is one in the handful of women’s prisons that allow some incarcerated moms who meet certain criteria to keep their newborns with them until the babies are 36 months old.

This Ohio Program has been around since 2001, and in that time, nearly 300 women have participated in the program. Of those lucky enough to participate, about 80 percent have successfully completed the program and have not returned to prison or been re-arrested. That is in stark comparison to the national recidivism rate for women, which ranges from 40 to 50 percent.

As more and more women are being incarcerated in the nation’s prisons, states are looking for successful programs that can reduce the chances of an inmate returning to the state penitentiary. Some critics ask whether the program is consistent with the punishment the inmate has earned for breaking the law. Others ask whether it’s fair for a baby to spend its first years behind bars.

The program seems to help some of these women focus on getting their lives together. Seeing that little face inside the cell with them each day helps these women chart a course to keep sober (many have an underlying addiction problem) and become productive members of society.

It seems to me that we have to ask ourselves, as a society, whether the prison experience is to be punishment only, or a combination of punishment and rehabilitation. It’s a worthy goal for our prison system to help inmates returning to society have a better chance of not re-offending. Programs such as the one at the Ohio Reformatory for Women can be part of that solution.

While in the program, the mother receives medical checkups during her pregnancy. Once the baby is born, mother and baby receive weekly checkups by medical personnel to follow the baby’s progress and to make certain the child is thriving. There is a nursery stocked with formula, diapers, and toys. All of this comes with a price to taxpayers. The cost for each baby is roughly $24,000 per year. Some would argue that’s a lot of money to spend on a prisoner and her child. However, that is cheaper than the cost of incarcerating a woman who has re-offended and winds up back behind bars. The cost is roughly $30,000 per year for that mom who ends up back in jail. Let’s say that mom is re-incarcerated to a prison term of 5 years; that’s a price tag of $150,000 in tax dollars.

It’s also important to keep in mind that most of these women don’t have other viable alternatives for finding someone to keep the child while they serve their time. Many have been cut off from family as a result of their prior drug use and related behavior. Most are not able to rely on the father of their child. Without a program like the one at Marysville, when there is no family to take responsibility for the child, the child will go into the state foster care system within hours of their birth. That comes with a cost to the taxpayer, as well.

As a young lawyer, I ran into this issue. My client was a young girl who was pregnant and serving time in the local county jail for a drug-related theft offense. There was no similar program allowing a child to stay in a nursery as the mother completed her sentence. When it came time to deliver the baby, she was transported to Miami Valley Hospital where she delivered a baby boy. When her own family was unwilling to take the newborn baby, the hospital social worker prepared to turn the child over to Children Services. My client tearfully asked if my wife and I would take the baby home with us while I worked to have her moved from jail to a local drug rehab center, which allowed new mothers to keep their babies with them. For the next three weeks, my wife and I watched over this child in our home until I was able to find an opening for my client in the Greene County Women’s Recovery Center, where we were able to reunite mother and child. The alternative was for the young boy to be placed in the foster care system. When the child was 10, the mother stopped by my office so I could see how well the young man was doing.

This is a program that can help women who have lost their way refocus on what’s important. The bond created between a mother and her child is worthwhile, even if it takes place behind bars.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at

The imprisoner’s dilemma

Nurseries in prison reduce recidivism rates

By Ben Tomkins

Do not be fooled, particularly by yourself: if you believe that a prison system is achieving its most noble goal by rehabilitating people and reducing recidivism, you don’t need my help to understand why we should have nurseries in prisons. All you have to do is look at the facts, because the argument has already been made.

There are currently nine prisons in the United States that have nurseries, and Ohio is one of them. It is typical for a child to be able to live in the nursery and for the mother to have access until the child is 1 year to 18 months old, and mothers are required to take parenting classes to ensure they have the best shot possible at raising the child well. There are figures that quote anywhere from about $95,000 to $170,000 as being the cost of keeping a baby in prison, but those numbers are universally dwarfed by the cost of running a baby through the foster care system for an equivalent amount of time after it is born. It can cost more than three times the upper-end figure I just quoted to put an infant through “the system” rather than allowing it to stay in a crib while their mother is in “the system.”

Prison nurseries become even more economically favorable when you take into account the amount of money the taxpayers save by reducing the number of women who are re-incarcerated. There are many studies on this and the numbers vary wildly, but most sources fall somewhere in the $32,000–$50,000 range as the average cost of keeping an adult locked up. There are estimates as high as six figures out there, which leads me to believe we might be painting a fairly rosy picture for ourselves in the name of not thinking twice—or at least, no more than twice—about throwing someone in jail.

Regardless, at that price one might think we would be incentivized, like all good capitalists, to produce a prison system that aims at convincing people to straighten up and go into the workforce instead of going back to crime. At the very least, former inmates might help us shoulder some of the tax burden of keeping the Charles Mansons of the world on lockdown. If you think rehabilitation is a good idea, then you should be screaming for more nurseries in prisons. Women involved in nursery programs have a recidivism rate that is more than three times lower than women who don’t.

At this point, I hope at least one person reading this is wondering why I haven’t made a single moral argument yet. The reason is two-fold. First, I don’t think any morally well-adjusted person who has any experience with parenting or children and families should have any trouble understanding the need to preserve the relationship between a mother and child. It is a perfectly natural and implicitly understood part of the human condition, both intuitively and scientifically, that the bond between a newborn and a parent is irreplaceable and vital. In that sense, we should all be looking for reasons why we should have more nurseries (like in Europe, where they are a ubiquitous point of national common decency), not producing excuses to use cutting a woman off from her baby as punitive leverage.

I will not say it is a uniquely American trait to dehumanize our prisoners with speed and mental ease, but it is certainly a well-practiced hobby here. We are very much a nation that looks to justify moral outrage by convincing ourselves the people involved deserve it. In many ways, cutting off mothers from babies in prison is the answer of a good capitalist: “That person must have earned what they worked for.” As cheap and callous as that point is, it’s worth noting that a shade over half a century ago we used to have prison nurseries all over the place. They only went away in the ’80s when we started replacing all the babies with adults at a frightening speed, and it brings me to my second point. The issue of our high incarceration rate has been intensively studied, and it is rooted in the same logic some people use to keep nurseries out of prisons.

Clearly, something terribly wrong is going on when we see a spike in the number of people being casually tossed into jail like an old beef rib through the bars of a kennel. In essence, Americans are willing to pay a premium to lock people in concrete boxes if it means they don’t have to think about bigger issues. This is the mentality of a sociopath, and indicative of the kind of person I might actually want to separate from an infant for the sake of that child’s wellbeing.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

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Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

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