Child Care & Pregnancy Inside US Prisons

Is there anything harder to imagine than a baby in a prison cell? Nearly 3 million children 18 and younger have a parent behind bars. Roughly 58,000 pregnant women are incarcerated each year, and thousands of them give birth while serving their time. 

While it may seem unfathomable to someone on the outside, life behind bars encapsulates every facet of someone’s being, including parenthood. Becoming a mother as a convicted prisoner is something thousands of women face each year. While their own care is important enough, the effects of being born in prison is something even more relevant to study. 

You might not think a child can be raised in prison, but there are actually programs in place to keep mothers and newborns together during one of the most critical periods of a child’s life. 

What Happens if You Find Out You’re Pregnant in Prison?

Women can request a pregnancy test in prison, but they can’t be forced to take one. Being pregnant in prison is not a crime, but if a woman becomes pregnant during her sentencing, an investigation will likely be made into how that occurred.

If the baby is fathered by a prison faculty member, such as a guard, then a further case will be made as this is a breach of conduct on the staff’s behalf. 

Women in prison also have the right to an abortion and pregnancy care. If a woman decides to terminate her pregnancy, then the appropriate arrangements will be made. For those who decide to carry their babies to term, they will receive medical care from a professional doctor according to the state’s prenatal care guidelines. 

When she goes into labor, the mother is taken to the nearest hospital to give birth. During that time, she will be handcuffed to the bed, and armed guards will stand outside her door. 

Can You Keep a Baby in Prison?

In many prisons, babies can stay with their mothers until they reach a certain age, usually between 18 months and 3 years. In other states, babies must immediately go into the care of an appointed caretaker, such as a grandparent, or enter foster care. 

Child care programs are available, but they have strict criteria and often limited availability. Mothers who are violent offenders, for example, are often not permitted to participate in any parenting programs after birth. 

In some facilities, prison nurseries help mothers bond with their babies and give them the best possible care despite their sentences. 

Whenever possible, it’s important for children to remain with their mothers in a safe and secure environment. There are currently only eight prison nurseries in the United States, which strive to prevent the traumatic separation of mother and baby after birth. 

The Future of Parenting Behind Bars

Depending on the state, some women will remain with their babies in prison for months after they’re born. In others, the children are handed off to family members or placed in foster care. 

Some states allow mothers to have visitation with their babies, even if they are not the ones responsible for their care. Custody rights all depend on the woman, her crimes, and her sentence. The legalities surrounding motherhood in prison are highly personal and vary just as much by state as they do by individual. 


While there may be understandable reasons a child shouldn’t remain with a mother after birth, many people believe that no matter what she’s done, a baby should be able to stay with its mother to form a healthy bond.

Many mothers will leave prison, be able to prove they can care for their children, and gain custody. Others will remain a part of their life with someone else as the primary caretaker.

Ultimately, more programs for mothers behind bars can help ensure every baby gets the healthiest and safest start to life, regardless of their mother’s criminal record.