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Opinion

Editorial: Jail is no place for mothers, or mothers-to-be

Jessup, MD--11/18/17Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program brings young girls into prison so they can spend
A daughter embraces her mother on a visit to Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, where her mother is incarcerated, on Nov. 18, 2017.
(Algerina Perna / TNS)

Tammy Jackson gave birth to her daughter alone, with no doctor, nurse or midwife present to assist or even offer comfort. There were people nearby who heard Jackson’s screams and even watched her long night of agony through the glass; but they could do nothing because, like Jackson, they were locked in cells in the Broward County Jail in Pompano Beach, Fla.

Jail staff finally responded after hearing the newborn’s cry. They turned the baby girl over to child welfare authorities following the April 10 birth and sent Jackson to the hospital. She has since been released but has yet to be reunited with her daughter.

The U.S. has approximately a quarter of a million women in jail and prison on any given day. More than half are mothers; many are pregnant. We can only hope that wardens and sheriffs generally offer them better care than Jackson got in Broward County; and yet, how is jail ever a good place to give birth?

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As the nation shrinks its incarcerated population, the proportion of female inmates is increasing, according data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics analyzed by Jacob Kang-Brown and Olive Lu of the Vera Institute and published May 7 in the New York Review of Books. From 1983 to 2016, they report, the proportion of people admitted to jail who are women jumped from 9% to 23%.

Unlike prison inmates, who generally are locked up for a year or more, jail inmates are often out in a few months, weeks or even days. But a few days of separation, while certainly tough for a young mother, is a large chunk of a child’s life and can have a lasting effect. That’s true of newborns, but perhaps even more of kids who have grown up in their mothers’ care and are suddenly separated.

Some jurisdictions — including Texas, as reported in a recent NPR story — are working to keep mothers closer to their children or, when possible, out of jail or prison altogether, for the benefit of both the kids and the moms. The secret is that such moves apparently benefit the rest of us as well, because children with incarcerated mothers are more likely to end up committing crimes themselves.

Early this year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors wisely dropped a plan to move the county’s more than 2,000 female inmates from a jail in Lynwood to a former ICE detention center in Lancaster, in large part because the distance would make it exceedingly difficult for children to visit their locked-up mothers. Now, what to do with all those inmates? Certainly the county, which has made great strides in diverting mentally ill inmates from jail to treatment, can look to places like Texas and find safe alternatives to jail for mothers, and mothers-to-be.

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