Should children stay with their moms…in prison?

The New York Times reports today on a Mexico City policy that mandates children born in prison stay with their mothers until they’re 6 years-old–rather than being raised by relatives or foster parents.

Fifty-three children under the age of 6 live inside the prison with their mothers, who are serving sentences for crimes from drug dealing to kidnapping to homicide. Mothers dressed in prison blue, many with tattoos, carry babies on their hips around the exercise yard. Others lead toddlers and kindergartners by the hand, play with them in the dust or bounce them on their knees on prison benches.
…A debate continues among Mexican academics over whether spending one’s early years in a jail causes mental problems later in life, but for the moment the law says babies must stay with their mothers. So the prison has a school with three teachers.

This is a hard one. I cringe at the idea of children being taken away from their mothers, but I also doubt that a prison is the healthiest place for a child. Women who lack the financial resources to care for their kids in prison say that their children are often sick because of the poor condition of the cells and can’t afford to buy the prescriptions given to them. I’m especially wary when there are women who want their children raised elsewhere.

Ms. Rendón, however, said she sometimes wished she could give her daughter to relatives to raise. No one gives her money, so she makes a living selling snacks to visitors. Her child is delicate and gets sick frequently with chest colds, she said. She said she considered the prison food unhealthy, so she buys food for the girl from a grocery store the prison allows to operate inside its walls…“I think the best thing for my daughter would be for her to be outside with her grandmother,â€? [she] said.

For more information on women in prison (in the U.S.) check out the Women’s Prison Association. For organizations that work with women in Mexico, look to MADRE and Amnesty International.

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66 Comments

  1. A male
    Posted January 2, 2008 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    “I thought immigration problems were a misdemeanor. Why are they in prison?”
    That story is about women in prison in Mexico. According to the story, they run the gamut from drug offenders to murderers. If it were a prison in Minnesota, they could be shoplifters.

  2. scorch
    Posted January 2, 2008 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for the OT, but there are many immigration offenses that are felonies, including coming back in the country after you have been deported after you commit a felony, or knowingly giving an illegal alien a ride in your car.
    A male is right — “felony” is not necessarily reserved for particularly serious crimes. For example, in some states, I was surprised to learn that possession of any detectable amount of a drug other than marijuana is a felony. How crimes are punished can be a function of politics rather than public safety.

  3. Dave
    Posted January 3, 2008 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    “Guards are not nurses, and nurses are not guards.”
    True, but if you work in a prison then you are part of the security effort of the prison.
    “You would be surprised how even criminals behave when respected like human beings.”
    What are you implying by that statement? That I don’t treat criminals like human beings? That officers don’t treat criminals like human beings?
    “I was sitting close enough to touch knees with a young man in for attempted murder, who was there to tell me his story. He talked. I listened. He felt no need to assert himself beyond violating my personal space (probably unintentionally), and I was not afraid. I also met two women who wanted nothing more than to be with their children again.”
    This is the first stage of a con-game setup. An inmate shares a story with you designed to tug at your heart strings. It’s possible that there is nothing more intended, but I am giving you a fair warning here. I don’t mean to sound overly preachy, but you have a lot to learn about working in a prison.
    “I believe they were there on drug offenses.”
    You contradicted yourself. You said earlier that nurses are famous for not looking at the charges.
    “… quite frankly, it would be a kind of discrimination to assume that someone in jail is much worse than someone outside.”
    Wrong. I will give you an example. Your chances of being taken hostage are much greater if you are working in a prison compared to an average of all other jobs in America.

