Babies Behind Bars

Monday, 27 June 2011, 9:00PM – 10:00PM

Babies Behind Bars follows the stories of a group of pregnant inmates at the Indiana Women’s Prison in the USA. 

With a 400 per cent increase in the number of incarcerated women in the US in the last 30 years, prison births are becoming an increasingly regular occurrence and this new two part series follows the dramatic and emotional stories of one group of expectant mothers serving time. The film provides a unique insight into the experiences of the inmates with intimate access to their lives. 

Many of the inmates are forced to give up their babies after just 24 hours while the lucky ones get to keep their babies in a special prison nursery – Wee Ones, which was launched in 2007. Featuring births, babies and often intensely emotional scenes, these films use powerful personal stories to pose questions about how the American criminal justice deals with women and children. 

The programme explores the personal stories of several prisoners including Donna, who says she was raped at 14 after getting drunk for the first time and spiralled into years of substance abuse; and Heather, a former prostitute and mother of 8, who fell pregnant with twins aged 11 and claims she is denied a place on the Wee Ones project due to a conviction for violence dating back to when she was 10 years old. 

The prison is a maximum security facility that houses 670 convicts. Doug Garrison, the prison’s Chief Communications Officer explains: “if the rates for re-incarceration are lower for women that have gone through this programme, then we’ve done something right. If the rates of criminal activity by their children in five or 10 or 15 or 20 years are low, then we know we’ve done something right.” 

This morning, new inmates are arriving at the facility, but competition for the 10 places in the baby dorm is tough. Donna Jones is serving a three year sentence for common nuisance and drug possession and is eight weeks pregnant. She says: “I just couldn’t just let my child go. I felt terrible because I’ll be keeping my baby in prison and it’s like it’s done a crime and it’s done prison, but the dorms are nice.” 

The programme has been controversial as Doug Garrison explains: “There are those that would say these women are being punished. Why should they have children in prison…But it’s the outcome when they leave here that we’re concerned about. If they’re better mothers, if they’re better citizens when they leave because of it.” 

Former drug addict Bobbi Brush is one of the lucky ones and is offered a place on the baby dorm. It gives her an opportunity to bond with her sixth child, having already given up three children for adoption. She says: “Oh I’m excited. I prayed and prayed ’cause they told me I wasn’t gonna get in this Wee Programme. I didn’t think I was getting in.” 

When she moves onto the dorm, Bobbi is introduced to the centre’s nannies – four inmates who live with the mothers and babies and have completed a parenting course. Nanny Vivian Price says: “There are a lot of people that have a lot of animosity [towards us] because they think that we’re privileged – that we have so much more than they do and in reality we don’t. We as prisoners don’t, the babies do. All this is geared for the babies.” 

For Donna, the news is less positive. She has been refused a place on the Wee Ones programme due to a previous accusation of violence. Instead she will remain on the lockdown wing and will have to give up her baby 24 hours after giving birth. She says: “I feel like a kid ’cause I’m an adult and have no control over my life at all…I have somebody else telling me I have to give my child away just because of something so stupid. There’s people [who] don’t even care if they have their kids and get to keep their kids.” 

Another of the prison’s latest arrivals is former prostitute Heather who has also been refused a place at Wee Ones because she has a previous conviction for violence. She has to find someone to look after her baby until she gets out, and she’s unsure whether her boyfriend’s family will accept it as she’s not certain that he’s the father. 

With Heather’s mother unable to take her baby, Heather’s only option is for the baby go to an Amish family who foster and adopt babies born to mothers ineligible for the Wee One’s programme, until their mothers get out of jail. 

Patricia Rumble, the pre-natal co-ordinator, shows Heather photos of the Armish family who will look after her baby and Heather says: “I’m excited…I think they’re wonderful people.” 

But Patricia says: “My gut feeling is that if you look at her record, it’s not good and the Amish will probably be raising her child.”

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