The Psychosocial Impact of Maternal-Infant Separation at Birth for Incarcerated Mothers
The population of women in incarceration in the United States has increased over 800% in the last thirty years, yet the prison system has neglected to develop policies to address women’s unique health concerns (WPA, 2009; Braithwaith, 2010). One example is the routine separation of incarcerated mothers from their newborn infants hours after childbirth. While the long-term detrimental effects on infant attachment and birth outcomes are well established, less research addresses the psychosocial impacts of maternal-infant separation on incarcerated women (Wismont, 2000; Chambers, 2009). All incarcerated women are at risk for inadequate prenatal care and complications in childbirth due to the typically non-nurturing environment they endure in the prison system throughout their pregnancy (Ferszt & Erikson-Owens, 2008). However, incarcerated pregnant women also must anticipate the eventual forced separation from their infant after birth and cope with returning to prison without their newborn (WPA, 2009). This results in significant emotional stress for these new mothers in addition to substantially affecting their capability as caregivers after release when they are finally reunited with their infants. While the existing research views alternatives to maternal-infant separation as the gold standard, many incarcerated women who are able to co-reside with their newborns still exhibit difficulties coping with motherhood both during and following their release (WPA, 2009; Goshin & Byrne, 2009). It is imperative to address the needs of these new mothers while they are incarcerated as well as throughout their transition to life beyond the prison system. A greater emphasis must be placed on empowering these women with the tools and education to be knowledgeable and competent caregivers, as well as secure and employable individuals. These factors must be considered in order to provide incarcerated mothers with the best possible chance to reintegrate into civil society. This research paper reviews the existing literature concerning the complex maternal responses of incarcerated women to separation from their newborns, as well as the effects of alternative policies such as the promotion of prison nurseries and community-based co-residencies for incarcerated mothers and their infants. Further research should be pursued in assessing the outcomes for mother-infant dyads following co-residence as well as their reentry into society after release from the prison system (Byrne et al, 2010). Future policy should focus on improving support for maternal-infant bonding within the correctional system, as well as and fostering a more nurturing and humane experience for incarcerated women throughout their pregnancy and the birth process.