  4. puckalish
    Posted January 3, 2008 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    if we were to talk about more ideal parent-in-prison situations, for a second, the community prisoner mother program in california, among others, represent situations for mothers to live with their children in lower-security, more family-friendly environments.
    bottom line is that prison is not a good place for any person to develop.
    penal situations vary, as do crimes, but the current incarceration programs in the us and in mexico are out of control. prison has become an industry and, as numbers on recidivism and funding trends show, reform is not really an objective right now.
    while mexico doesn’t nearly approach the level of incarceration we have here, that doesn’t mean prisoners there are necessarily more dangerous than prisoners here.
    of the charges mentioned in the article, only one could roughly be interpreted as murder, though the description sounds more like what we’d call manslaughter here.
    further, considering it’s mexico, it’s important to recognize that 42.6% of inmates are still awaiting trial, ie. not even convicted of anything. (World Prison Brief of the International Centre for Prison Studies).
    one of the mothers in the article has been awaiting trial for 3 years, during which she gave birth.
    while choice is certainly key, and is keenly lacking in mexico’s policy, some of the ideas posited on here suggest that women arrested on charges and/or convicted of crimes should not have that choice.
    q,
    would you condemn an arrested mother to forfeit her child? in the us, if she were awaiting trial in jail because she could not afford bail, what would the call be? that is the situation for many of the mothers in question.
    though i think it’s established we’re not just talking about accused or convicted felons in this case (no distinction is made in the article), i know felony graffiti convicts here and even petty theft seems a more nefarious than spray paint.
    mexico has been going through similar processes as the us, in terms of “tougher-on-crime” initiatives, increasing the penalties for plenty of non-violent crime for short-term political gains.
    further, considering that i’ve known good parents who have been to prison (ie, felons, in the us) and plenty of terrible parents who haven’t, and considering that lengthy incarceration, both in mexico and in the us, is undeniably tied to economic factors, i’d say that giving the state the power to seperate young children from any incarcerated mother is not a thought-out position.
    oh, and have we forgotten that mexico is a country in the midst of political turmoil and that many people in prison happen to be teachers, activists, farmers and the unlucky?
    the council on hemispheric affairs had a report, “the wretched plight of mexico’s crippled prison system”, which goes more in depth into some of these issues.
    children ought to be protected from dangerous situations and dangerous people. however, we ought to be careful when harshly judging folks who’ve ended up on the wrong side of the law for whatever reason.
    “there but for fortune may go you or i”

  5. A male
    Posted January 3, 2008 at 3:04 am | Permalink

    “I believe they were there on drug offenses.”
    “You contradicted yourself. You said earlier that nurses are famous for not looking at the charges.”
    No, they told us what they were there for of their own volition. When sitting in anger management sessions, they also openly spoke of what they were there for, DV or drug issues.
    “You would be surprised how even criminals behave when respected like human beings.”
    “What are you implying by that statement? That I don’t treat criminals like human beings? That officers don’t treat criminals like human beings?”
    The priority of guards is security and safety, and behave accordingly. I am not accusing anyone of abuses, but nurses are not the ones dressed in riot gear or with weapons. It is the nurse who is expected to stand up for the patient’s rights, and relies on guards to keep peace if their own authority is not recognized. This is true in prisons, as well as any outside medical facility. In prison, the nurse has the added responsibility of acting without a physician present, or making the decision to have the inmate transferred outside for treatment.
    “I am giving you a fair warning here. I don’t mean to sound overly preachy, but you have a lot to learn about working in a prison.”
    This is a small island community of 65,000, sufficiently small for prisoners to truthfully taunt nurses with “I saw you standing outside your house” or “I know where you live.” The nurse told us if we couldn’t live with things like that, we couldn’t make it.
    “… quite frankly, it would be a kind of discrimination to assume that someone in jail is much worse than someone outside.”
    “Wrong. I will give you an example. Your chances of being taken hostage are much greater if you are working in a prison compared to an average of all other jobs in America.”
    And I live in Hawaii, where prisons are not as seen in “America’s Worst Prisons” or “World’s Most Dangerous Videos” as seen in say, Brazil. There are facilities with bad reputations statewide, but at the local prison, where prisoners request to be sent, nurses in the clinic usually leave the guard sitting outside for privacy, another right of the patient, and HIPAA for any other facility. As you appear to be a prison guard, you in particular may be surprised (pleasantly or otherwise) by how this unique prison operates. Would you allow prisoners with six months left on their sentence to live in bunkhouses outside along the highway without fences or locks on the doors? Would you allow women to live next door to the men, also without locks? Would you allow your prisoners to drive their own cars to work and expect them to come back on time every day (without contraband and weapons)? The warden of the prison, who instituted his unique and first ever in the nation program, has not been disappointed. Regrettably, I cannot find the National Geographic coverage that was supposed to have come out in spring.

  6. SlackerInc
    Posted January 3, 2008 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    The Law Fairy: “As for breast-feeding, while in general this is certainly a woman’s choice issue, I don’t see it as a women’s issue in the prison context. All prisoners of any gender or sex have a whole host of rights taken away from them — that’s the nature of imprisonment.”
    But it’s not the issue of a woman’s right to breastfeed–as you say, she has been (we presume) adjudicated guilty of some crime and can be deprived of some rights. It is the *child’s* right to receive breastmilk instead of a dangerously inferiour substance that makes breastfeeding a crucial issue here.
    Alan

  7. A male
    Posted January 3, 2008 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    ” . . . there are many immigration offenses that are felonies, including coming back in the country after you have been deported after you commit a felony, or knowingly giving an illegal alien a ride in your car.”
    Giving an alien a ride is a felony? Crap, I’d do that to save them a walk in the heat if I felt like it.

