DECATUR, Ill. – Destiny Doud thought she had just 48 hours to be a mother.
Like most of the hundreds of pregnant women each year who give birth while serving time, Doud was slated to give up her newborn to a relative just days after the baby was born last May.
Doud recalled hugging Jaelynn close at the hospital, waving off nurses’ offers to take the girl to the nursery. She wanted every minute to hold her daughter ahead of that wrenching separation.
But just before handing off the baby to her own father, Doud learned she had qualified for a radical alternative. She could raise Jaelynn behind bars.
On June 2, 2017, Doud cradled her newborn as she passed through a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, through heavy steel doors to a cell outfitted with a crib.
The Decatur Correctional Center is the only home the girl with wispy blond hair and ice-blue eyes has known in her 11 months.
Prison nursery programs remain rare nationwide, but eight facilities in as many states have opened them amid dramatic growth in the number of incarcerated women. The experiment in punishment and parenting has touched off a fierce debate.
Advocates say the programs allow mothers to forge a crucial early bond with children, creating healthier kids and a spur for mothers to improve their lives. Detractors say prison is no environment for children and that the programs may simply put off an inevitable split between many children and their mothers, making it that much more painful.
Doud and Jaelynn are among dozens of test cases.
Doud faces a daunting road back to routine family life. At 21, she is serving a 12-year sentence for bringing methamphetamine across the Illinois state line. She is trying to tame a drug addiction and figure out a career with only a high school diploma. She’s allowed to send Jaelynn’s father baby photos, but he too is in prison.
Still, she said the program has given her fledging family a lifeline — one she intends to seize. Doud, whose own mother was in and out of jail when she was a child, said she is determined to make sure a third generation of her family does not end up incarcerated.
“She reminds me that I have something that’s great now,” Doud said, smiling at Jaelynn in Decatur’s nursery. “Something to live for.”
At the end of a hallway on a special wing, the drab, institutional walls of this minimum-security facility are splashed with colorful murals: Children play on a jungle gym, a bright sun beats down on a church, and a yellow school bus chugs along.
Hand-drawn portraits of children hang nearby, and tiny handprints climb up a column at the center of a large room. Infants giggle, sleep in their mother’s arms and strain to turn over in play gyms.
It’s easy to mistake for a day care — that is, until the uniformed prison guards begin their rounds.
Welcome to the Moms and Babies program.
Six women and their infants, ages newborn to 11 months, live in the unit, which is segregated from the prison’s general population. Each pair’s home is a typical cell, specially outfitted with cribs, changing tables and additional lively murals.
Decatur’s warden, Shelith Hansbro, said the cells are not barred and that women are not handcuffed on the wing because it can distress the children, even as young as they are. Still, security remains paramount.
Cameras are perched above each crib. The prison doesn’t house sex offenders. And when a child is taken outside the nursery unit, all prisoners are ordered to stop moving about the facility and remain where they are. The children can play outdoors in a prison yard retrofitted with a jungle gym.
There are strict criteria for selecting participants. The women must only have nonviolent offenses on their records and typically have sentences that are two years or less, so mother and child never have to be separated and the children’s time in prison is limited to their earliest years. Though Doud’s sentence is longer than most women in the program, she could qualify to serve some of that in a residential drug treatment center.
There are counselors and a child aide to help the mothers, and other inmates serve as day-care workers so the women can attend classes to get GEDs, improve life skills and receive drug and alcohol counseling. Hansbro said the approach is compassionate but tough.
“We tell them we are going to be up in your business,” Hansbro said. “We are going to be telling you things about how to raise your child that you might disagree with.”
On a Monday morning in April, Doud and the other moms gathered in a circle with their babies perched on their prison-issued blue scrubs. Led by a volunteer, each took turns reading passages from “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
LaTonya Jackson, 38, read to 5-month-old Olivia, who was decked out in a Minnie Mouse outfit with a black bow on her head.
Christine Duckwitz, 30, cradled 2-month-old Isabelle and turned the pages. The mother from rural Illinois was caught with heroin last year. Isabelle’s father overdosed and died on Christmas Eve, just a month before the girl was born.
Such turmoil is common in the lives of the women, Hansbro said. Things as simple as reading books to children sometimes fall by the wayside. Other mothers have never had such rudimentary parenting themselves, so the program begins with the basics.
“We have found that if there is going to be anything that keeps women from reoffending, it’s going to be their bonds with their children,” Hansbro said. “If we expect them to be successful, we need them to give them those tools they need to be successful.”
There are no current figures for how many women give birth while incarcerated, but the growth in prison nurseries is playing out against the backdrop of a massive increase in incarcerated women in recent decades, including mothers.
The number of women behind bars increased more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2016, from roughly 26,000 to nearly 214,000, according to the Sentencing Project. The growth outpaced the increase in male incarceration by roughly 50 percent.
Some advocates argue that mothers with low-level offenses should be allowed to raise their children in less restrictive settings.
But not everyone is on board.
James Dwyer, a professor of law at William & Mary who focuses on children and family issues, said many of the mothers are not good long-term prospects as parents, that prisons are dangerous and unstimulating for children, and that it may even be unconstitutional to place a child in prison when no crime has been committed.
He said the programs also don’t take a considered approach to making hard decisions about what’s best for children in challenging family situations.
“There is no involvement of child protective services or juvenile court,” Dwyer said. “You just have prison wardens or their delegates deciding that a kid should enter into a prison without making any best-interest determination.”
Doud said getting into the prison nursery program was a relief, but she was also anxious as she headed to Decatur: What affect would prison have on Jaelynn?
There are no trips to grandmother’s house, no outings to the zoo or story time at the library. But Doud and other women in the program said they believe their children are better off with them.
Duckwitz, who has three other children on the outside, said the program helps women “learn how to be a good mom — an opportunity they wouldn’t have on the outside.”
Doud is taking every class she can and has remained sober. In January, Jaelynn watched as Doud graduated from her substance-abuse class.
Doud’s father said he’s noticed a change in his daughter. He is cautiously optimistic for them.
“In the long run, this might be the best thing that happened to her,” James McQuinn said. “It got her out of her life.”