Alisha Floyd bounces her son Chance on her lap. He giggles and pulls her hair.
“He’s the fattest baby here,” she says, laughing.
Chance is 4 months old, and his chunky little legs stick out of his blue striped onesie. The room's cinder block walls are covered in paintings of Sesame Street characters. Baby dolls lie tucked into miniature beds on the windowsill. Outside, there’s a tall chain link fence, topped with barbed wire.
“I was actually a month before my due date when I got sentenced,” Floyd says.
Floyd is part of the Ohio Reformatory for Women’s Achieving Baby Care Success program, or ABC. It lets women who are pregnant when they’re incarcerated keep their babies in prison – giving them the opportunity to do things like breastfeed and bond with their newborn, which studies show improve children’s long-term health and well-being.
Studies show that children who spent time with their mothers in a prison nursery had less anxiety and depression than children who were separated because of incarceration.
Soon, the moms and babies in the ABC program will get a new home – a specially-designed prison nursery that will cost the state more than $2 million.
"It's A Blessing, Honestly"
The program is difficult to get into: Offenders can’t be convicted of a violent crime or have any history of problems with child services, and must have sentences less than 36 months.
It’s the only program of its kind in Ohio, and one of about 10 nationwide. In the midwest, Illinois and Indiana have similar programs.
“This is my first child,” Floyd says, holding Chance’s hand. “If I didn’t have him, I’d probably melt down. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to raise him. So I mean, it’s a blessing, honestly, to be here. It’s a big blessing.”
ABC has been in the same space since the program started in 2001, a locked unit just off the reception area where new inmates first arrive at the prison. The unit was retrofitted to serve as the nursery, and isn’t without problems: a large window lets officers outside keep watch over the nursery, but also allows new inmates to look in.
“That’s where the people look in the window and stare at the babies,” Floyd says. “We don’t know what their charges are. That’s really what I don’t like.”
Aura Yazell just joined the unit. She points out that the walls of the rooms where moms and babies sleep don’t go all the way to the ceiling. Her son Jacob is only a few weeks old. She says it’s hard enough to get a newborn to sleep without the sounds of the other babies crying, too.
“I just got my baby to go back to sleep,” she says, cradling her sleeping son in her arms. “Please stop crying, please don’t wake him up with your crying.”
How To Be A Parent
The new nursery building was designed to address the moms' concerns. It has a full kitchen to prepare meals, an in-unit officer, and more room for ABC programming like breast feeding consultation, post-partum counseling, Head Start, and weekly appointments with a pediatrician.
These resources are vital to the success of the program, says warden Ronette Burkes.
“You go to school and you learn how to do all these things, but who teaches you how to be a parent?” she says.
Along with participating in the programs offered for both mom and baby, the women in ABC must get a job or take classes while they’re incarcerated. The majority of Ohio’s prisoners don’t have a high school diploma, according to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
One study of the state’s prison system showed inmates that participate in educational programs show lower rates of recidivism.
“We have a mom over there in college,” Burkes says, pointing to one of the women nestled on the couch with a textbook on her lap. Her son plays on the ground with another one of the moms.
“How wonderful is it that she has an opportunity to work on her college degree, raise her child, in a healthy environment?” she adds.
Burkes says she sometimes hears criticism from people who think using taxpayer money to keep babies with their incarcerated mothers is like rewarding bad behavior.
“We certainly can’t control the fact that they come to prison,” she says. “But we can definitely control what we do with them while they’re here, and do our part as public servants to ensure, or to at least give people all the tools they need so they don’t come back.”
According to the reformatory, of the more than 300 women who have been through the ABC program, about 50 have returned to prison. That’s slightly less than the recidivism rate for all women inmates in Ohio.
Burkes says that, despite the new building being just a shell of a structure with a roof so far, it marks a new chapter for the ABC program, and for the moms and babies. It should be ready in early 2019 – a fresh start for the new year.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a reporting collaborative focused on public health.