This is the first in a three-part series.
Inmate Sheirra Haines cares for her infant at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. Haynes' two older children live with relatives.
Inmate Sheirra Haines cares for her infant at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. Haynes' two older children live with relatives. Anne Hawke/NPR
In the second part of this series, we visit the nation's largest mental institution — located inside a county jail.
Courtesy of The Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project, "One in 100: Behind Bars in America, 2008."
At the Ohio Reformatory for Women, 12 cells in a special wing are equipped with cribs.
At the Ohio Reformatory for Women, 12 cells in a special wing are equipped with cribs. Anne Hawke/NPR
Ohio Reformatory inmate Kristin Kennedy keeps photographs of her children in her cell. Her youngest child, an infant, lives with her at the prison.
Ohio Reformatory inmate Kristin Kennedy keeps photographs of her children in her cell. Her youngest child, an infant, lives with her at the prison. Anne Hawke/NPR
At the Ohio Reformatory for Women, a dozen babies are spending time behind bars. Too young to say the word "crime," they are participants in a program that enables inmate mothers to raise their children in their cells.
The program is one of many across the country designed to meet the unique needs of mothers who are locked up. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population. At the Ohio Reformatory, the warden estimates that 75 percent of the 2,300 inmates housed there are mothers.
Only a handful of U.S. prisons offer an in-house nursery program like the one at the quickly expanding Ohio complex, located about 30 miles from Columbus. Only nonviolent offenders who arrive at the prison pregnant or with infants and are serving relatively short sentences can qualify.
The Achieving Baby Care Success program began in June 2001. The 12 mothers currently participating live in a special wing of the prison. The babies sleep in identical cribs in their mothers' cells. Between prison roll calls, mothers take their children to the in-house nursery for scheduled activities.
The ultimate goal, says warden Sheri Duffey, is to reduce recidivism and keep the next generation out of prison.
The program "maintains that bond that the mother and child has," Duffey says. Although research is limited, a small study in Nebraska several years ago suggested that prison nurseries may make mothers less likely to commit another crime and end up back behind bars.
At the colorful prison nursery, Kristin Kennedy, a 28-year-old inmate from Zanesville, Ohio, awaits the public librarian's arrival for story-time. Kennedy was pregnant with her third child on the day she reported to prison.
"I made some bad decisions," she says, her nearly 10-month-old baby on her lap. "I had some weed in my purse. I got pulled over. They found it and charged me with trafficking."
Kennedy's husband is also in prison on a drug charge, and their two older children live with relatives.
Sheirra Haines, a mother of three, calms her infant in a rocking chair nearby. However chaotic the women's lives may have been outside, the routine at the Ohio Reformatory never changes.
Haines and Kennedy tick off the daily schedule, echoing one another's words: get up, change diaper, dress infant, take walk.
"By 11 o'clock count, they'll be ready for their nap again," Haines says, referring to the hour she must report to her cell.
A firearms charge landed her behind bars, she says, adding that she hopes she and her infant are out by March.
Radio story produced by Anne Hawke.