Vanessa Franklin lost her mother, her father, and her husband in a 12-month span. But the grief of their deaths paled in comparison to parting with her three teenage daughters in the same year, 2008, when she went to prison for fraud.

“Being separated from them was worse,” said Franklin, who served four years in Oklahoma.

She couldn’t imagine a deeper hurt until a few years later, when her daughter, Ashley Garrison, was sentenced while pregnant. The 20-year-old went into labor the day she checked into prison.

Garrison had a boy and named him William. She held him for an hour before she was forced to relinquish custody to his father’s family.

Babies can barely see when they’re born, but studies show that newborns still know their mothers—they recognize her voice, her smell, even the smell of her breast milk. Christians celebrate this as the design of a God who forms babies in their mother’s womb.

For Garrison, that meant her baby knew who she was but never saw her face.

“She’s not the same,” Franklin said. “She never recovered.”

In Oklahoma, where they live, roughly 151 of every 100,000 women are behind bars. That’s twice the national average.

Franklin, released from prison in 2012, now serves as the national director of field operations for the Christian ministry Prison Fellowship, working on behalf of a growing number of women and families like her own.

In 2019, there were 231,000 women and girls behind bars in the United States, a 775 percent increase since 1980. Most are serving time for nonviolent convictions, things like drug charges or theft. More than 60 percent were mothers to children under 18 at the time of sentencing. So as America’s mass incarceration problem grows, so does the number of moms in prison—and the number of babies born to women in prison.

But prison “facilities and policies have largely been built around incarcerated men,” said Heather Rice-Minus, a senior vice president at Prison Fellowship. That can make them dangerous for an expectant mother and her baby.

In 2016, three to four out of every 100 women admitted to state and federal prisons in the US were pregnant, according to research in the American Journal of Public Health. The report is believed to be the first systematic investigation of pregnancy in prison.

Most states still permit prisons to put pregnant women in solitary confinement. Sometimes, pregnant inmates are handcuffed or are shackled to their hospital bed by their wrists, ankles, or all four while giving birth. (Even before going into labor, being handcuffed can be dangerous for pregnant women. Baby bumps are a balancing act.)

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In all states except Minnesota, prisons can take babies away from new moms—even nonviolent and nonaddicted moms—within days, or even hours, of birth. There is no nationwide standard for the treatment of babies born to women in prison, and there is no regular data on how often it happens.

Eleven states currently have some prison nursery facilities, where babies born to mothers with nonviolent convictions and no history of child abuse or neglect can stay with their mothers for anywhere from a few days to a couple of years. But case-by-case discretion and the lack of facilities in other states mean babies born to incarcerated moms in America have, at best, an uncertain path after leaving their moms’ wombs.

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the uncertainty. In some states, such as Colorado, judges have reportedly postponed or commuted the sentences of women who were pregnant when convicted. In light of reports of rapid spread of the virus inside prison facilities (and given its risk for expectant mothers), some states have revisited the sentences of pregnant women and, in some cases, have released them early.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Prison Fellowship celebrated this rare display of agility on the part of the corrections industry and lobbied for states to keep it up, carefully and quickly.

Christian rap artist Lecrae, who has volunteered with Prison Fellowship for years, joined the public effort by calling for Christians to urge their legislators to release nonviolent pregnant offenders after news broke in 2020 that a pregnant Native American woman from South Dakota died after contracting COVID-19 in a Texas prison. Her baby was delivered by C-section shortly before her death.

Rice-Minus said that even before the pandemic posed a risk to vulnerable prisoners, some judges would, upon their own discretion, take a woman’s pregnancy into account when considering sentencing. But it’s possible the pandemic will prove a catalyst for more concrete policy changes on behalf of pregnant prisoners.

Remembering those in prison

As the number of women in prison has skyrocketed, Christians and Christian ministries across the country have been working to protect vulnerable women and babies. From a bird’s-eye view, this modest cohort of ministries is working all angles of the issue—from legislative challenges to the care of the babies born inside prisons.

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Prison Fellowship, founded by Charles Colson in 1976, has led the way pushing for policy change on a national scale and continues lobbying for better treatment of pregnant women in jail. Its Angel Tree program aims to care for the children of incarcerated parents by keeping them connected to their parents and, ideally, a local church.

Others focus on the babies who are born to incarcerated moms. My Village Ministries in Columbus, Ohio, offers short-term childcare for families in crisis, including incarcerated parents. A small Mennonite charity in Cañon City, Colorado, fosters babies born to incarcerated moms, keeping them in close, regular contact with their mothers until the two can reunite after their release.

