MARYSVILLE (AP) — One-month-old Javon Jackson fidgets with his mom’s jacket as he drinks from his bottle and holds her hand.
His mom coos. Her friends laugh, and a precocious, 2-year-old toddler stops by and waves hi. In all, it is a typical, upbeat moment for any mother and child — until prison officials tell Javon’s mom, Janisha Meredith of Cleveland, that a head count is scheduled in 5 minutes.
Javon and four other children, who were born while their mothers were incarcerated, are being raised by their moms in Ohio’s prison nursery, a facility that sits less than 30 feet from the razor wire that circles the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
Mothers and their children sleep in 8-foot by 14-foot rooms, complete with cribs, night lights, and lots and lots of diapers. Their days are spent in a common nursery area, where inmates, assigned to be nannies, often care for the children when their mothers work elsewhere in the prison or take classes.
Since 2001, 298 infants and toddlers have lived with their mothers in the Marysville prison. The state is one of 11 in the country to offer a prison nursery. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons also has a program.
Proponents say the programs slash recidivism and allow mothers to bond deeply with their children. An annual federal grant, this year it is $61,000, funds Ohio’s project. Volunteers and officials with Ohio State University Extension provide parenting and family education classes.
The women in the program are appreciative.
“This program has helped me become a better parent and a more mature person,” says Meredith, 23, a convicted drug dealer who has been in the nursery for less than two months. She is to be released in April. “I am able to pay more attention to what is important: my child.”
Critics question the long-term impact of prison nursery programs.
They say children, especially infants, should never be placed in prisons. Opponents fear nurseries will hinder cognitive development and growth, as prisons are built to punish and rehabilitate, not to cater to the needs of a child.
They say residential programs offer a far better alternative. These programs are based in communities and, in most cases, are part of probation. They allow mothers to work, gain treatment and bond with their children.
“The very environment of a prison is stressful, and that stress is not good for a child,” says James Dwyer, a law professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “Prison officials are not in a place to do what’s best for the child. They are there to do what’s in the best interest of the inmate.”
Gail Smith, the director of the Women in Prison Project for the Correctional Association of New York, agrees.
“The culture of prisons focuses on security and is punitive,” Smith said. “Mother-infant programs must be family-focused and nurturing.”
Some officials in states that do not have prison nurseries cite the necessary renovation costs. Others simply fight the idea of it.
“There are a lot of people who don’t believe that children should be in prison,” says Kristina Toth of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, which does not have a nursery program.
The ABC’S of parenting
Others say it is hard to debate the success of the programs. Ohio’s prison system says it has not done any studies involving the recidivism of those in the program, although administrators say only a handful have returned to prison in recent years.
Other states, however, have seen drops in recidivism for those who go through the program. For instance, New York officials say the recidivism rate for those who go through the program is 3 percent, nearly the same as that for the Washington state program, where administrators estimate a recidivism rate of 3 percent to 5 percent. In Nebraska’s program, the rate is 10 percent.
In interviews, officials from the states that have the programs — California, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and West Virginia — say nurseries offer a chance for young mothers to realize the gift they have and to make the most of the opportunity.
Ohio prison officials say judges from across the state call and ask whether convicted women who are pregnant can take part in the program. But few are eligible.
Convicted women who are pregnant are sent to the prison system’s Franklin Medical Center in Columbus to serve their sentences until giving birth. There, they are isolated to ensure their safety. Records show the facility housed 41 pregnant inmates in February.
The women deliver their children at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. For low-level offenders interested in the nursery program, administrators look into their mental health and criminal history. No woman can be a part of the program with a conviction of violence, and her sentence must be less than 36 months.
Those who are eligible can move with their children to the nursery in Marysville. For those who are not placed in the program, they must give their children to family or place them into foster care.
Janisha Meredith and Alexis Stoneburner were among the lucky ones. The two women, from different parts of Ohio, are raising their children in the nursery.
“The baby should always be with the mom, but not everyone gets this chance,” says Stoneburner, 23, of Zanesville, as she held her sleeping 2-month-old daughter, Lillyana.
Stoneburner also has a 6-year-old daughter, and she said she is determined to make the most of her second chance as a parent.
“Being here has changed me. I won’t ever take things for granted. It’s time to step up and stop thinking about myself.”
It won’t be easy
In July, a Muskingum County judge sentenced Stoneburner to 11 months in prison for possessing fentanyl. She has been in drug treatment on-and-off again since 2010.
She gave birth to Lillyana in December.
“For these folks (dealing with addiction), it is a lifelong battle,” says D. Michael Haddox, the Muskingum County prosecutor, who handled Stoneburner’s case. “They are the ones who have to decide whether they are going to do it.”
In August, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Maureen Clancy sentenced Meredith to nine months in prison for peddling marijuana near a school. Meredith has two other children, daughters ages 6 and 3. She delivered Javon on Jan. 2.
“I’m a better mother today,” Meredith says. “The little things count the most.”
Her brightly painted room in the nursery could be pulled from a page of Parents magazine. Toys, clothes, children’s books and diapers are stacked neatly or tucked under her bed. The rooms are the same throughout the nursery.
“These children don’t know they’re growing up in prison,” says Clara Golding-Kent, a spokeswoman for the prison. “But they do know that they are with mom. It is only a negative if someone makes it a negative. These are life-changing moments.”
Joseph Carlson, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, has studied the effects of women raising children in prison for more than 20 years. At first, he was skeptical.
“I thought, ‘That sounds really strange,’ ” Carlson says. “Then I realized that these programs work really well. Women who keep their babies while in prison bond and don’t come back to prison.”
Carlson studied data from Nebraska’s prison system. From January 1991 through November 1994, prior to the implementation of a nursery, 30 incarcerated women had children and were forced to give them up to either family members or authorities. Fifteen of those women returned to prison, for recidivism rate of 50 percent.
Carlson found that from 1994 through 2004, 65 women completed the nursery program. Only 11 women re-offended, for a recidivism rate of 16.8 percent.
“This stops the cycle,” Carlson says. “For many of these women, their mothers were in prison, too.”
The next step
Meredith and Stoneburner are eager to talk about the program, how they learned to budget with laminated board-game money, how they like making communal meals in a microwave — there are no appliances — with other moms, and how they enjoy caring for their children.
The excitement fades when they talk about leaving prison. They fear going back to the culture that led them to Marysville.
“I’m nervous,” Stoneburner says. “It’s real out there.”
Mothers who leave the nursery when their sentences end receive a car seat, a portable crib and a supply of diapers and clothes. More importantly, they also take with them information on whom to contact for support services, such as safe housing, recovery services and education services, such as Head Start. After that, many mothers are forced to rely on family.
It is unclear how much the fathers of Meredith and Stoneburner’s children will help, as neither woman likes to talk about them. They want to work and care for their children.
“It really is stressful for them,” says Maria Jones, a case manager. “You can’t change certain things. But you can make the right choices.”
Meredith holds a sleeping Javon and plays with his hair, thinking of leaving prison next month.
“I pushed my (older) kids off on my mom,” Meredith says. “I had to go here; I had to go there. I had to go party. Now, my children come first.
“When I go home, I don’t want to come back.”