At the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk, there’s an average of four births per year. That’s because some inmates are showing up to prison pregnant. When an inmate does give birth, they’re usually given less than 24 hours with their newborn before handing the child over to family or foster care services, when they return to the prison. Four years ago, plans were put into motion to address the situation by providing a mother-child unit where inmates could raise their children. However, the unit has remained vacant since renovations were completed in 2014.
For some, the idea of a baby growing up in a prison setting sounds bizarre. But Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert said he thinks some may have the wrong idea.
“I think first of all when people envision a mother child program setting they think of an old fashioned cell block with a mother with a child with all the other women around them,” Lampert said.
Lampert said the plan is to have it be more like a daycare-style of residence, where inmates and their children would reside in a separate facility from the rest of the prison. The reason for the interest the program, Lampert said is the bonding that happens between mother and child during the earliest stages of life can be a strong motivation against reoffending after the women leave prison. It can also keep children of inmates from ending up behind bars themselves.
“It is something that we recognize can have impact on both the offender’s success as well as the success of the children,” Lampert said.
The facility’s design was modeled after a very successful mother-child program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York. Five years before NCCW launched the program, the recidivism rate for was 33.3 percent for women who gave birth while in custody. After the program had operated for five years, that number went down nine percent.
Right now, there are eight mother-child programs across the country. Wyoming set out to become the ninth state to develop such a program in 2010, when the Women’s Center in Lusk began planning for a mother-child unit. The Executive Director of the Wyoming Association of Churches, Cheise Lee, was excited about the initiative. Lee had previously spent time at the prison when she had helped with a non-violence workshop.
“One of the main things the women talked about was how much they missed their children,” said Lee. “And just anxiety about who was taking care of the children, [and] were they being properly taken care of.”
Lee said her organization lobbied for the initiative and in March 2012, the Wyoming State Legislature approved about $1 million to renovate the former intensive care unit for the purpose of housing the mother-child unit.
But the Department of Corrections has had problems staffing the program. Because of Lusk’s remote nature, it’s difficult to find people willing to live there. And for those willing to relocate, it’s hard to find housing that is both available and affordable. So, the facility sits vacant. Lee said it’s a frustrating situation.
“Yeah, it’s just very disappointing,” said Lee. “It feels like the million dollars that was used to renovate that building just kind of went down the tubes.”
Now a supporter of the initiative is reconsidering the usefulness of the program. Laramie State Representative Cathy Connolly is a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee who voted to support the effort. But recently Connolly was a researcher for the “Pathways from Prison” study. During the study, 71 women were interviewed who either were, or are currently an inmate at the Women’s Center. The researchers wanted a better understanding of the inmates and their challenges. Connolly said she learned something interesting when the women were asked about the mother-child program—they weren’t interested in it.
“[The women said] wow! There is this building right here, that isn’t being used, what could it be used for?” said Connolly. “Why not do some different, better job skills training? The women themselves [said] ‘we’ve got some ideas for you!’”
In other words, the inmates that the researchers spoke with said they would prefer a facility that prepares them for leaving prison. Department of Corrections Director Lampert said there are no plans to repurpose the mother-child unit while they wait for the ability to staff it. However, Lampert said there is a small possibility that if funding reductions continue and the prison reached full capacity, they would use the building as a temporary minimal housing unit.