The work done by these ministries follows Jesus’ command in Matthew 25 to visit those in prison, as well as Paul’s exhortation to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison” (Heb. 13:3). These texts are part of a bigger, more profound concept Christians see woven through the entire biblical narrative: human dignity.

Christians who advocate for those in prison see their work as a testimony to the unshakable worth people have, no matter their rap sheet. Their efforts work against the stigmas, stereotypes, and social attitudes that suggest people lose their right to humane treatment once police and courts charge and convict.

Contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote that because human beings were made for fellowship with God, “no actual humiliation that might befall us can extinguish” our dignity.

The Bible attests to this feature over and over. In biblical accounts of human failure, the consequences can be viewed as prescribed in service to human dignity. The Book of Proverbs says God “disciplines those he loves” (3:12). The Old Testament often describes God “giving us over” to our sins—suggesting that in his sovereign respect for us as his image bearers, he may give us what we ask for.

Jesus constantly reminded those around him—both explicitly and implicitly—that no one, even through criminal wrongdoing, can forfeit his or her own human dignity or steal the dignity of others. Jesus publicly fellowshipped with Zacchaeus, a cheating tax collector who Jesus proclaimed was saved by God when he repented. He built his church upon the “rock” of Peter, the foolhardy disciple who publicly denied Jesus in his darkest hour (Matt. 16:18).

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“Just as Jesus as God is known by his actions but not defined by his actions,” writes Daniel Darling in his book The Dignity Revolution, “so are those made in His image. You were valuable before you did anything. I would still be valuable even if I were rendered unable to do anything.”

Birth behind bars

An American Public Health Association survey of 22 state and federal prisons found that 753 women gave birth in those facilities in 2016; the total number of births behind bars each year is likely even higher when accounting for local jails.

Rice-Minus at Prison Fellowship said neglectful or dangerous policies affecting pregnant inmates reflect an indefensible delay: Corrections officials are updating their policies at a crawl while the number of women in prison explodes.

A shocking example made national headlines a few years ago. In July 2018, Diana Sanchez checked into the Denver County Jail for violating probation after an identity theft conviction. She was eight months pregnant and showed signs of drug use.

Image: Illustration by Leonardo Santamaria

Two weeks later, Sanchez went into labor and delivered her baby alone on her cell bench. Prison officials could watch through a security camera. Nurses slid an absorbent pad under Sanchez’s cell door as she gave birth without assistance. A Denver firefighter had to cut the umbilical cord when responders arrived because the prison didn’t have the equipment.

After a lawsuit, the Denver Sheriff’s Office investigated and said that while they agreed Sanchez should’ve been taken to the hospital, jail officials hadn’t technically violated protocol. Because there was no protocol. The city of Denver ultimately paid Sanchez and her son a financial settlement and has since updated its policy to require pregnant inmates be taken to the hospital when in labor.

Rice-Minus, who is also the foster mom to a young girl whose mother is incarcerated, said she’s noticed over the past five years that more corrections officials are waking up to the need for change.

“Trauma-informed or gender-responsive programming is becoming more trendy in the corrections field,” she said. “We’re recognizing that there actually needs to be a different way of handling and rehabilitating women in the prison system.”

Part of that is thanks to work by Christians who recognize that pregnant inmates are incarcerated for two.

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Legal fight over shackling pregnant women

A few days before Christmas 2018, just months after Sanchez delivered her own baby in her cell, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act. Prison Fellowship had lobbied in its favor.

The law mandates that federal prisons provide feminine hygiene products. It also requires the federal government to track and report pregnancy outcomes in federal prisons and prohibits the handcuffing of pregnant women, though there are exemptions if law enforcement officials believe shackling is necessary for safety reasons.

Even with the exemptions, Rice-Minus said many people opposed the shackling prohibition.

“People will say, ‘Hey I’ve dealt with someone who has come into my jail who is high, or is experiencing a mental breakdown, or an episode where I genuinely feared for her safety ... that she was going to harm herself, or harm the staff,’ ” she said.

Rice-Minus said it’s important that law enforcement assess whether a woman is a threat in the moment, not merely whether she was violent before.

It’s an inherent tension of prison reform: A system as vast as the US criminal justice system must, by virtue of its size, standardize procedures. Bureaucracy doesn’t favor flexibility.

But in prisons, where incarcerated people often struggle with mental health problems, drug abuse, or violent behavior, decisions are often made in the moment and stakes are high. Rice-Minus knows it can be a difficult and scary situation for law enforcement officers.

Still, “there are very few medical procedures where you need the patient to be so engaged” as giving birth, Rice-Minus said.

