Supporters say York prison inmates in Niantic need a baby nursery

Hartford - Nonprofit groups and members of the public testified Monday before the Judiciary Committee in favor of a bill that would establish a nursery for infants of female inmates at York Correctional Institution in Niantic.

But the Department of Correction Commissioner James E. Dzurenda said in written testimony that creating a nursery was "fiscally out of reach and cost prohibitive."

The DOC supports some form of early child-mother bonding because studies have found it provides better coping skills for children and lower recidivism for female offenders, Dzurenda said. But a community halfway house is more feasible than a prison nursery, he said.

Giselle Jacobs, a representative of the Children of Color Organization Inc., said members of her organization had given birth while incarcerated at York.

"Although these women are in the process of turning their lives around now, I have to wonder if the process of change would have transpired sooner if these women did not have to live with the hurt, pain and guilt of being separated from their baby," Jacobs said.

Critics say that a prison is not an appropriate environment for children and that being in the nursery might have harmful effects later in life, according to a report by the Women's Prison Association, an advocacy organization.

Last year the General Assembly's Judiciary and Appropriations committees each passed a similar bill that said start-up costs and annual expenses would cost anywhere from $3.8 million to $14 million over the first two years of the program. However, the bill was not called up for a vote in the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Pregnant inmates deliver their babies at the Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London and hospital and Department of Children and Families social workers find placement for the newborn with a family member or a foster family.

Female inmates gave birth to 24 babies on average over the previous five years, according to the DOC. The total number of female offenders is 1,138.

Dzurenda said the DOC would be opening a new halfway house called the Johnson House and operated by Women and Children's Program at the Community Solutions Inc., on July 1 that will have 26 beds. The DOC has terminated its contract with the Women and Children Halfway House in Waterbury, which had 20 beds. Those eligible for the Community Solutions Inc. program will include female offenders, pregnant offenders and female offenders with children who have been given permission to be released into the community with supervision, DOC spokeswoman Karen Martucci said in an email.

Community Solutions Inc., in coordination with a hospital, provides pregnant offenders with prenatal care, a place to give birth and three months to bond with their babies, according to its website.

"I don't know if the DOC has that three-month limit, but three months is not adequate for a child-mother bond," said Aileen Keays, project manager for Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative.

She said she supported the halfway house and that it makes sense for the inmates who were eligible but that a nursery would provide more pregnant women the opportunity to stay with their babies.

Jacobs said that many pregnant women entering prison also have other children who end up entering foster care and the cycle continues.

"If you know that snatching the baby away at birth is setting the mother up to fail, why knowingly do that to anyone?" she said. "Who does that really serve? The private prison industry continues to get paid every time someone is put behind bars, whether it be man, women or child. We have to stop this."

Last year the DOC estimated that the most expensive plan would cost $7.2 million to remodel the Gates Administrative Building. This would create a contained nursery with enough space to have both housing and programs for approximately 20 to 30 inmates and their infants. Based on an estimated 24 mother-and-infant pairs, other first-year costs include $40,000 for start-up, $3.2 million for staffing and $267,000 in other costs.

Last year's financial estimates were high, Keays said. There are several federal programs that provide funding for a prison nursery including, she said.

Martucci said the DOC commissioner was committed to providing early child-mother bonding in some capacity and has a scheduled visit to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York to learn about its prison nursery.

Founded in 1901, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility is the longest running prison nursery in the country. Eight states have prison nurseries, which allow the mother to care for her newborn for up to 36 months depending on the state.

j.somers@theday.com

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