Pregnant and Incarcerated: New York City’s Prison Nurseries

Andrea Vasquez |
Encore: May 13, 2015

New York is one of just 11 states that gives pregnant inmates a chance to keep their babies with them for up to a year and a half in prison nurseries.

But when reporter Jenny Zou of the Columbia University Journalism School’s data-driven reporting site The New York World began investigating, she found that the two existing nurseries—at Bedford Hills and on Rikers Island—are turning away inmates even though the nurseries are not at capacity.

“They can be denied for really any kind of reason, from the criminal offense that landed them in prison or jail in the first place to child welfare issues, or even one lady at the Rikers Island facility was denied because she wasn’t breastfeeding. So the reasons really run the gamut,” said Zou.

Zou found that the nurseries had as many as 179 inmates and their infants in the late 1990s but that by 2013 the number had dropped to just 19.

New York City officials told Zou they are working on improving access at Rikers Island. State officials did not comment on the use of the Bedford Hills nursery.

“For women who were in the nursery, they said they really enjoyed their time in the nursery,” said Zou. “A lot of times it helped them become a parent, it gave them a lot of parenting skills, a lot of professionals are staffed at the nursery 24 hours a day so they can really guide the woman in trying to give her these parenting skills that she might not have.”

Following up on The New York World reporting, we asked Sister Tesa Fitzgerald to join us. Sister Tesa is executive director of Hour Children — an organization that serves currently and formerly incarcerated women and their families, and works in the nurseries at Bedford Hills and Rikers Island.

Additional video courtesy “Prisons to Paradise,” Picture the Possibilities by Cinequest (2014)

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