  8. A male
    Posted January 3, 2008 at 3:19 am | Permalink

    BTW, speaking of “human treatment” for inmates, there was an interesting incident shortly before I arrived at the psychiatric hospital one day, my first choice of where I’d like to spend the remainder of my career, at least 25 years, particularly if I want to earn retirement. Security was called for a man who was agitated. With the locked gate between them, the guards taunted the man*, escalating the situation. Finally, it was the nurses who confined the man in a “safe room,” which is actually the visiting room with telephone. The man proceeded to trash the room during the night, leaving his feces everywhere.
    * Nurses were not happy. Violent criminals such as sex offenders are kept here, as well. There are no guards inside, with no locked doors in the wing. But it is where I and a number of young female Filipino nurses (only two men) want to be.

  9. Posted January 3, 2008 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    Law Fairy, your later points about not punishing children for the crimes of their mother and the sexism of that are well taken, but:
    And we have to be realistic: if mom is in prison, the chances she’ll be a good mother are pretty fucking slim.
    Well, let’s consider that women of color are imprisoned at a very disproportionate rate due to racism in the justice system and our very blatantly racist war-on-drugs laws and three-strikes laws. Many of these women are imprisoned unjustly and are no better or worse mothers than those in the communities they came from.
    Your statement strikes me as classist and racist.
    Q: Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t jailed for no reason.
    Right, being of color is one reason people are jailed and imprisoned. And it was noted by scorch that “knowingly giving an illegal alien a ride in your car” is a felony. You can’t honestly believe that someone convicted of violating this ridiculous law (“You are not permitted to be kind to a stranger, it’s a crime!!!!111one!!!”) is automatically unsuited to being a parent.

  10. A male
    Posted January 3, 2008 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    “And it was noted by scorch that “knowingly giving an illegal alien a ride in your car” is a felony. You can’t honestly believe that someone convicted of violating this ridiculous law (“You are not permitted to be kind to a stranger, it’s a crime!!!!111one!!!”) is automatically unsuited to being a parent.”
    Particularly in the US, if one’s partner is the illegal, which can often be the case. Or someone smokes marijuana, which used to be a way of life for many when I was a child, including elementary school classmates and adult neighbors on three sides of my house, whom my parents suspected of growing marijuana on our land. I also knew people in high school who used cocaine in the 80s, when that was the glamorous drug, including at our graduation party. All serial felons! Oooooo.
    “Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t jailed for no reason.”
    To be busted and convicted for drug possession, DUI, stealing, assault, DV or even rape, considering how common they are, may simply be pure luck of the draw. Which is why I consider people who are NOT in prison and unknown to me because of their average appearance, the ones to be worried about.

  11. HardCandy
    Posted January 3, 2008 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    You know for a feminist site (wanting equal rights) sometimes the bloggers and commentators come off and very anti-feminist (not wanting equal rights but special rights for women). Why in the world would you subject a child to prison life?
    “I cringe at the idea of children being taken away from their mothers…” -Jessica
    Do you cringe at the idea having a child taken away from a father particuarly who is imprisoned, probably not.
    I am sorry but once you commit a crime and wind up in prison you lose your right to parent for whatever time period you are incarcerated.
    “It is the *child’s* right to receive breastmilk instead of a dangerously inferiour substance that makes breastfeeding a crucial issue here.”
    -SlackerInc
    Plenty of babies are formula fed and turn out just fine and who is to say that a wet nurse cannot be employed or breast milk from a milk bank be received.
    I am very glad this is going on in Mexico and not the US because if my tax dollars were funding this I would be pissed. I know it is not the general consensus but I do not value a mothers rights over a fathers rights.

  12. A male
    Posted January 3, 2008 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    “Do you cringe at the idea having a child taken away from a father particuarly who is imprisoned, probably not.”
    I do not recall reading that a father figure was present at all, or evidence that other family members or foster care would be better than what I hope would be a state sponsored, nurturing environment, with child care or schools.
    My only problem, lacking evidence that children are being raised in traumatizing conditions, is that this program is a Mexico City “mandate,” robbing families (including children) of choice.

