Prisoners’ Rights: Mothers and Babies

Black and white photo of young white woman in glasses with hand on chin

Judy Watson

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 3, "The Future is Now: Poisons, Spies, Terrorism in Our Back Yard." Find more from that issue here.

In 1979 Terry Moore was serving 15 years in a Florida prison for the crime of stealing five dollars. She was also waging a determined struggle to keep her newly born baby with her in the prison. In the process, she uncovered a neglected Florida statute which allowed her to keep her baby. Her case began a prolonged fight over the rights of mothers in Florida prisons to keep their babies, pitting women in the prisons, their attorneys and a prison reform coalition against the state Department of Corrections, the state legislature and Governor Bob Graham. 

Moore’s efforts to hold onto her child indirectly received widespread public attention when “60 Minutes” profiled her in a 1979 report on the disparate sentencing practices employed by American courts. She was paroled shortly thereafter, and the Florida legislature set out to abolish the statute by which she had been able to keep her baby in the prison. However, Governor Graham intervened and helped pass a bill which actually strengthened the original statute by better defining the decision-making process and removing an 18-month limit on how long the mothers could keep their babies at their sides. 

The fight for the basic right of the mothers to bring up their own children has been a difficult and continuing one, with the prison administration openly hostile throughout. For example, officials recently attempted to keep Josephine Baxter, a prisoner at Broward Correctional Institution (which has no nursery), and her newborn baby in a confinement cell in the prison’s psychotic wing. Baxter and her attorneys went to court and she was transferred to  the Florida Correctional Institution for Women (FCI), but only after an additional week’s delay: prison officials chose to wait for the court order to arrive in the mail, although the judge’s office and the attorneys had already notified them of the order verbally. 

Moreover, not every court fight is a success — particularly for black women. In 1979 Mattie Henry was the first black woman to go to court to keep her baby with her in the prison. Henry and many others believe that Judge Wallace Sturgis’s decision against her was prompted by racism. In 1980 she wrote, “In the two years I’ve been here, I have not seen a black mother who beared a child here at FCI who was allowed to experience the joy and closeness of motherhood. However, I have seen two mothers who happened to be white and who was allowed to keep their babies. Why is it more favorable for a white mother to be granted the joy of motherhood, and a black mother to be denied the joy of motherhood?” There has been more success since then, and now about half of the mothers who have been allowed to keep their babies are black. However, of four mothers turned down, three are black. 

As of June 30, 1981, nine mothers were keeping 10 babies (a set of twins was born in April) with them in a nursery at FCI under the 1979 statute. The nursery at FCI is in a cottage outside the prison walls. Each mother and child have their own room, and they share a large living room with a kitchen and television. Originally designed to house eight mothers with babies, the cottage was modified to serve as many as 10. If pending court cases are successful, there could soon be 11 mothers and 12 babies at FCI. 

Problems at the nursery have arisen, primarily from the administration’s refusal to address the needs bound to arise when this many families live together 24 hours a day. Although there is a strong need for a counselor to work with the mothers, offers of assistance from churches and organizations in the surrounding communities have met with resistance. A day-care program could be implemented at no cost to the state and would allow the women to participate in job training and educational programs at the prison, but prison officials seem more intent on watching the nursery fail. 

Despite the hardships, the nursery program does work, and in a time when the Florida Department of Corrections was under constant attack for its inhumane practices and improprieties, the nursery brought in the only positive publicity. Nevertheless, the Florida legislature, led by Representative Chris Meffert, determined to repeal the statute in 1981. A coalition forged by the Florida Clearinghouse on Criminal Justice which included the Florida Catholic Conference, the National Association of Social Workers, Florida IMPACT, NOW and several church groups refuted all of the opposition’s allegations. They even had to testify at one hearing that the importance of the mother/infant bond overrode concerns about the child’s not being able to visit a supermarket. 

But logic does not always prevail. The bills moved through committee hearings “like they were greased,” as one lobbyist stated, and passed overwhelmingly in both the house and the senate. A promised veto by Governor Graham, who had written the original version of the strong 1979 statute, never materialized. Instead, the governor proposed a compromise which, by entirely ignoring the importance of the bond between a mother and an infant and allowing mothers to keep their children in only a few unusual circumstances, would have been worse than having no statute at all. In fact, the only victory the coalition could muster in the 1981 legislature was to stop the governor’s compromise; Florida now has no statute on the books pertaining to pregnant women in prison and the placement of their newborn babies. 

Coalition members are continuing work on three fronts. First, they are preparing for a move by the state to try to remove the babies already in the nursery, a move which would be patently illegal since all the babies are there under court order. Second, they are ready to file two cases for women who were pregnant and in prison at the time the statute was changed. Third, they will soon initiate a suit for a woman sentenced after the repeal of the statute which will argue for the right of a parent to her or his child. 

The coalition needs assistance. Not only is technical help needed on all the custody cases — from lawyers, pediatricians, child psychologists and so forth — but money is also necessary. All the lawyers work for free, but they cannot also pay the cost of expert testimony. Moreover, funds are needed for the women in the nursery who are often short of baby clothes and bottles. There is a critical shortage of baby food. Babies who are eating baby food (as opposed to still being on formula or breast-fed) only have turkey and rice to eat; kids who are older and on junior food only have creamed corn and carrots. 

For more information or to send assistance, contact the Florida Clearinghouse on Criminal Justice, 222 West Pensacola Street, Tallahassee, FL 32301.


Our thanks to the Clearinghouse for providing the information on which this article is based.