Opinion: Stop the Forced Separation of Incarcerated Mothers From Their Infants
By Anushka Vakil
The writer is a fellow with the Maryland Justice Project and a student at Johns Hopkins University.
In 2015, Melissa Johnson (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) was forcibly separated from her daughter just 48 hours after she was born.
This was, and still is, protocol at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, the only correctional facility in the state that exclusively houses incarcerated women. The women who enter the facility pregnant and stay long enough to give birth are only permitted to remain with their newborns until they are discharged from the hospital – typically 24 to 48 hours after birth for a standard vaginal delivery.
When Johnson was convicted after defending herself from an abusive boyfriend, she was nearly seven months pregnant. Although a judge allowed her to delay her sentence until after the pregnancy, an officer from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was standing outside her hospital room only hours after she delivered her daughter.
By far, Johnson is not the only woman who has had her baby taken away from her because of incarceration.
In 2020, 10% of the women housed at Maryland Correctional Institution for Women were pregnant and 65% of these pregnancies ended in a live birth. At present, there exist almost no accommodations in the facility for these babies to remain with their mothers after delivery, either in a specialized maternity ward or with a designated community placement. This means that infants born to incarcerated women must either be placed with a secondary caregiver or enter the foster care system at just a few days old.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that forcibly separating infants from their mothers can have lifelong developmental concerns. Not only does separation immediately cause a permanent increase in a baby’s stress levels, but separated babies are more likely to have mental health issues, end up in foster care and drop out of school in the future.
And these consequences aren’t limited to babies. Mothers who are separated from their newborns are at higher risk of postpartum depression and report feeling extreme powerlessness, grief and feelings of detachment after the separation.
Hoping to address the parenting needs of incarcerated women and build on the success of similar legislation passed in other states, the Maryland Justice Project has introduced the Prevention of Forced Infant Separation Act in both the House and the Senate during the 2022 session of the Maryland General Assembly.
The Maryland Justice Project is a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of incarcerated individuals, and in recent years has directed its focus to keeping families together when parents and other caretakers are sentenced to incarceration.
The act works within the state’s designated pre-release center for women, which did not exist until legislation mandating its construction was passed by the Maryland Justice Project and numerous advocacy organizations in 2020. Incarcerated individuals with pre-release status present minimal risk of violence or escape and are allowed to participate in numerous community programs such as work-release.
Under the bill, pregnant women who are at pre-release status can relocate to the facility for the duration of their pregnancy and up to one-year postpartum. During that postpartum period, infants will be permitted to live in the facility with their mothers and have access to care specialized for their developmental needs.
For women who are not eligible for pre-release, the bill allows increased visitation for infants and access to infant bonding programs.
The bill’s lead sponsors are Del. Lesley Lopez (D-Montgomery County) and Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City), who serve as members of the House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committees, respectively. Both committees have held a hearing for the bill, although it is unknown whether the bill will advance for a vote.
“This bill will help keep parents and their newborn children together, ensuring that families can remain whole, and our justice system is based on rehabilitation rather than punishment,” says Del. Lopez.
For many women, pregnancy during incarceration is a dehumanizing experience. Correctional officers dictate every move pregnant women and their fetuses make, essential medical care is inadequately provided or withheld entirely, and few formal support systems exist to help women cope with the mental and physical toll of pregnancy.
This is why policies and practices designed to support motherhood in prison, such as the Prevention of Forced Infant Separation Act, are crucial to providing incarcerated women with the same opportunity to form strong bonds with their newborns that any other parent would have, bonds that are essential for raising happy and healthy families.
It’s time for Maryland to keep families together and end forced infant separation.