  13. Posted January 5, 2008 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    People who are drug users (and other sorts of non violent offenders) are fit to parent in some cases and are parents, whether or not you see them as “fit”, all over the country. Some are addicted to pain killers, some are alcoholics, some are potheads, and some have served jail time or are serving jail time. The foster system is awful in this country. It is really easy to sit in an ivory tower and exclaim that people you don’t approve of don’t get to be parents, but even child abusers usually have some sort of attempts by the system to keep the families intact with forms of therapy, unless the abuse was severe or sexual. There aren’t thousands of squeaky clean childless families and upstanding family members beating down the door to adopt these kids.
    And, what if it is a short sentence? A year? Are they suddenly fit again because the mandated sentence has run out? I am all for extensively family services for ALL families, including ones in which a parents is or has been incarcerated, but parents are shitty, violent, and neglectful all over, not just when one parent is convicted of a non violent offense. What is wrong with halfway houses?

  14. Mina
    Posted January 5, 2008 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    “What is wrong with halfway houses?”
    Nothing, as long as other prisoners convicted of the same things the mothers were convicted of get the same halfway house option.
    For example: If mothers convicted of burglary and childless women, childless men, and fathers convicted of burglary all get to stay in halfway houses, then that’s fair.
    If mothers convicted of burglary get to stay in halfway houses but childless women, childless men, and fathers have to stay in regular prisons instead then that’s giving them additional punishment for not being mothers.

  15. A male
    Posted January 7, 2008 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    I believe being a parent with a criminal conviction merits consideration in sentencing, in the same way other factors such as severity and circumstances of the crime, character witness testimony, steady and favorable employment history, or prior criminal record, weigh in. (Apparently, even murder is not serious enough to deny a mother her child in Mexico.) For example, six US states allow inmates to have conjugal visits. (Why only six, if at all? That sucks.)
    “A conjugal visit is a scheduled extended visit during which an inmate of a prison is permitted to spend several hours or days in private, usually with a legal spouse. While the parties may engage in sexual intercourse, the generally recognized basis for permitting such a visit in modern times is to preserve family bonds and increase the chances of success for a prisoner’s eventual return to life outside prison.”
    “The visit will usually take place in a structure provided for that purpose, such as a trailer or small cabin. Supplies such as soap, condoms, tissues, sheets, pillows, and towels may be provided.” (Wikipedia).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conjugal_visit
    Extended visits of “several hours or days in private,” in a specially designated structure with possible motel amenities, for goodness sake. I suppose guests get fed three times a day using tax dollars, too. Is it added punishment for unmarried, separated, divorced, widowed or single inmates to go without sex or comparable visitation privileges from other partners or family members? (And if so, should these inmates in such facilities be allowed visits by other partners or professional sex workers, or use of resources like matchmaking sites to find them suitable partners for approved forms of sexual release?)
    [Note: the federal system does not permit conjugal visits, and Wikipedia recognizes only California as permitting same sex conjugal visits. Are gay inmates receiving additional punishment for being born gay? I have also read of trans people in prison. I guess they should have equal rights here, as well, as has already been recognized in California. It is not their fault for being born.]
    Considering parenthood in sentencing is no more or less discriminatory than those other factors such as being legally married or having a steady partner, or having people willing to say nice things (perhaps lies) about you. As I mentioned, it may well be that concern for the well being of their child is added motivation for the parent to serve their time uneventfully or to change their ways. Or not, for others. Take it on a case by case basis, as it is with conjugal visitation rights. (No STDs? That’s harsh. What about incurable conditions such as herpes or HIV that are probably not their fault?) Non custodial parents, less skilled or less involved parents/partners, and the childless still have a number of other factors to consider during sentencing. I believe severity of the crime, potential for flight, and potential for recidivism should be among the most important criteria if putting someone in a minimum security or community based facility.

  16. Posted March 19, 2008 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I am in med school and don’t get to check back in on old conversations all the time.
    Mina, programs that help one subgroup are not made on the backs of other subgroups. No oppressed person gains rights by denying rights to others. If it was up to me, most if not all non violent offenders would be able to be in community based programs, and fathers would be encouraged to share some sort of joint custody or active visitation with their children.
    But, there is not only one person involved in this conversation. Parenting is a relationship. You need to consider the child and the parent, not just look at this as some sort of intangible reward or perk to the incarcerated parent. I know a strong parenting relationship can reduce recidivism for the parent, I am fairly sure the improved bond would decrease the likelihood the child would end up in prison, also. It should also make the transition back to society and active parenting and custody easier.
    No one is arguing that unfit parents should be parents. However, incarceration in and of itself does not make someone an unfit parent. If government social programs are trying to keep families together after addiction and/or abuse, and have determined this to be a worthwhile goal and to society’s benefit, these goals should also extend to prisons.

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