Serving Pregnant Offenders

By Kristen Johnson

How can we best serve pregnant women who are incarcerated? How can we best reduce recidivism of female offenders, while ensuring that their children do not suffer the same fates?

Babies Behind Bars, a TLC Documentary, takes a hard look at these and many more questions. The film documents one women’s prison with a relatively new program whereby new mothers (only 10 at a time) can live in a special prison dorm with their children. It is open only to non-violent offenders and the competition to get into the dorm is fierce.

What struck me was the fact that about 60 women a year give birth in just this one prison a year. After watching a number of interviews, it was baffling to find that many of these women have had large numbers of children (one had 6 and one had 8 children) who have been basically farmed out to family members or foster care. It’s heartbreaking to see that many of these women have been in and out of prison for most of their adult lives, many of them as juveniles as well, and to see how it is affecting the lives of their children. Seeking to find a solution to such high recividism and potential harm to the next generation is certainly commendable.

Another interesting find was that nearly all of the women interviewed were incarcerated for drug offenses – drug possession, drug dealing, etc. My mind wanders often to thinking about what would happen if we treated drug users like addicts instead of criminals. What a world we would have if we committed people to recovery instead of prison.

It’s really tough to watch women having to give up their babies within 24-hours of delivery, assuming they were not chosen to live in a dorm. It was also amazing to watch an Amish couple that is committed to foster care for these little babies until such time as their mothers can or will take care of them. Such love. It’s also really tough to watch women being shackled just minutes after giving birth, and even tougher to watch infants and toddlers literally being patted down before entering a prison to visit, in case they might be carrying drugs or weapons.

As always, when watching a documentary on tough social issues, I wonder where we went wrong in society in our care for these women. Why is it that they don’t have access to, or have education about, birth control? Why have they resorted to criminal activities and drugs? What can we do as a society to ensure that women like these don’t end up in prison in the first place?

It all goes back to love. Listening to their stories, there seems to be much of a common thread. Many of them are victims of molestation or other sexual abuse. Quite a few of them come from parents who were themselves incarcerated. Many of them come from abusive homes or abusive relationships.

Working to love, uplift, and support these women is paramount. But, knowing how society views social services in the U.S. is heart-wrenching. Heaven forbid we should spend any taxpayer money on actually helping each other.

I’m happy to see a wonderful program such as this one in the prison system. I hope that our Leaders will consider providing services such as these on a much larger scale.

Seek to serve. Seek to love.

1 John 4:7-8 (NRSV): Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Serve all with love.

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