The First Step Act’s prohibition on handcuffing laboring women only applies to federal prisons, and the majority of incarcerated women are held in other facilities. Other Christian groups are trying to make change at that level.

In 2014, the Family Foundation of Virginia lobbied alongside Prison Fellowship for legislation to outlaw shackling pregnant women at state and local prisons and jails in Virginia.

Mary Rice Hasson, director of the Person and Identity Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, called shackling pregnant women “barbaric.” Hasson, a lawyer and a Catholic, said that while she was glad for the First Step Act’s prohibition, she is concerned that it does not reach state or local prisons.

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“Treating all people with dignity is at the core of the pro-life message,” Hasson said, “and that includes all moms and babies, including moms who are incarcerated.”

Today, 35 other states also prohibit the shackling of pregnant women.

Separation as a ‘primal wound’

Christians who fight for the humane treatment of incarcerated women giving birth do so knowing it will benefit both mom and baby.

“Forcibly separating a new mom and her infant is a cruelty that serves neither the mom and her child nor the interests of society,” Hasson said. “I would expect that forced separation would be likely to exacerbate the instability of the child’s upbringing.”

Especially in pregnancy and postpartum, mother and child are intertwined. Babies, with their fuzzy newborn vision, don’t even grasp that they are a separate being from their mothers.

Psychotherapist Nancy Verrier calls the separation of a baby from his or her mother a “primal wound.” She published data that suggest children who leave their moms early—even out of utter necessity—will suffer some negative consequences for the rest of their lives, regardless of the circumstances that follow the loss (such as a healthy adoption).

The bond between mother and infant is so inherent to our human nature and so powerful that Scripture uses it as a metaphor for God’s love. Isaiah 66 describes a mother laboring, nursing, and carrying a baby on her arm, with the Lord saying in verse 13, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”

Today’s standards of newborn care urge moms to keep close to the body that was once inside their own. Make time for skin-to-skin contact, they’re told. Babies need to hear your voice; they need to be touched. They need to bond.

Practices like breastfeeding benefit moms too, releasing oxytocin to prompt feelings of joy and affection. Breastfeeding also alerts the mother’s body to begin shrinking her uterus back down to its prepregnancy size. It’s a chemical metaphor for what so many mothers intuit: She needs her baby just as desperately as her baby needs her.

In a fallen world, sickness and circumstances inevitably separate moms and their babies. God told Eve after she and Adam had sinned in the garden that she would experience pain in childbirth, a pain that goes beyond physical delivery (Gen. 3:16). There’s pain in loving something so vulnerable and in the typical and the tragic ways children are separated from their parents.

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But right now, in the US criminal justice system, advocates believe we’re inflicting this “primal wound” more than necessary.

“Treating all people with dignity is at the core of the pro-life message, and that includes moms who are incarcerated.” Mary Rice Hasson, EPPC

While most US prisons transfer laboring mothers to hospitals for delivery, what happens after varies widely. Some prisons automatically take babies away from their mothers and place them in the custody of family members or in foster care for the duration of their sentence. This move often ends up permanently severing the mother’s custody and increases the statistical likelihood that her child will one day be incarcerated.

In 11 states, including Indiana, California, and New York, pregnant women in prison can qualify for a nursery program, where they can bond with and breastfeed their children for a time after their birth in a set-apart area of the prison.

Two state prisons—one in Nebraska and one in Ohio—have dormitories where women with nonviolent convictions and short-term sentences can live with their babies.

Last May, Minnesota became the first state to pass a law prohibiting the separation of incarcerated moms and their newborns, likely paving the way for another dormitory-style program in that state.

These facilities aren’t without problems and criticism. Some studies have shown developmental delays in babies who spend time in these facilities; and no one, least of all moms, is particularly comfortable with the idea of babies in prison.

With those challenges in sight, other Christians are imagining restoration on a nonlegislative front.

Mennonite nannies ‘do the impossible’

Women inside Denver Women’s Correctional Facility know all about “the Mennonites.”

“The women who have cycled in and out of the correctional system ... if they see someone who’s pregnant, they’ll say, ‘Hey, have you talked to the Mennonites?’ ” said Krista Burkholder, a caseworker for New Horizons Ministries in Cañon City, Colorado.

The small organization began in 1992, founded by two Mennonite men who wanted to help babies born to incarcerated moms.

Until COVID-19 kept pregnant women from entering prisons in the state, New Horizons functioned like a mini chapter in Colorado’s foster care system, almost exclusively for babies born to incarcerated moms.

