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Professor’s study looks at nursery in Ind. women’s prison

Posted on 02.20.2013

Assistant Professor of  Criminal  Justice and Sociology Kevin Whiteacre spoke at a Faculty Forum on Feb. 7 about his study of the Wee Ones Nursery program in the Indiana Women’s Prison. Whiteacre,  director of the Community Research Center at the University of Indianapolis, said that two of his graduate students, Stephanie Fritz and James Owen, both played large roles in the study.

Whiteacre began studying the program, which is still active at the prison, soon after it began and noted the effects it had on mothers who participated. WON allows incarcerated mothers to live in nursery quarters, separate from the general population, before and after the birth of their child.

“It’s about wanting to be with their child, so it’s for the betterment of the child,” Whiteacre said. “But it’s also just wanting to remain with your kid. I think that’s why they all do it. It’s a benefit, too, that it’s a nicer dorm, in that it’s quiet and peaceful.”

The WON program allows 10 mothers and infants to live in the nursery quarters while other inmates work as nannies.

To be considered for the program, an inmate must meet several qualifications: she cannot have any convictions for violent crime,  child abuse or child endangerment; she must have a release date within 18 months of her projected delivery date; she must have custody of the child; and mother and child must meet certain mental and physical health standards.

If accepted, the inmate is then put on a waiting list, but some women are not able to move into the nursery quarters until delivery.

“For some women who could not get in until right when they give birth, they were the ones who felt like it [WON]should be expanded,” Whiteacre said. “So, it’s not really competition, because everyone will get in eventually. But it’s more about concern of when they’ll get in, and they get antsy about it.”

Going into the study, Whiteacre and his team had four main hypotheses. They believed that there would be lower recidivism rates—relapsing into old patterns—among women who participated in WON than among those who dealt with their pregnancy in prison prior to the program. In addition, they believed the WON group would be more likely to maintain custody, have greater attachment to their children and have more self-esteem as a parents as a result of their experiences in the program.

Whiteacre and his team interviewed mothers who had either participated in the WON program or had been pregnant in prison before the program existed. Although Whiteacre said that the sample size was too small to draw strong conclusions, he and his team found each hypothesis to be consistent.

The largest complaint among the women—whether they did or did not participate in the WON program—was the shackling of the pregnant women.

“They’re not restrained during delivery, but the mothers are restrained going to the hospital. Then your ankle is cuffed to the bed,  allowing you to be restrained but still walk around,” Whiteacre said. “Many of the mothers found this upsetting,  because it’s the idea of bringing a child into the world while they’re shackled …”

Senior sociology major Jessica Leaman, a student in Whiteacre’s quantitative data analysis class, appreciated the positive message of the program and the study.

“His work has been really influential. And I hope that corrections facilities would implement this into their systems to better the lives of the women and definitely the children who may otherwise end up in foster care,” Leaman said.

Whiteacre said he would like to revisit this study in two or three years to follow up with the children born in prison.

Professor Kevin Whiteacre presents his study of the Wee Ones Nursery program at a Feb. 7 Faculty Forum. Photo by Annisa Nunn

“I hope if we have the time here, and [if] IWP has the interest, then I think that would be great,” Whiteacre said. “And now that we have the data collection kind of established, and the populations and the samples all established, it could be much simpler to do in the future.”

Whiteacre’s long-term goals are for WON to consider a drug treatment program and to implement a data collection process for future research. However, Whiteacre said that the program’s size likely will not grow in the near future.

“I think right now it matches the population that is eligible for it, and then I just don’t know if they have the space and what it would take to actually revamp that. So I doubt they’ll expand anytime soon,” Whiteacre said.

Senior religion and philosophy major Mark Wolfe attended the Faculty Forum. He agreed with the idea of the program, saying many things need to be changed.

“There are a lot of things in our corrective system that focus too much on punishment, and we have a sense of justice where we lock the bad guys up and the good guys stay free and live their lives,” Wolfe said.  “But we have to show compassion for people who are in prison as well. They’re not anything less than human.”


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