A section of barbed wire fence surrounds a now-abandoned part of the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Currently, the births take place in Torrington’s Community Hospital.

Mothers are moved from a prison vehicle to their sequestered room. These rooms are sterile and uncharacteristically silent for delivery rooms. Maybe an attendant comforts the mother between cries in pain, maybe a nurse or two talk shop in the corner. But the room is primarily still as the mother’s sweaty hands ferociously clench the metal bars of her bed. She is told to keep pushing. To be strong. To not give up.

For a few moments, the room livens up. A doctor scurries in, a nurse rushes out and directions are thrown from corner to corner. After a few minutes, the tension is severed and the air in the delivery room abruptly returns to one of business.

The mother’s eyes seek out her newborn child. The baby is transferred from doctor to nurse, swiftly slapped, breathing checked, foot inked, body weighed and measured and finally time and date recorded. It’s a momentous instance, but one that is tainted for this child’s mother as her countdown has begun.

23:59

Maybe a full hour passes before the child’s health is entirely verified, maybe another twenty minutes before the mother holds her child for the first time.

21:05

Minutes pass as the baby is removed to undergo testing and the mother is encouraged to rest. She politely refuses, trying not to miss a single moment with her baby.

14:57

Desperate for extra time, maybe the mother claims a mystery pain, whatever will buy her more time with her child.

00:21

Sleep deprived and scared, the mother gets to hold her baby one more time. She can’t imagine ever letting go. She doesn’t have a choice. Twenty-four hours after this mother brought a child into the world she is forced to leave it. Maybe she doesn’t know where her child will end up. Maybe she doesn’t even know if she will ever see her baby again. Bit by bit the mother’s heart breaks as the transport heads north, returning her to prison.

The above is an imagined recreation of an incarcerated mother giving birth in Wyoming’s correctional system. It is based in part on the work of Katy Brock, a doctoral student at the University of Wyoming and co-coordinator of the Wyoming Pathways to Prison program.

Officials with the Wyoming Department of Corrections said there is no hard and fast rule that a baby is separated from its mother after 24 hours. During the second trimester of pregnancy, pregnant mothers are transferred from the women’s prison in Lusk to the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington, said Julie Tennant-Caine, an administrator for the Wyoming Department of Corrections who oversees the program. They’re transferred then to the hospital in Torrington shortly before delivery.

There are four pregnant women in Wyoming’s prison system today — which is around the annual average, officials said,

After delivery, the mothers stay in the hospital until they’re healthy enough to return to prison, Tennant-Caine said, usually around 24 hours.

Back at the community hospital, our imagined newborn is looking down a few paths. If a relative of the incarcerated mother is able and willing to serve as the child’s guardian, they do so. In other cases, however, the mother has either been ostracized by her family or lost contact with trusted individuals. In these situations, the child is given to the state and placed in foster care. This is the scariest instance for incarcerated mothers, as foster parents, or even relatives may refuse contact between the mother and her child. If a child is held in foster care for fifteen months following birth, assuming the mother remains in prison for this time, the mother’s parental rights can be severed under Wyoming law. These rights can also be severed if the child is in the care of an individual not associated with the state (relative of the mother) for just one year.

Such separation increases the chances of poor outcomes for both mother and child, said Karen Bartsch, a psychology professor at the University of Wyoming.

“If you wanted to put people at risk, this is how you would do it. It’s not exactly rocket science,” Bartsch said in her cozy, slightly cluttered on-campus office. Bartsch researches conceptual development, something crucial for any newborn.

“The first bond a child forms becomes the prototype for future relationships, which could be positive or not.” Bartsch said. “We are talking about outcomes like a child’s ability to trust other people, issues with mental development like sympathy and empathy, or academic competence.”

Of course, bonding doesn’t have to occur between a child and their birth mother, Bartsch said, adding that today’s foster programs are frequently successful. But separating mother and child at birth creates challenges for successful bonding in early relationships, she said.

“Once you have screwed up the beginning of development like this,” Barsch said, “every aspect of development could be put at risk.”

A problem with a solution

Wyoming’s Legislature began studying how to provide better outcomes for incarcerated mothers and their newborn children in 2010, UW-doctoral student Brock said. During the 2012 budget session, Wyoming’s Legislature approved a $1.2 million project to convert an unused wing of the Women’s Center in Lusk into a mother-child unit.

If you have never heard of a mother-child unit before, you are probably not alone. But the concept isn’t new.

In the early 20th century, one of the few women’s prisons in the U.S. was in Bedford Hills, New York. Facility operators established a nursery within the prison. The nursery provided not only a safe environment for births, but also a secure locale for newborn childcare up to the child’s first birthday, according to an article by Susan Craig published in The Prison Journal, an academic publication. Though a radical idea at the time, founders thought it was necessary for the health of both mother and child. The law that created the program is still in effect in New York State today, and the program continues to be a success.

Subscribe for free.

About a century later, there are at least nine mother-child units across the country. Among the most notable is the Parenting Program, in Nebraska. The Parenting Program was opened in 1994 based on the Bedford Hills model but with an added innovation: The new facility would record thorough data on mothers and children, something Bedford Hills had never done.

Mary Allen is the Parenting Program coordinator in Nebraska and has worked for the program since its inception in 1994. After the Wyoming Legislature approved the establishment of a mother-child facility in Lusk, the Department of Corrections in Wyoming looked to Allen for help advising the program’s installation.