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Families in the Mennonite community sign up to foster and are licensed by the state. Since Colorado law doesn’t allow more than two children under two years old in any single-family foster home, New Horizons recruits young Mennonite women, 21 or older, from around the US to temporarily move to the area and volunteer, usually for a year or a bit more, as caregivers. At New Horizons—and within the walls of Denver Women’s Correctional—these are known as “the nannies.”

The nannies move into the home of one of New Horizons’ licensed foster families, and after a background check, CPR and first aid training, and training in trauma-informed care, they become the primary caretakers for babies born to local incarcerated moms.

New Horizons pays for the nannies’ costs of living, but nothing more. The women take the babies on regular visits to their moms in prison and stick around—they also develop a relationship with the moms until they are released or, if a mom is ultimately unable to raise the child, until the baby is adopted.

“We ask our foster parents and our nannies to basically do the impossible: They love these children as their own and then hold them with open hands and be willing to give them back,” said Burkholder, a trained social worker.

Burkholder’s boss, New Horizons executive director Arlynn Miller, and his wife have been “house parents” for years, opening their homes to several nannies and babies. The couple has adopted two girls they originally fostered through the program. At one point, they hosted four nannies and four babies under their roof at once.

Miller remembers a particularly chaotic scene after a visit to the prison several years ago. “We took 11 children to see their mothers … so I was carrying a baby, my wife was carrying a baby, and we had nine nannies.” The caravan went to a restaurant for lunch after the visit. “A guy comes up to me and he goes, ‘Are these all yours?!’ ” Miller said.

Those days are on hold for now, though, as Colorado has temporarily halted the sentencing of pregnant women to prison.

“If I remember correctly, they used the term ‘experiment,’ ” Miller said of a conversation between New Horizons and state corrections officials shortly after the start of the pandemic. As a result, the ministry hasn’t had any placements in over a year. Nor are there any nannies en route.

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Burkholder and Miller say they trust God with the future of New Horizons. They’re also trusting God with the babies born now outside the prison system in Colorado, where she fears kids are being exposed to trauma without the help of ministries like theirs. “He’s doing something. We know he is,” she said.

‘… Should they be a prisoner?’

Throughout the pandemic, Prison Fellowship has been able to maintain its Angel Tree program and church partnerships to support families affected by incarceration.

It was in prison that Vanessa Franklin first heard of Angel Tree, best known for providing the children of incarcerated parents with Christmas gifts. Franklin now helps run that program, which connects local churches to nearby prisons. The seasonal effort to collect children’s holiday wishes and deliver gifts from those churches can spur longer relationships between incarcerated families and local Christian communities.

For Franklin, those relationships were key for her family. Through Angel Tree, her daughters found a youth group, and Franklin kept a mom’s watchful eye through correspondence with the youth pastor. Was Chelsey playing cheery music on the piano, or did it sound too melancholy? Was Shelby telling enough jokes, or was she struggling again?

Several months ago, Franklin traveled to Ohio to introduce Ohio’s Reformatory for Women—one of only two programs in the country where incarcerated moms can live with their newborns—to Angel Tree. She lamented that Ohio’s program is so rare. Still, she’d ultimately rather see alternative sentencing for pregnant women.

“If we’re talking about drugs and alcohol, should someone be a patient, or should they be a prisoner?” Franklin said. “I think there are many times we need to decide the difference between the two.”

When Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt was elected in 2018, he called the state’s incarceration rate—then the highest in the nation—“ridiculous.” In the late fall of 2019, Stitt, a professing Christian, commuted the sentences of 462 Oklahoma inmates based on the recommendation of the state’s Pardon and Parole Board. It was the largest single commutation in US history.

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Late last year, the board recommended clemency for Julius Jones, a death row inmate convicted of murder. Stitt, citing “prayerful consideration,” commuted Jones’s sentence to life without parole just hours before he was to be executed.

One of the inmates sitting before that Pardon and Parole Board is Ashley Garrison.

This is what the board will know about her: Ten years ago, Garrison and her husband at the time were cosleeping with their new daughter when the baby died of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Police reported finding dangerous conditions in the couple’s home and unexplained bruises on their daughter. Garrison and her husband, Zachary, were each charged with felony child neglect. Zachary was sentenced to 10 years. Garrison got 20.

It was between her daughter’s death and her sentencing that Garrison became pregnant again, giving birth to her son William the day she entered prison. The baby was sent to live with the baby’s father’s family on a nearby reservation.

Now, a decade later, Garrison has not seen him a second time. She doesn’t even know if the relatives raising him still call him William.

Maria Baer is a CT contributing writer based in Ohio. She also writes and hosts a podcast for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, named for Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson.

This essay is part of an ongoing CT series exploring how Christians engage the criminal justice system.

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