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Niantic prison would get nursery for inmates' infants under proposal

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published 05/20/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 05/19/2013 11:20 PM
Lawmakers receptive but question the cost

A proposal to create a nursery for infants of women inmates at York Correctional Institution has gotten cautious endorsement from two legislative committees, but lawmakers want to know why the price tag is as much as $14 million over two years.

Right now the proposal is being debated on its merits, with no funds likely to be appropriated until at least the next budget cycle.

A report commissioned by the state Department of Correction and other agencies said that four to six female inmates with infants would be eligible annually for the nursery program the state is considering for York, the state's only women's prison, in Niantic. Founded in 1918, it once had a nursery program that was closed around 1950, according to the corrections department.

As of Jan. 1, the prison had 1,030 female inmates, 673 of them serving sentences and 357 awaiting trial.

House Bill 6642, which requires the DOC commissioner to establish a nursery at the state's prison facility, passed in the legislature's appropriation and judiciary committees and now waits to be heard on the House floor.

The bill projects costs ranging from $2.2 million to $10.6 million in fiscal year 2014 and $1.6 million to $3.5 million is fiscal year 2015 because the state is considering at least four options with different estimates. These range from expanding the already existing Women and Children's Halfway House in Waterbury to renovating the administrative building of the former Gates Correctional Institution in Niantic.

But it appears unlikely that any appropriation will be included for FY 2014.

"I hope to pass it with the expectation that it gets into the budget in fiscal year 2015," said appropriations co-chairwoman state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, on Thursday.

Proponents need to come up with a memorandum of agreement among the DOC, the Department of Children and Families and the Office of Early Childhood and other agencies, as well as pick one of the four plans in order to move forward with funding, Walker said.

State Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, a co-sponsor of the bill, and said she and others were surprised by the costs but she thinks it is a good idea.

"It is based on the benefits to the child and the woman having the early bonding relationship … which translate to a better life overall," Wright said.

A Judiciary co-chairman, Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, said everyone seems to think it is a good idea but "what we are trying to do is see the reason why the fiscal note was so high."

The most expensive plan would cost $7.2 million to remodel the Gates Administrative Building. This would create a contained nursery facility with enough space to have both housing and programs for approximately 20 to 30 inmates and their infants. Based on an estimated 24 mother-and-infant pairs, other costs for this plan's first year include $40,000 for start-up, $3.2 million for staffing and $267,000 in other costs.

The DOC supports expanding the Women and Children Halfway House in Waterbury over the other options because it is less expensive, according to James Dzurenda, interim commissioner.

"While the halfway house is not physically located at the York Correctional Institution, and it does not meet the exact language in the bill, it does provide a viable option, as this program is already licensed, and staff has been trained," Dzurenda said in his written testimony to the Judiciary Committee.

"We are basically conscious of the fiscal realities of the time," said Andrius Banevicius, spokesman for the DOC. But he said, "The DOC does support the bill (nursery) providing there is the necessary appropriation."

Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for the criminal justice division of the Office of Policy and Management, said it could be much less expensive to put women in a halfway house than incarcerate them. The average cost for an inmate is $40,000 a year and female inmates often cost more because of a higher need for health care and mental health services. If the woman is pregnant it also costs money to set the child up with foster care and pay for that care, Lawlor said.

The bill estimates savings for DCF ranging from $89,000 to $134,000 in each of fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

In 2012 seven babies were born to women incarcerated at York and each newborn was separated from his or her mother, Banevicius said.

Currently, pregnant inmates deliver at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London and social workers from the hospital and DCF have primary responsibility for placing the newborn in care. The DOC also contacts the halfway house for eligible inmates.

If a nursery were created, eligibility requirements would include the mother being pregnant on arrival in DOC custody; be serving a sentence for a nonviolent offense; be serving a sentence of 18 months or less; and have no record of convictions for risk of injury to minors, arson, sex offense, domestic violence or child abuse.

The idea for the nursery originally came from Alex Tsarkov, aide to Rep. Fox of Stamford.

Tsarkov, who is Russian, said he was translating for some Russian prosecutors who were visiting Connecticut. The prosecutors said they were surprised at how Americans treated female inmates.

Many other countries and eight states in the U.S. have nurseries in prisons, Tsarkov said. Many of the prison nurseries in the U.S. were created in the last five years, according to a report by the Women's Prison Association, an advocacy organization.

From 1977 to 2007 the number of women in prison in the U.S. increased by 832 percent, according to the association's report, with more than 200,000 women incarcerated and more than 1 million under criminal justice supervision.

Critics say that a prison is not an appropriate environment for children and that being in the nursery might have harmful effects later in life, according to the association report, which also cited other opinions that women who have broken the law are unable or unwilling to be mothers.

The association report recommends that whenever possible pregnant women under criminal justice supervision should be housed in community-based programs not prisons, because community programs decrease recidivism at less human and economic cost.

j.somers@theday.com

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