New York prison nurseries aim to stem cycle of violence Officials disagree on effectiveness, but inmates praise program

September 11, 1997|By boston globe

BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. - The maximum-security Women's Correctional Facility is a monument to conventional prison security. Ragged coils of razor wire ring the perimeter. Pipe-thick steel bars frame the windows. The guards are crisply appointed.

But in the dour red-brick hospital building there is a different kind of prison philosophy being practiced. Painted dalmatians pirouette on the corridor walls. The echo of tiny bells soars above the stagnant institutional air. And on a recent sweltering morning, a searing shriek tears from one of the boxy white cells.

It is a baby's voice, a baby thrilled at sighting his mother, a convicted drug dealer, and one of about 150 babies who each year spend the first year of their lives with their mothers behind bars. A controversial program launched at the turn of the century and one of only three prison nurseries in the nation, it is intended to arrest the pattern of violence and drugs that led the women to prison by letting them remain with their babies during their critical first year of development. Now, Massachusetts legislators are considering starting a similar program.

Testimony of lives

While corrections officials and inmate advocates are divided about the merits of prison nurseries, inmates most decidedly are not. They do not cite the statistics that show a reduced recidivism rate among nursery mothers. Or the calming effect that such facilities are said to have prisonwide. They offer only the altered fabric of their lives.

"Me and Ralphie, we done time together. He is my co-defendant," declared Anita Franz, 39, of Brooklyn, who this month will finish serving two years for violation of probation on a 15-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter. "If I didn't have my son with me, I'd be leaving angry. I'm still angry at having to serve so much time, but having Ralphie with me I feel happy. Optimistic. We made the distance together and now we've got (( to walk the line together."

Franz is sitting on her narrow brown metal cot cradling 17-month Ralphiel in her arms. He sleeps in a white crib an arm's reach from her bed in the small white cell that is crowded with baby equipment.

Ralphiel, Franz's fourth child, is a long-termer, relatively speaking. He spent several months in the Rikers Island prison nursery with her and is permitted to remain beyond the standard one year here so they can leave together. A robust toddler, Ralphiel has been at the Bedford Hills prison longer than any of the other babies, and when he barrels down the prison corridor on trunklike legs inmates and guards cheer.

"The only thing I feel bad about is I don't have so many friends outside," sighed Franz, who will be released to a halfway house in Queens. "He's so happy. All the attention he gets, he thinks he's a movie star. He'll be missing all this."

Prison officials suspect she's right. While critics object that prison is no place for babies, administrators say some babies are likely better off inside than out. Their mothers - about 68 percent of whom are serving time for drug offenses and many of whom have lost custody of their other children - receive prenatal care and are required to attend parenting classes, neither of which is assured outside. And surrounded by a host of children and caretakers, the babies seem to thrive.

Better off inside?

"They soar," declared Sister Elaine Roulet, the 67-year-old Brooklyn native and director of the prison's Children's Program who has worked there for 28 years. "The prince doesn't know he's in the palace. The baby doesn't know he's in prison. Taking the baby away will never help the baby. It will never help the mother. It will help nobody. Nobody."

Opened in 1901, the Bedford Hills facility is the oldest prison nursery in the nation, the sole survivor of more than a dozen nurseries that operated at the turn of the century.

Most of the others shut largely because of the changing role of women's prisons coupled with a less tolerant political climate. Two others were opened in recent years, on Rikers Island and at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women. The program has been lauded by a host of corrections officials and inmates, including Jean Harris, the prep school headmistress who sought donations for the nursery and taught prenatal classes while serving 12 years for killing her lover, the famed "Scarsdale diet" doctor, Herman Tarnower.

The nursery occupies two floors of the worn prison hospital building: newborns on the third floor, toddlers on the second floor. A companion nursery was opened in 1990 across the street at the Taconic Correctional Facility to accommodate the growing number of female drug offenders. Most of the pregnant women entering the state system, about 6 percent of the total, will serve their terms here after giving birth at a local hospital. Only those convicted of arson are automatically excluded from participation; the rest are evaluated individually.

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