The mother-child facility in Lusk was designed as nearly a carbon copy of the Parenting Program in Nebraska, Allen said. The Wyoming Women’s Center was designed as a fully functioning nursery complete with delivery rooms. Qualifying mothers would be able to keep their children in the facility for up to 18 months after birth. The facility also would accommodate visits of older children during the day and at times overnight stays. The staff of the mother-child facility would include nurses, parenting coaches and, occasionally, relationship experts.

Allen has seen the impact of these resources on inmates in Nebraska for more than 20 years.

“It’s a whole other atmosphere within the prison,” Allen said. “Each mom has her own room with her baby. We are trying to give them a full, you know, ‘this is life’ experience.”

Allen paused, reminiscing for a moment on the early years of the Parenting Program.

“Once you get up and going, it’s amazing what the community does to support you.” she said.

In January 2014, the mother-child facility in Lusk was fully renovated and ready for use. Unsurprising for a state like Wyoming, which often feels like a small town itself, communities rallied around the new program.

“Church groups donated the money for goods, beds, cribs, diapers, and some even crocheted blankets and handmade quilts.” Katy Brock, the UW doctoral student, said. “All of which have remained unused.”

Empty cribs

More than four years after renovations were completed, and more than $1 million spent, the unit remains closed, vacant on the outskirts of Lusk.

Tennant-Caine with the Wyoming Department of Corrections said the issue is rooted in staffing.

“The mother-child facility — it’s ready,” she said. “The facility itself stands ready. At this point it is the department’s inability to hire staff” that keeps it from being operated.

“We find that we struggle to keep and attract staff,” said Mark Horan, the public information officer for the Wyoming Department of Corrections. “Our starting salary is competitive with other states, but certainly not where we would like. We [also] lose a lot of people to the private sector.”

A prison guard works at a Wyoming Department of Corrections facility. The agency has struggled to find and retain prison guards, leading to a shortage of staff at correctional facilities around Wyoming. (Department of Corrections)

The remote location of Wyoming’s prisons is also a problem. “Staff will come and struggle with the fact that the nearest Walmart is 150 miles away,” Horan said. “Also, affordable housing can be difficult to find in these areas.”

Both officials said they would like to see the facility staffed and opened as soon as possible but declined to say when. However, considering recent budget cuts by the Wyoming Legislature, Horan said safety and security had to be considered first.

The Department of Corrections saw $17.9 million cut from its budget in 2016. The department was mandated by the Legislature to cut 6.2 percent of its budget, resulting in 125 full-time positions being left unfilled, according to a report by Lillian Schrock of the Casper Star Tribune.

The cuts have hurt the state’s recidivism rate, which is the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend.

For example, cuts to substance abuse programs are costing Wyoming about $4.6 million a year, “The cut nearly eliminated outpatient drug and alcohol counseling for inmates,” WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham reported, “and severely reduced the number of beds available for intensive inpatient treatment.” Since the cuts, the state has seen a 7 percent increase in recidivism, DOC officials said.

The empty mother-child facility could help decrease that rising recidivism rate.

A rural state with a relatively small population like Wyoming, Nebraska has only lost one Parenting Program staff position to cutbacks in its 24 years, Allen said.

“We have been really lucky to have administrators who we have made believers out of,” she said. “Mothers that go through our program have 10 percent recidivism while the national average is around 27 percent. In fact, mothers that have their first child here, I have never seen them come back.”

Keeping records has paid off for the Parenting Program. As Allen described, the percentage of women returning to prison after being a part of the program in Nebraska is lower than the national average. In 1996, when this trend was first identified, the Nebraska Legislature took note.

“When you go to the legislators with 10 percent recidivism, that’s dollar signs to them,” Allen said.

Fewer incarcerated women returning to prison means less taxpayer expense. So, in 1996 the Nebraska Legislature voted to make the Parenting Program a separate part of the state’s budget, guaranteeing funds and staff for years.

An argument for dedicated funding to Wyoming’s mother-child facility is more difficult to make, as the program has no history to prove itself. However, considering the facilities in Nebraska and Wyoming are intended to operate almost identically, it would seem reasonable to project a similar successes for Wyoming’s program.

When asked about the importance of the mother-child facility to Wyoming’s Department of Corrections, Tennant-Caine was enthusiastic and hopeful describing the potential of a fully staffed program.

“Right now, if you walked into that facility you could see women and their children, and they could have that opportunity to bond.” Tennant-Caine stated. “It’s super important to us, it’s just the matter of having all the right parts in all the right places.”

For the moment it’s impossible to tell where these “right parts” will come from, or when they will come. However,  the greatest resource to the mother-child facility right now are the citizens of Wyoming, Horan said.

Asked whether concerned citizens should contact their legislators, Horan said yes. If you are passionate about the facility and think you can help, contact the Department of Corrections or apply for a position.

According to Karen Bartsch, the UW psychology professor, such support would not only influence mothers in prison.

“The mother benefits, the child benefits, and the community benefits, because it receives two healthy people,” she said.

 

Ed note: This story was updated on May 29 to clarify comments made by Mark Horan with the Wyoming Department of Corrections. -Ed. 

Jackson Rambough

Jackson Rambough is a freelance writer and student from Kingston, Washington. He studies Communication and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Wyoming.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *