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Babies Behind Bars – The Indiana Women’s Prison “Wee Ones” Program

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In 2008 a special program was begun at the Indiana Women’s Prison in the United States that has produced a series of highly encouraging results. Called the “Wee Ones Nursery”, (WON) it is a program that allows babies born to women who are in prison to remain with their mothers during the period of incarceration.

The previous system required women to send their newborn babies to family outside, or even hand them over to State custody. Understandably this created strong resentment and anger in some mothers.

WON is a voluntary program available for pregnant offenders who meet certain eligibility requirements. The woman must be a non-violent offender and have less than 30 months to serve after her due delivery date.

The two main aims are to provide parenting education for the young mothers and to promote a solid bonding between mother and child – a bonding often lacking under the previous system.

Concerns about the program originally centred on the issue of raising a baby in a prison environment. All agreed that this was certainly not ideal despite the fact that every attempt was made to produce a friendly, “homely” environment for the mothers. However, taking all the available factors into account experts concluded that with a suitable mother prison rearing is probably preferable to separation at birth.

The benefits that emerged from the program seem to back up this belief and have been considerable. The two main aims have been met, with mothers involved in the program reporting a deeper bonding with the new baby and an increase in parenting skills that are of great benefit to the family.

Another benefit was perhaps less expected. Recidivism – running at around 30 % in the general female prison population – fell to 16% for the WON participants. This represents a considerable financial saving to the State that more than offsets the cost of the program.