Currently in session, House Bill 1897 proposes to develop a prison nursery in Missouri’s Vandalia Women’s Correctional Center. Though uncommon, there are about 10 prison nurseries nationwide, allowing infants and incarcerated mothers to remain united for anywhere from 30 days to 18 months. These nurseries are implemented in the face of an indescribable alternative: infants born to incarcerated mothers are taken 24 hours after birth and placed in the care of a family member or a foster family.
Prison nurseries are the subject of heated debate—no one enjoys the image of a newborn in a carceral facility. Despite this, overwhelming evidence indicates that these programs are beneficial for infants and mothers alike: newborns are able to develop key early attachments, leading to better mental and behavioral health outcomes in the long term; and mothers report better mental health, are less likely to experience postpartum depression, and are less likely to be reincarcerated.
The debate often takes a narrow focus on babies within the carceral context, rightly worried that the harsh and punishing atmosphere may harm children’s development. However, we too often fail to zoom out and fully grasp the typical reality of parenthood for incarcerated people.
In some cases, when an incarcerated person gives birth, the infant goes to the custody of a relative—often a grandparent. But what commonly happens is that the infant enters the foster system. As with incarceration rates, the over-policing of Black and brown parents leads to the overrepresentation of Black children in the foster system: in Missouri, Black children make up 12% of the overall youth population and 20% of the foster care population. Black and Indigenous children are also significantly more likely to cycle through multiple foster homes, nationally. Once in foster care, reuniting families becomes more difficult.
This is, in large part, due to the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). This legislation, which is still in effect, mandates that custodial rights are terminated when a child spends 15 of the last 22 months in the foster system. The implications are insurmountable: for instance, a mother serving a two-year sentence can permanently lose custody of her child or children if they entered the foster system upon her incarceration.
This draconian law—the ASFA—directly packages up the human right to parenthood with a mother’s punishment. Rather than “punishing the crime” as our current system purports to do, ASFA and similar legislation separate children from parents, often permanently. In so doing, it directly jeopardizes reproductive justice for families by curtailing parents’ ability to care for their children.
Reproductive justice fights for the human right to have or to not have children on one’s own term, and to parent children in safe and sustainable communities. Mass incarceration poses a direct threat to this framework of liberty, as children and parents are rendered disposable, placed behind bars for precious years of life. A reproductive justice framework highlights the way that reproduction is differentially valued by race, class, and other axes of power. In the case of incarcerated mothers and their children, deprivation of the right to parenthood is administered on stark racial lines, making this a pressing issue of racial justice.
The reproductive injustice exemplified by the rending of infants from incarcerated mothers is one stage in a long legacy of undermining the rights of Black and brown peoples’ right to bear and to parent children. Carceral reproductive injustice emerges from centuries of eugenics, reproductive control under a system of slavery, coercive and violent sterilizations, Indigenous boarding schools, and inadequate access to health and prenatal care. While this mechanism is different—the logic is the same.
Missouri’s prison nursery bill would disrupt this punishing process by keeping infants out of the foster system for up to 18 months, allowing babies to develop key bonds and often determining whether incarcerated mothers keep or lose custody of their newborn. While we must keep doing the work to end mass imprisonment, the prison nursery would mean the difference between upholding or undermining families who are currently impacted. While the abolition of all carceral systems remains the ultimate mandate, until that system is overturned, we must fight for the rights of incarcerated parents. Prison nurseries move us one step towards a more just reproductive future.
Ella Siegrist (she/her), MA
Department of Sociology
Washington University in St. Louis