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Proposed Missouri bill would keep inmate mothers with babies for up to 18 months

COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)

Several Missouri lawmakers are working to pass a bill that would allow women in prison to stay with their newborn babies for up to 18 months.

The bill is called the Missouri Prison Nursery bill and passed 32-0 in the senate today, and last month past 142-1 in the house.

The goal of the program is to keep people from going back to prison and keep kids out of foster care.

The program would apply to women with minor charges that keep them in prison for around 18 months.

In Missouri, when a woman gives birth in prison within 24 hours of delivering that baby it's taken from the mother's arm and given to foster care of a family member or up for adoption.

Republican state representative Bruce DeGroot is one of 28 bipartisan sponsors working to change that. 

"The number one thing for me is keeping these babies safe. After visiting the prison these babies are going to be safe," DeGroot said.

DeGroot said the current system is very traumatic for new mothers in prison.

"Very traumatic for the mother, a very high right of postpartum if you can imagine, not only for the mother but also for the correctional officers that are required to facilitate the transfer of the child," DeGroot said.

DeGroot said the facility use in nursery program in Illinois barely looks like a prison.

Not only would the program work to keep kids out of the foster system, but DeGroot said, other states that have this program saw fewer people going back to prison after getting out.

"In Illinois, Maggie Berk she's a warden there that runs the program she told me out of 10 inmates she only had one woman come back to the prison which is really unheard of," DeGroot said.

The nursery would be built in Missouri's Vandalia prison, the only prison in Missouri that houses pregnant women.

DeGroot said the bill would cover most of the population of pregnant women in prison.

"In Missouri there were 26 births in prison last year, and in Missouri on average the women remained in prison for only three and half months after she gave birth, so it's going to cover most pregnancies that occur before someone gets in prison," Degroot said.

DeGroot said keeping women in prison is costly.

"When you factor the recidivism rates, for a conservative republican like me it's the right thing to do but it's also fiscally the right thing to do. Keeping women in prison is expensive, and if we can get it to the point where these women aren't coming back it's the right thing to do for the tax payers in Missouri," DeGroot said.

DeGroot said the bill has bipartisan support. The proposed bill currently has 28 bipartisan sponsors.

One vote against the bill is Republican State Representative Sara Walsh.

Walsh said in a statement "It’s very simple. I don’t believe babies belong behind bars. I have spoken to numerous Corrections Officers off the record and the officers think it’s a terrible idea and would create a plethora of unintended consequences in a prison setting. Although I acknowledge the sponsor’s legislative intent is well-meaning, I believe it is contrary to the concept of limited government for which I am an outspoken advocate."

A fiscal analysis of the bill estimates the prison nursery program would cost the state of Missouri more than a million dollars.

DeAnna Alonso, the CEO The Central Missouri Foster Care & Adoption Association said if done safely, she could see the benefit of the program.

"I would have a lot a lot of questions, but I do think it would relieve the recidivism rates among inmates and mitigate long-term exposure to foster care, it would probably keep children with their biological families, but we have to be really safe about it," Alonso said.

Alonso said it's always a good thing when families can stay together safely.

"I think that being able to do that day-to-day care to them is really important because it gives them confidence and the ability to just know their children are close to them. If they are able to provide the support and resources they need and it's temporary then we definitely should support that," Alonso said.

If Missouri passes the bill it will be the 10th state to implement the prison nursery program.

In the program the babies would have medical care, be fed well and the mothers would have to take classes on pre-natal and post-natal child care.

If the bill is passed the program would not start in Vandalia until 2025.

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Leila Mitchell

Leila is a Penn State graduate who started with KMIZ in March 2021. She studied journalism and criminal justice in college.

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